It's a fast-talking, hard-working, rough-cut world that lives while the rest of Washington sleeps. It's a business area that has gone from vibrancy to dilapidation and now, to a renewed optimism.
So when Mayor Marion Barry cuts the ribbon today for the brand-new 60,000-square-foot food distribution warehouse at the Capital City Market (renamed in 1984 and colloquially known as the Florida Avenue Market), it will mark the next episode for the enclave of wholesalers that has been supplying food to Washingtonians for more than half a century.
The new facility, the first free-standing warehouse to be built in more than 30 years in the Northeast market, is part of the city's continuing efforts since 1983 to revitalize the outdated center, which is located between Fourth and Sixth streets. Other improvements include the renovation of an adjacent warehouse, the ongoing resurfacing of roads, and plans to add flags and improve the fac,ades of the old buildings where approximately 60 food wholesalers do business daily.
Even amid the mess and congestion, however, there is an earthy charm about the market that separates it from the rest of paper-pushing Washington. Wholesaling is work with an immediate goal and a swift result. Stalks of asparagus stand upright in crates reaching the ceiling -- but only for a few hours perhaps -- until they are reloaded at dawn onto trucks and sent to a restaurant or hotel. In and out. Buy and sell. There is no time for analyzing or procrastinating.
An unusual aspect to the environment, too, is that companies have a bird's-eye view of just what their competitors are doing. It's a "hot grapevine," says Nick Lyddane Jr., who runs Imperial Produce with his father, brother and sister. Everyone knows what everybody is doing and who's selling to whom, says Lyddane. The competition among restaurants to have the trendiest dish filters down to the wholesaler, who competes to get the latest fruit or vegetable xr for the chef.
Nevertheless, no one wholesaler can carry everything, says Lyddane, so you have to have alliances. There are also "a lot of animosities" in the market, Lyddane adds, some that have been going on for the past 50 years.
Food sold by the eight wholesalers at the new sleek warehouse, which should be open for business by the end of the month, runs the gamut from produce to tofu to rice and meat. In addition, there will be a company selling restaurant supplies and another providing equipment for carryouts.
The owner of the building, which was developed by Richards Associates on District land, is Sun Development Corp., the real estate arm of Sam Wang Produce.
Seven of the eight new warehouse merchants are either Korean or Chinese, as are many of the other owners of the companies that service 50 percent of the food service and hospitality industry in the metropolitan area.
At the same time that Asian-owned companies are moving into the market, older companies are continuing to leave the market, searching for larger spaces and more modern facilities. Washington Beef, a fixture at the market for almost 30 years, is moving shortly to a nearby downtown location (the District is buying the old building); Evans & Van Cleeff, residents of the market for 37 years, are looking into relocating and expanding; and Kolker Poultry, the oldest poultry distributor in the country, has plans to move as well.
Nonetheless, the market is 100 percent occupied. And when wholesalers leave, new ones are quick to replace them, according to Paul Pascal, son-in-law of Fred Kolker of Kolker Poultry and president of the Capital City Market Association.
However, the new facility signals concern in the minds of at least one operation, Henry and Kim Salazar of Sam Song Soy Food Inc. They fear that it will splinter the market into old and new, prompting customers to take their business to the clean and more efficient facility. The Salazars, who manufacture tofu, will have a competitor in the new warehouse.
The Salazars also say that the city is not doing enough to fix up the rest of the market, an accusation that Kwasi Holman, executive director of the District's Office of Business and Economic Development, says is unfounded. Holman said that the city is putting $2.4 million worth of improvements into the market and that business loans are available to any merchant who wants one.
Other wholesalers, however, do not feel that the new warehouse will create a rift, that it signals growth and development for the market. One vendor, who didn't want his name mentioned, said that in the wholesale business, customers will go where the prices are the cheapest, not necessarily where the parking is the easiest.
And in that regard, market merchants in the older area may have an advantage over those in the new building since their operating costs are not as high, he said. For instance, many of them either already own the space they occupy or rent it for between $2 and $3 per square foot. Leasing space in the new warehouse goes for $5 per square foot.
Still, the new warehouse as well as the adjacent renovated one have clear operating advantages, such as the loading docks, which are on the same level as the trucks. When food arrives, it can be unloaded and wheeled directly into the warehouse. (The market was built in the days when trucks weren't trailer-size; thus, in the unrenovated warehouses, incoming shipments must now go through several trips between truck and forklife before they are stored. And in a business that depends for success on how fast the food can come in and go out, less handling means a savings in time and labor.)
And at the new Sam Wang's Produce, shippers will be able to unload food directly into the walk-in refrigerators. The height of the refrigerator doors also corresponds to the height of the shipments that arrive on the truck.
While the facilities in the rest of the market may not be the most modern, perhaps the greatest advantage wholesalers at the Capital City Market have over a wholesale market such as the facility in Jessup, Md., is the proximity to Washington clients. A downtown restaurant needs an extra three pints of raspberries for a luncheon; a produce wholesaler at the Capital City Market can supply it in a flash.
Unlike Jessup, however, where a state agency manages the facility, no one authority deals with operating conditions in the Capital City Market, often making it more difficult to deal with collective operating issues.
Both the new and the older sections of the Capital City Market form a culture, a chain of extended families and patterns of ownership. Companies have split and branched out, delivery truck drivers who have gotten to know clients start their own businesses, salesmen take over, original owners sell out.
Back in the late 1800s, the wholesale center of the city was located on the site of the Department of Justice and the National Archives. When the federal building program began, market owners relocated to Fifth Street and Florida Avenue NE, the previous location of a Union Army camp during the Civil War and an Army mobilization point during World War I.
When the market first opened at its new location in 1931, says Pascal, it was populated by the Jewish, Greek and Italian immigrants who arrived en masse in the early 1900s, setting up wholesale and retail operations in urban centers.
Gradually, chain supermarkets entered the scene, setting up their own distribution centers, and the market's critical role was diffused. Many of the second and third generations of these original owners went on to become professionals outside of the market. Now the influx of Asian immigrants is repeating the cycle, Pascal said.
In his blood-stained butcher's apron, Sam Kramer relaxes, arms crossed, outside his wholesale meat company, Kramer & Sons. Kramer, the only son to remain in the business, was 9 years old when his father started the company. Kramer remembers the days before boxed beef, when the meat used to arrive by rail cars in whole hinds and forequarters.
Now Kramer, 63, says he will retire in a few years and sell his business; none of his children chose to work for him. This sequence has been repeated for other old-time owners in the market as well.
Across the way, Sang Yong Choi, co-owner of Sam Wang Produce, is busy haggling with a customer over the price of mangoes as oriental vegetables of every shape and size are being carted in and out of the frenetic warehouse. Choi says he wants his young sons to someday take over the business, but realizes that this is America, where, he says, "you can't control your son."
Not all of the dynasties got dissolved, however. Nick Lyddane Jr., 33, says he felt there was about a 20-year gap in the market between the senior owners and those who work for them; in his father's Imperial Produce business, he and his siblings filled the void.
Lyddane and his brother and sister are not the only young blood in the market. There are a growing number of younger owners moving in with new marketing ideas and strategies, says William Mailley, co-owner of Sunrise Produce.
Whatever the future of market, it won't keep people like Fred Kolker, 83, from coming to work every day from 7 to 11 a.m. To Kolker, the market only "gets better and better."