The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2010 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Leif Kothe
The storage units of Produce Row, just north of downtown St. Louis, are a labyrinth of shifting temperatures and changing scents. The room with tomatoes is a comfortable 55 degrees, while the room with lettuce and carrots is a frigid 34.
In a unit somewhere between these extremes, Tom Butchart tears open one of the many brown boxes. He pulls out a trio of tawny butternut squashes. They are virtually identical.
"Consistency and uniformity," said Butchart, director of sales at Ole Tyme Produce Inc., a longtime Produce Row wholesaler. "Restaurants care about presentation, and these are the things they’re looking for."
Ole Tyme’s drive for crop uniformity represents a relatively new priority for the company, which constantly has to adapt to the demands of an ever-changing, hyper-competitive produce distribution market.
Change and competition are nothing new to Joan Daleo, president of Ole Tyme, whose family has owned and operated the business since her father started it in 1973. The business has been a staple of Produce Row ever since it moved there in 1985.
But as Ole Tyme seeks continued growth, the biggest change of all may be necessary for the company. Ole Tyme may be leaving Produce Row.
In pursuit of what Joan Daleo calls a "sustainable size" for her business, she believes a change of location could improve operations.
"In order to continue to grow, we have to ratchet up our efficiencies," Daleo said.
Growth also necessitates space — which is limited at Produce Row, she said.
"There are established dimensions here," Daleo said. "There’s no real way to alter it."
Technological advancements may have surpassed Ole Tyme’s current location.
For example, Produce Row "wasn’t built with the idea of the modern floor jack in mind," Daleo said. "When it was built in the 1950s, everything was done by hand."
With a new location, Daleo envisions many improvements that are difficult to employ at Produce Row, such as sealed floors, galvanized racking, wider aisles and better, more efficient cooling systems that will improve food safety. She also wants to see more organized product movement within the building. Currently, the produce comes in and out of Ole Tyme through the same portal.
"We could have much better flow and less cross-traffic if our produce goes to storage and then out that end of the building," Daleo said, referring to the storage room area in the back of the building Daleo said she worries about the labor market in St. Louis.
"We don’t have a huge labor base in the city," she said. "A move elsewhere could have the benefit of attracting more employees."
Despite such concerns, Daleo said Ole Tyme will probably not move outside the Interstate 270 ring, an expressway loop encircling St. Louis.
Although Daleo wants to move, other distributors are content to stay. Jeff Moore, vice president of sales at Tom Lange Company Midwest, believes Produce Row is still a viable locus of distribution.
"Over the years there’s been lots of upgrades," Moore said. "They’ve made improvements in efficiencies to operations, particularly with the food safety improvements."
Matt Galucia, a controller at a Produce Row distribution company that he prefers remain anonymous, acknowledges the improvements at Produce Row. But he admits the facilities are "getting a bit old now."
Galucia does not see major problems with efficiency.
"It depends on [a company’s] setup," he said. "If you have the proper setup in the facility, there’s very few problems."
If the move proceeds, Daleo will have to part with a significant portion of Ole Tyme’s history. After all, this is where Joan Daleo went with her father each Sunday morning as a child to help out around the building.
"I would leave every Sunday at 5 or 6 in the morning to go in the truck with dad to Produce Row," Daleo said. "I’d sweep the parking lot, clean the bathrooms, stack fruit, clean the office and paint signs that would say ‘red grapes, two bucks a pound.’ The rain would always wash the writing off the signs, so I’d have to go back over them."
Daleo will always have those childhood memories. But change has been an agent of growth in Ole Tyme’s history.
She is optimistic that the company’s move to a new location will usher in an era of increased prosperity — a phase in Ole Tyme’s history that forges new memories without relinquishing the ones from its past on Produce Row.