Licking the honeydew juice off his fingers, Choco Real explains that, “You can’t get better quality and taste than this in the whole city.”
Real is referring to the melon he just purchased from his fruit vendor Ismail Howelader on East 116th Street and Second Avenue. He is just one of the many customers who agree that, as the economy weakens, business for local produce vendors on the streets of East Harlem remains steady because they provide services that make them stand out from their competitors.
Although market prices are rising, small produce vendors known as “fruterias” manage to provide cheaper prices, convenience and perks that larger supermarkets and local bodegas can’t match. At a time when food costs are soaring and people are reducing their spending habits, the services that the fruterias provide help the vendors stay in business.
“The main reason I come here is because I can get fresh cut fruit and vegetables and I don’t have to buy the entire thing,” says Veronica Castro of her nearby produce vendor on East 117th Street and Lexington Avenue.
Fruteria owner Felix Nivar cuts a chunk of a three-pound squash for Castro, weighs it, and then wraps it in plastic before she adds it to her grocery bag. He charges just $1 compared to the $4 she would have paid for the entire thing. Plus she isn’t forced to waste or buy extra food during an economic slowdown.
“Sometimes if I buy an entire squash, it will spoil and go to waste, so I’ll come here and I can get the exact amount I need,” explains Castro.
Castro, who has been shopping at Nivar’s stand since it opened in 1985, says she and her family patronize it “every single day” because the local bodegas and Pathmark are too expensive. Where a customer would pay $2.99 per pound for California tomatoes at Pathmark, the fruit vendors provide deals like 3 tomatoes for $2.
Recently, vendors have had to raise prices to cope with increasing costs. Where Nivar paid 50 cents a nectarine last summer, he is currently paying 75 cents. However, vendors have still managed to keep their prices lower than their larger competitors. Because they trek to large fruit markets like High Point Market in the Bronx as early as 4 a.m., vendors get the freshest selection of produce at wholesale cost. For example, Nivar pays $1 for a head of iceberg lettuce, and he is able to turn around and sell it at $1.25 for a profit. This same head of lettuce runs from $1.50 at the local bodega to $1.69 at the nearby Pathmark.
Nivar and other fruteria owners like Howelader, also offer specialty items, such as Dominican eggplant, and Haitian mangos, setting themselves apart from the retailers that often don’t offer these goods.
For residents like Omar Falcon, who want to pick up produce on their way home from work, convenience is also a major factor that keeps them shopping at the fruterias.
“It’s easy to shop here,” says Falcon at Nivar’s East 117th market. “I can pull up my car right here, get what I need on my way home, and the prices are very reasonable.”