As the local food movement inspires us to take a closer look at the origins of our dinner plate, the focus typically lands on growers, corporate industrial farmers, and food retailers. Yet Americans import $23 billion in fruits and vegetables annually. So what of the importers? I must admit that in all my years of food activism, I’m also guilty of overlooking this important step in the process that accounts for about 20 percent of food consumed in the US.
To make up for it I had to leave my Kensington urban farm for South Philadelphia. There, along railroad tracks that slide out of the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal under the Walt Whitman Bridge, I visited the old South Philadelphia headquarters of one of Philadelphia’s longest enduring importers, M. Levin and Company Inc. My hope was to get acquainted with the people who are integral to providing the most constant component of my breakfast ritual—bananas.
I was connected to M. Levin by Morris Levin, the great-grandson of the founder, Michael Levin. He put me in touch with Joel Segel, one of four third generation Levins running the company today. “When you get there, make sure you ask about the door, and the wagon,” said Morris.
Joel had asked me to meet him here, in the company’s old headquarters, adjacent to the now closed Philadelphia Regional Produce Terminal, on Pattison Avenue. In 2011, the company moved its main operation into the 686,000 square foot Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market on Essington Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia, which opened in 2011. But it was here that the company blossomed into a $60 million operation distributing several hundred products—from bananas to yucca—to a long list of wholesalers, restaurants, schools, and government organizations, including the White House.
The Philadelphia port, in fact, has long specialized in fruit, coffee, sugar, and other produce from the Caribbean. The trade route was the source of many early fortunes, including that of Stephen Girard; today, though ranking as the 14th largest American port, Philadelphia is responsible for more imported perishables than any other in the nation.
It was a cold morning when I arrived at the large warehouse with “M. Levin and Company, Inc.” painted on the top of the building. Across Pattison Avenue sat the vacant, and somewhat desolate looking, former Philadelphia Regional Produce Terminal. Behind the operation: railroad tracks and weedy parcels going down to the defunct eastern end of the Philadelphia Navy Yard (to be incorporated into the growing port’s operation), and the Delaware River. Despite the tumbledown atmosphere, the remaining food wholesalers here, and the Packer Avenue port, exude a frenetic industrial energy that sets a defined boundary between the people who should be there and the people who shouldn’t. So I sat in the car until Joel arrived.
When I relayed Morris’ instructions about the cart and the door he grinned slightly. “Well, before I tell you about those doors, or the wagon,” he said, “let me tell you about how this whole thing got started.” Indeed, Joel had enough patience to show a journalist around his family’s plant even though he was obviously busy and a little confused about my motivations.
Joel’s grandfather Michael immigrated from Lithuania in 1898 for the standard immigrant reasons of finding better prospects in America, as well as avoiding service in the Russian Army. And like most immigrants, Michael Levin came to America without money or family. The only job he could find was as a banana huckster at the docks in Philadelphia. Hucksters would pick up stems of bananas from the wholesalers at the port, sell the individual “hands” (the clusters we see in present day supermarkets) to people or produce stands, and then bring the money back to the wholesaler.
“You didn’t need a college degree to be a huckster, you didn’t even need a hell of a lot of money,” Joel told me. “Someone gave my grandfather a chance to sell stems, and then after he saved up money and learned the trade, he started his own business.”
Although it seems like it would take a good bit of trust to give an out of work man a whole stem of bananas and expect him to bring back the money, a huckster, Joel explained, had no choice. If he didn’t return with the cash, he didn’t get more stems to sell.
But good will proved to be economically advantageous for Levin, who did business by handshake. He was thus one of the first importers at the docks to receive credit from shippers and exporters who would bring the bananas up from the Caribbean. This good reputation and a little bit of luck inspired the bankrupt Atlantic Fruit Company to turn over to Michael their jobbing house at 214 Dock Street, in the old Dock Street wholesale food market. When the city’s wholesale produce operation moved to the Philadelphia Regional Produce Terminal in 1959, the old Dock Street market was leveled with funds from the federal Urban Renewal program. Society Hill Towers is now on the site of 214 Dock Street.
