You may think you’re living frugally in San Francisco if you pillage derelict Yellow Pages for Rainbow Grocery coupons and pack your own lunch before work each day, but that kind of economy is for lightweights. You don’t know thrift until you’ve woken before dawn to shop at the city’s wholesale produce warehouses to cut the middle-man markup from your grocery bills. Even then, you haven’t sealed the real deals until the lettuce-slingers know you well enough to inquire about your family vacation and hug you when you leave with your car buckling under the weight of damp brown cardboard boxes. That’s when you know you’re getting rock-bottom prices.
If I weren’t trying to pinch pennies, I’d bet a lot of money that nobody in this city spends as little on food as my friend Valentina, while still managing to consume a diet consisting primarily of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables. Compared with her, I am a profligate shopper, easily caught shelling out cash for shiny apples at Whole Foods. But when recently I found myself challenged to cater a non-profit fundraiser on a shoestring, I knew exactly who to call.
STRAWBERRY ALARM CLOCK
My alarm goes off at 6:30am and I stumble to my car in the dark and drive to the Bayview District—an area of the city that likely falls just below the Tenderloin on the list of spots to avoid when the sun is not up. But Valentina is undaunted—in fact, she lives in the Bayview, in a 7-person cooperative warehouse where she keeps all of her housemates fed for under $5 a day. She has been shopping at the wholesalers every Friday for years but this is my first time accompanying her. These are red-eye markets, opening some time around midnight and closing by 10am, so if you oversleep, you’re out of luck.
I pull up in the parking lot, which is surrounded by a high chain-link fence, and recall Valentina advising me that Earl’s is cash-only if you want to buy the deep discount stock. Outside the fence and across the street, an ATM blinks blankly at me as though asking whether I really want to pull cash from a machine on a deserted block in the dark. Fortunately, I spot a guard near the entrance to the bank and figure he’ll notice if anything suspicious arises. He sees me cross the street and ambles my way, casually standing watch. Cash in hand I race back over, climb the ramp to the Earl’s loading dock, and part the heavy clear plastic slats that hang down at the entrance.
Inside the chilly, 21,000-square-foot facility, I find Valentina chatting through the office window with the inventory manager about her recent trip to Chile. He’s calling her “Tina”—a nickname I’ve never heard a soul use in the 12 years I’ve known her. When I arrive we get down to business. Several days in advance, Valentina had asked me for a list of the vegetables I’d require so that she could provide unit costs for me to factor into my budget (something she assumed I’d created, naturally, and which I hadn’t, naturally). She emailed me a spreadsheet of standard offerings from Earl’s. Spreadsheets make my eyes cross. I decided to make game time decisions.
Valentina pulls out a handwritten list of her household’s weekly produce requirements and another list of the things I’d need. She begins her requests in the A’s, with alfalfa sprouts. “We have them,” Josh, the inventory manager, tell her. “It’s a case of six one-pounders.” Sprouts don’t last long. Valentina does not waste food. No alfalfa. “Sunflower?” she counters. No. “Pea sprouts?” They settle on pea sprouts. She works her way down the list to salad greens, which Josh regretfully informs us are in short supply this week due to rain damage over the previous three days. In recompense, he points out that organic mangoes are on special—a 10-count for $7.
All the while behind us, a patchwork of pallets in the middle of the floor has grown increasingly visible as the boxes towering on top disappear in the arms of deal-seeking grocers and restauranteurs. This is the island of major markdowns of which Valentina had spoken—organic produce on the verge of spoiling, priced to move. Dave, the master of the island, has a tougher demeanor than Josh. He’s ready for negotiations. Upon arrival, Valentina had set aside a small mountain of Dave’s goods—apples, carrots, lemons, portabellas—which, she informed me later, she was duty-bound to pay for once she’d laid claim. It was important to pull from that pile straightaway, she counseled, because it would vanish while we ordered everything else.
As we count bills to pay for our loot, Valentina spots a 45-pound box of avocados still sitting on a pallet. She ogles it like Carrie Bradshaw eyeing a pair of Manolos. Dave sees what she’s thinking. “You gotta kill all those in five days,” he says, “The bottom layer’s gotta be turned to guac as soon as you get home. The rest might last a few days in the fridge.” She takes it.
Josh loads everything onto a dolly and rolls it to Valentina’s VW Golf. We pile it in and put the excess in the cavernous trunk of my ’83 Mercedes. Josh goes to hug Valentina and I notice Jerry Garcia on the back of his sweatshirt, peering over round sunglasses. She tells him she’ll see him next week.
Of course, most grocery stores have produce on the brink of spoilage, so I shouldn't complain, but still. It came to mind when I was reading.
Also, does Valentina have a full-time job? Just curious, because I know how much work it is to keep up with produce, be creative in the kitchen, and not get burned out on cooking what you have, or even cooking in general!
Fascinating read, though.