From its founding in 1836 to today, things have changed immensely in Houston. These days, it is the fourth-largest city in the United States, with a population of 2.1 million within city limits and 6.6 million in the greater metropolitan area. It is also a key produce hub just hours from growers and importers in the Rio Grande Valley region.
What’s more, for a city known for its skyscrapers and busy multilane highways, the Office of Sustainability—which oversees a range of green projects—makes sure Houstonians have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables from dozens of farmers’ markets (City Hall even has its own), while the Grocery Access Task Force brings affordable, healthy food retailers into underserved communities throughout the city and state.
One place that has been around to witness much of the city’s rapid growth and evolution is the Houston Produce Center, a 56-acre terminal market that serves the city and surrounding suburbs.
Like many markets in large metropolitan areas, one of the Center’s greatest assets is its location, south of downtown. “We’re close to all the freeways and main thoroughfares,” says Larry Biondillo, manager and a 30-year veteran of the market. “Tenants can get trucks out of here at four a.m., get on the freeway, and get to their first location without being stuck in traffic. It’s also central for getting trucks in from across the country.”
Over the last several years, the Center has been modernizing operations, with upgrades in paneling, refrigeration systems, doors, and dock levelers. There have also been challenges with security, safety, and parking. Most tenants have their own trucks and on any given day, there may be 500 trucks loading and unloading, driving in and out. “It’s a constant battle keeping parking lots up with so many trucks coming in and out,” Biondillo concedes.
Staying ahead of the curve is something the wholesalers at the Houston Produce Center know a bit about. Brothers Produce was founded in 1979 with just one van, and now the family business occupies 160,000 square feet at the Center with plans for more. The company also has facilities in Dallas and Austin. Brent Erenwert, president, says the majority of Brothers’ customers are in foodservice, including hotels, restaurants, and clubs. The supplier has also seen a marked increase in demand for organics too.
José Bueno, vice president of Lone Star Fruit & Vegetable, has been a presence on the market for 30 years and commented on the evolving product mix, especially the Hispanic emphasis with demand for chilies, avocados, and cilantro growing at a record pace.
Bella Fresh Houston LLC’s general manager, Preston Fletcher, agrees, also pointing out the rising popularity of Asian specialties over the last five or so years. As a regional fresh fruit and vegetable processor with headquarters in Arizona, Bella Fresh can source and ship to customers on either coast with ease. Thanks to the new highway that has cut driving time from Mexico’s western coast to Pharr, Texas by several hours, it’s easier than ever to get a load of produce delivered quickly.