The wagon, of course, was an artifact of these early days on Dock Street. Joel laughed with paternal pride as he conjured the image of the horse drawn wagon bouncing down the cobblestoned streets from the dock and back to the warehouse. His laughter turned to a nostalgic wonder when he pointed out the holes in the ceiling–remnants of the dozens of the banana hooks that once had turned this sterile warehouse into a kind of jungle. He took on a respectful seriousness when I asked him why his grandfather picked bananas out of all of the other produce. “I’m describing in one sentence what took generations to evolve,” he said.
But Joel did his best to explain those generations in our hour-long meeting. Shortly after Michael began his business, his brothers Morris, Jules, Ben, Nathan, and Myer came from Lithuania to join him. By the mid-1920s, Michael and his brothers had turned the business into one of the largest banana importing businesses on the East Coast. But as the Depression ravaged the economy, the business also suffered. However, this economic hardship had more to do with Michael Levin’s habit of extending credit to business associates who could not pay their bills rather than a misplay on the business’s part.
After the Depression ended and debts were settled, Michael and his sons Albert, Martin, Leon, and Ralph rebuilt the company into M. Levin and Company, Inc. The four brothers would cover the four daily shifts of the round-the-clock operation. Since Philadelphia was the main supplier of bananas for as far as Lancaster and Harrisburg, workers would have to load the trucks in the middle of the night so that the trucks could be in these places by the early morning.
War rationing beginning in 1942, when the federal government set prices on commodities, and the loss of merchant ships to the war effort, further pressured the business. In response, Michael Levin left his sons in charge and went to Miami, the closest American port to the Caribbean, and had boxes of bananas shipped by railcar from there. After time, he even began traveling to the Caribbean on small boats that he invested in to ship the bananas himself. Although Michael gave this up once the Philadelphia port resumed normal business after the war, Joel had a simple explanation for this ingenuity.
“The top of that building says we are a hundred years old, and to make it that long you go through a lot of ups and downs. You have to make it work and I think that story of what my grandfather did during the Second World War is a good example of that.” In the late 1950s, Michael Levin helped designed the company’s facility in the new Philadelphia Regional Produce Terminal, but he died six months before the opening. He had the doors from the banana rooms of the Dock Street warehouse brought over, which Joel now pointed out. Satisfied that Morris’ second directive had been addressed, I did not interrupt with any more questions as Joel explained how the banana rooms worked.
“So when the bananas would come off the boat, they would be green, meaning they were all starch. We would then take them and put them in these airtight rooms,” he explained as he tapped on the handsome, solid wood doors. “Then, we would pump the room full of ethylene and it would be the catalyst to start the ripening process where the starch would turn to sugar. That’s what you see when the banana turns from green to yellow, and that’s mother nature’s way of telling you that the banana is ready to eat. That’s why the banana is the perfect fruit. You don’t have to play the guessing game like you do with cantaloupes or honey dews.”
Though there were 28 of these ripening rooms, it was always a challenge to make sure that each room had enough space to store the fruit. On Fridays, they would designate an “if” room of overstock bananas that they would need to sell over the weekend or keep until the next week.
Cold is the enemy of the banana importer. If if bananas get a chill, they’ll turn black when ripening. But a chilled, black banana wasn’t the only danger in the warehouse. On a cold day in the mid sixties, said Joel, “Uncle Martin was in a banana room and gas was being used. Something caused an explosion as he was walking past one of the rooms. One of the doors blew off the room and carried him across the street.”
Although almost everyone in the family has probably worked at the warehouse at some point, Joel and his cousins Michael, David, and Mark became the primary operators of the next generation. But much like their grandfather, they were thrown into a tough, demanding field.
Joel’s favorite story about his introduction to the business came when he was 16 and was immediately tasked with driving a box truck full of bananas to the Italian Market. “Not only was I a shy kid, but in a matter of 15 minutes, they taught me how to drive a stick. Then they made me go up Ninth Street to make a delivery. In the hectic environment of the market, the trolley would always manage to come up behind me and so I’d have to drive around the block while people were yelling for the bananas they were about to come pick up. It was crazy, but that’s what we had to do.”
