The Hunts Point Cooperative Market Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Hunts Point Market suppliers reeling from restaurant falloff

This story was originally published on March 19 by THE CITY. It was written by Ese Olumhense, whose Twitter account can be accessed here: https://twitter.com/essayolumhense

Struggling restaurants across the city are trying to make do with takeout and delivery business permitted as their only coronavirus-safe service — but their own source of nourishment is on life support.

Food suppliers operating out of the Hunts Point Distribution Center in The Bronx are reeling from the sudden loss of thousands of restaurant accounts, which comprised nearly half the market’s business.

Some have temporarily closed. Others have shifted to supplying grocery stores hungry for more stock, but are still having a hard time staying afloat.

“We’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime and almost 40 years in the business,” said Christopher Pappas, chief executive of the large specialty distributor The Chefs’ Warehouse, which operates in the distribution center.

The company, which also offers credit to restaurants for supplies, informed investors Wednesday that it had borrowed $100 million “to maintain appropriate liquidity during this period of extreme uncertainty.”

Until the coronavirus crisis, supermarkets and bodegas made up 38% of shoppers at the distribution center, according to the city Economic Development Corp., which owns the market facility. The distribution center itself consists of three cooperatives of its member produce, fish and meat businesses.

“Everybody’s in flux,” said Pappas. “And for many, many companies, you’re much better off just closing your doors and saving your money and being able to reopen again — if you can last for the time period that all restaurants are closed. I mean, when in our lifetimes did we think that every restaurant and bar would be closed?”

Health Measures

The slowdown has hobbled the typically bustling South Bronx businesses, which EDC says supply an estimated 4.5 billion pounds of food annually.

Half of the market’s goods are distributed within New York City, and the rest elsewhere in the region, generating as much as $11 billion in sales a year, according to the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation.

The market has enough food to go around. Pappas said much is going to waste amid the immediate shock of the restaurant shutdowns.

EDC says New Yorkers don’t need to worry about the quantity or safety of the city’s food supply.

“There is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19,” a spokesperson for the Economic Development Corporation said in a statement to THE CITY.

“The Hunts Point Markets have implemented enhanced cleaning and disinfectant protocols in common areas, installed portable handwashing stations and hand sanitizers throughout the property, and are following the strongest guidelines available from leading government agencies and health authorities.”

But the uncertainty of when dining, catering and cafeteria operations might be running full steam again has market businesses treading on eggshells.

Bailout sought

Concern over the pandemic is “affecting everybody,” said James Bloss, a manager at Tony’s Fish and Seafood Corp., home to the tagline, “From Fishes to Knishes — One call you got it all.”

Many local businesses that solely serve restaurants have already suspended operations, he said. Others have temporarily closed, in some cases out of concern for employee health.

One area where business is up, Bloss reports: orders from hospitals and nursing facilities.

Employees at Tony’s, which Bloss said has been in the Hunts Point area almost 40 years, have not heard of any staffer at the distribution center getting sick.

“Everybody’s just trying to hang in there,” Bloss said. “But who knows how long, or what’s going to happen.”

“Every day is a different story,” he added.

Businesses are hoping the federal government keeps the needs of distributors in mind as talks continue on financial relief for wounded businesses.

“The government really can’t forget the food distribution world,” Pappas said. “And especially all the small companies that don’t have our resources. They have no business right now.”

Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp. is working with city, state, and federal officials to help businesses stay vital, chief executive Marlene Cintron told THE CITY.

“They are our food chain,” said Cintron. “And if they don’t exist two weeks from now, our restaurants — those that will be able to survive — will not have a business to supply them so they can continue to feed the city of New York.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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