Pete Carcione in the News

Times have changed, but not hours, since Pete Carcione’s grandfather started in the produce business

By Rand Green

The Produce News

It was over 90 years ago that Peter Carcione, who came to America from Sicily as a teenager looking for opportunities, opened a small retail grocery store in San Francisco.

He began shopping the San Francisco Produce Terminal hours before sunrise each morning to select produce to stock his shelves for the day. Later, he became a wholesaler on the market and kept similar hours, vending produce to buyers who walked the market each morning while the rest of the world slept.

Times have changed since then, but with few exceptions, produce terminal operating hours have not.

Peter Carcione’s grandson, Pete Carcione, president of Carcione’s Fresh Produce in South San Francisco and a third-generation produce man, thinks they should.

Back when his grandfather was in the produce business, those hours were necessary, he said. Today they are not, he believes, due primarily to refrigeration. “Refrigeration has changed everything,” he said.

In his grandfather’s day, the produce that was brought into the market still had the field heat in it, Mr. Carcione said. It was highly perishable. If lettuce, for example, was not sold within a day, “it would wilt and would look terrible the following day.”

Now, thanks to refrigeration and improved post-harvest technology, produce has a longer shelf life. Precooling removes the field heat almost immediately after harvest, and the cold chain is maintained throughout the distribution system. Refrigerated display cases keep the products fresh at store level. Even highly perishable items such as lettuce can be purchased at least a day ahead, Mr. Carcione noted, so it is no longer essential for buyers to get up in the middle of the night to go to the market to pick out products for the day’s business.

But old habits die hard, and although technology has made it unnecessary for buyers to be on the market at 2 a.m. every day, they continue the tradition. And of course, the vendors on the market continue opening their stalls at that early hour to accommodate them. But “I’m convinced,” he said, that once buyers got used coming to the market at a more reasonable hour, such as 6 a.m., they would actually prefer it.

Mr. Carcione’s grandfather opened his little retail store, along with a partner, on Green Street and Columbus Avenue in San Francisco in the mid-1920s. “In those days, there was no refrigeration,” and buyers, who were generally the store owners, “would have to go to the market every day,” not only for fruits and vegetables but for “live chickens, ducks and rabbits” that they would sell in the store, he said. “In those days, San Francisco had many, many little stores,” as many people did not have automobiles and would walk to the corner store to do their shopping.

“My grandfather would come down in the morning to the market,” he said, and one of the wholesalers with whom he did business regularly was Scatena-Galli Fruit Co. which was owned by Lorenzo Scatena and his two step-sons, A.P. Giannini and George Giannini. “George, especially, became very good friends with my grandfather,” and soon he was offered a job as a salesman at Scatina-Galli, so he sold his store and began his career as a produce wholesaler.

Later, when the Giannini brothers went into the banking business, opening the Bank of Italy near the market, they turned the produce business over to Mr. Carcione’s grandfather. The company later relocated to the Golden Gate Produce Terminal in South San Francisco.

Mr. Carcione got his first experience in the produce business working for his grandfather at Scatiena-Galli. “I was in the eighth grade,” he said. “My grandfather put a sales coat on me … and I was selling figs for him.”

Most produce back then, and even through the 1970s, was grown by small local growers who would deliver their products to the market each day. But with the advent of hydrocooling, vacuum cooling and refrigerated transportation, the small growers — if, in fact, they continued to farm at all as property values rose — joined cooperatives that gave them the ability to precool their products and market them across the country. They no longer had to rely on the local terminal market.

“Produce is not as perishable as it used to be,” Mr. Carcione said. “It lasts.” And that makes it at least theoretically possible for produce buyers and produce wholesalers alike to “get up later and have a better life.”

It’s time to change the operating hours of the market, Mr. Carcione believes. Business is healthy, he said. The increased availability of produce is making people’s lives more healthy. But market hours need to change “to make our lives more healthy.” Having to be on the market by 2 a.m. is hard on everyone who works on the market, and it is hard on their families, he said. “Most of these workers are here on four or five hours sleep.”

Having better operating hours for the market would make it easier for produce companies to hire and keep good employees, he said. Many potentially good employees who might otherwise enjoy a produce career won’t even consider it because of the terrible hours.

(For more on the Bay area, see the Jan. 12 issue of The Produce News.)

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