Chinatown Brims with Produce Bargains (Part 1)

The price of produce in New York varies widely from neighborhood to neighborhood. Prices in Chinatown are especially cheap. You can often buy produce for a small fraction of the price you’d pay in a bodega or supermarket less than a mile away. WNYC’s Lisa Chow finds out why.

REPORTER: So I'm here in Chinatown. I’m at an outdoor market on Forsyth Street. It’s squeezed between the Manhattan Bridge on one side and a line of buses on the other. There are a couple dozen vendors here and just to give you a sense of the prices, here at this one stand, you can get for a dollar, 2 pounds of red bell peppers. They're a little bit on the small side but they look pretty good. You can also get 4 pounds of these huge yams for a dollar, 2 pounds of green peppers for a dollar.

RUHALTER: Tomatoes. 3 pounds for a dollar. That street is amazing. And honestly I can’t explain what goes on there.

REPORTER: Jeffrey Ruhalter is a butcher seven blocks away at the Essex Street Market. He also runs a wholesale produce business.

RUHALTER: I’ve been paying almost 75 cents a pound when I buy it wholesale. And they have it 3 lbs for a dollar. Do I understand it? Not in your life. I want to figure out why they won’t really talk to me. They want my dollar, they want me to walk away. So I put my dollar down, I get some good bok choy, a couple of tomatoes. I know produce. I know it’s fresh.

REPORTER: It’s really tough getting the vendors to share their secret. But some are willing to open up. Helen Xu works at the Forsyth Street market.

XU: Helen Xu speaking in Mandarin

REPORTER: She says she can sell cheaply because as a street vendor, she doesn’t have to pay rent. And she’s squeezed on both sides by other vendors so she has to stay competitive. Ok, that’s part of the story but does it really explain four pounds of carrots for a dollar?

XU: Helen Xu speaking Mandarin (bring up Bronx)

REPORTER: She says she gets her produce in the Bronx at the Hunts Point Terminal Market, which is where all neighborhood stores get their food. Maybe the wholesale distributors up there have some idea why prices are so cheap down here. Stephen Katzman is president of S. Katzman Produce.

KATZMAN: Chinatown buyers as a group have been some of the toughest buyers we’ve ever had down here. What they do do is that a good part of them will pay in cash.

REPORTER: Shoppers pay their vendors in cash. Vendors pay their distributors in cash. And there’s a lot of it changing hands, making it harder to track and harder to tax.

NAPOLITANO: They’re moving something. They’re moving volume.

REPORTER: Peter Napolitano is a produce expert at S. Katzman. He says Chinatown vendors can sell cheaply precisely because they sell A LOT.

NAPOLITANO: I live in Edgewater. We have a Pathmark down there that does tremendous but we have 30,000 people a day walking in and buying one pepper. Right? You have a Chinese fruit store right up the block from me that you have families walking in, they’re buying bags of stuff.

REPORTER: Down among boxes of tomatoes and avocados, salesman Harvey Garrowitz says shopping habits in Chinatown play a major role.

GARROWITZ: They go out every day like in Europe. They still go out with a shopping bag and buy fresh.

REPORTER: Salesman Frank Shambry says THAT affects prices.

SHAMBRY: A riper product is definitely worth less money and people that buy today to eat today can buy a riper product where people that shop once a week, they want to make sure the commodities they bring home are going last that entire week, so you’ll end up paying a little bit more for product that’s greener or harder.

REPORTER: Back in Chinatown, Waichuen Lam Ip is eyeing the fruit at a store on Mott Street.

Ip speaking in Cantonese (fade under)

REPORTER: Ip’s friend and colleague Lana Cheung translates.

CHEUNG: I buy my fruit every day because it’s much fresh

REPORTER: For 6 dollars and 50 cents, Ip gets 3 pounds of bananas, 8 oranges, a bunch of celery, and 2 papayas.

CHEUNG: Because Chinese people, they always believe that if a fresh vegetable and fruit, if it hasn’t been put into the refrigerator it will taste much much better and sweet. They don’t want to store it for 2 or 3 days. That’s why they go to shop and buy every day.

REPORTER: So shoppers’ buying a lot allows vendors to accept a smaller profit margin on each item. And since the shoppers are buying every day vendors can sell stuff that could go bad tomorrow, stuff that distributors want to get rid of, stuff that’s cheap.

Phone rings

REPORTER: In Confucius Plaza in Chinatown, Ip has invited a few friends over to her home for lunch. She chops the celery that she bought that day and stir fries it with chicken. The small 66-year woman points to the fruit on her table.

CHEUNG: I bought the persimmons. 16 pieces. It only cost 5 dollar.

IP: You try try try.

REPORTER: I try and the persimmons are really sweet. They’re just on the verge of being overripe. But they’re good and there’s little chance I’d find a box of them this cheap anywhere else. For WNYC, I’m Lisa Chow