Joel also had to get used to working long hours. When he first started he would come to work at 8AM and think, “My God it’s early,” not realizing that people had been there all night. Just like his uncles before him, Joel would have to load the trucks for the early morning runs to Harrisburg and Lancaster. Over time, he’s worked at every hour of the day at that warehouse.
But even with the dedication to working long hours, the company has often sought to innovate and exploit new technology to make the system easier and more efficient. In 1958, M. Levin and Company, Inc. was one of the first warehouses on Pattison Avenue to invest in its own railroad. The railroad allowed the company to send overstock back to the wholesalers at the docks. “Everything I was telling you about that survival, well, that’s what we had to do,” said Joel.
In the mid-1960s, the Levins branched out with the banana’s close cousin, the plantain. More recently, immigration in South Philadelphia has enabled the company to diversify even further. They now sell a variety of Mexican produce like peppers and jicama, and even Mexican soft drinks. They take care of their Italian friends by importing baccalà (salt cod), and they even bring in cheese from Holland.
A second set of rails behind the warehouse is key to the business’s second major commodity success—potatoes. Rail, Joel said, is how he stays competitive. A box of potatoes shipped on a truck costs $6.50, $5 by rail. I wondered how the price difference could be so significant since I imagined the potatoes were coming from a regional distribution center. Joel gave me a sharply annoyed look and said, “No, the boxes come straight from Idaho.”
I must admit that this was not even a consideration. Whenever I’ve seen rail cars passing through Philadelphia on the CSX lines that run along the Schuylkill River, I assumed that they were hauling industrial products or oil. But it’s M. Levin’s direct connection to the rail lines that give them a competitive edge now that the majority of Idaho potatoes imported here come through large distribution centers in South Jersey and from there on to Philadelphia wholesalers. It wasn’t always this way, Joel told me. Philadelphia had been a leader in what he called the “volume business.”
“Back in the day, the guys who brought product in by rail could do a sampling to buyers,” he said. “That’s what we call the volume business and most of it was done in Philadelphia. But as the suburbs were developed and produce markets were built in those towns to serve the people, wholesale operations were scattered throughout the region. That killed the volume business in Philadelphia.”
But M. Levin has been nimble enough to evolve with the regional produce business, moving the company’s main operation to the new produce market on Essington Avenue. What hasn’t changed is the family’s commitment to the business. As I was getting a tour of the operation, fourth generation Levins were running the forklifts and working at the office along with the other 75 employees. I met Margie Fischman (daughter of Michael Levin), who came to work in sales here from the School District of Philadelphia. I met Sarah Levin (daughter of David Levin), who after graduating from West Chester University works in the banana ripening division, and Tracie Levin (daughter of Mark Levin), who graduated from the University of Delaware and now works in new business development. She oversees the daily operations of the company. Joel’s daughter Brenda Segel, who put in time here before and after college, is now pursuing another career outside of the family business.
At the end of my tour, I decided to get a little philosophic by equating the produce import business to the workings of the family farm. Joel began to talk about the many books written about small businesses that don’t make it past the third generation. But then he stopped and simply said, “When it comes to this business, you have to love it or leave it. It comes from my grandfather’s work ethic that you come in when you’re needed and you leave when the job is done. And basically, the job is never done.”
Although Morris Levin doesn’t work for M. Levin and Company, Inc. he had this to say about his family connection: “My dad raised me to understand a great deal about wholesale produce and food—its seasonality and sourcing. For example, my dad took me to Guatemala as a child to see the snow pea fields. Although I do envy my second cousins’ connection to the family business, my work as a small business consultant for many food industry clients is still informed by what I’ve learned from M. Levin and Company.”
“I think you can understand that my whole family and I are very proud. As I tell my cousins, we have a responsibility. This was given to us, we didn’t put it together,” said Joel. “The generations before us did and now we have to carry it through.”
When I thanked him for his time and for being so prepared for the interview, he was almost offended. “I didn’t need to prepare,” he said. “This is my family story.”