The Producers

D own on the main floor at fourth-generation produce distributor Carbonella & DeSarbo, workers are moving with purpose. Men in hooded sweatshirts load orders in and out through a curtained portal. Women in bouffant caps repackage bulk items into customers’ preferred quantities. Plastic wrap yawns and stretches as it’s wound around a stack of boxes. Grooves in the sealed cement reverberate through pallet trucks like tracks through trains.

Upstairs in the conference room, where founder Joseph DeSarbo’s shrewd but congenial eyes gaze out from a painted portrait, I ask his great-granddaughter and company vice president Maria DeSarbo to list some of the contents of all the boxes, bags and pallets below. And like the sure and speedy workers downstairs, she doesn’t hesitate.

“Avocados, apples—all different varieties of apples. We sell a lot of Washington state and New York state apples—pears, bananas, cucumbers, carrots, celery, cabbage—bagged cabbage, boxed cabbage, red cabbage, green cabbage, savoy, napa—curly parsley, plain parsley, kale, cilantro, decorative kale, beets—red beets, golden beets, baby beets—purple top turnips, wax turnips, all different-sized Yukon potatoes, all different-sized russet potatoes, jumbo yams, #1 yams…”

DeSarbo pauses to think and perhaps to breathe before continuing. “Corn, yellow squash, green squash, acorn squash, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, vidalia onions, red onions, Spanish onions, red A potatoes, red B potatoes, yellow peppers, red peppers, orange peppers, green peppers, suntan peppers, mini sweet peppers, cello lettuce, romaine, romaine hearts, radishes, snow peas, snap peas, broccoli crowns, bunched broccoli, broccoli rabe, broccolini…”

She takes another moment, then picks up where she left off. “Jumbo asparagus, large asparagus, standard asparagus, white asparagus. Okay, carrots: we have 50-pound bulk carrots, you have mini vac carrots, 20-pound baby carrots, 30-pound baby carrots, T100 carrots for schools and T150 carrots for schools… Green leaf [lettuce], red leaf, green leaf filets, red leaf filets, romaine filets… There are these school items and pre-cut items that everybody loves, so you have shredded carrots, coleslaw mix, salad mix, romaine blend, chopped romaine… Oranges—there are all different sizes of oranges: 48 count, 56 count, 72, 88, 113 and 138 count oranges. Lemons, you have 95, 115, 140, 165 and 200 count lemons—all different sizes for all different applications. Tomatoes—we sell loads of tomatoes out of here. You have a 5×6, a 6×6, a 6×7. For hot house tomatoes, you have vine-ripe, heirloom, beefsteak, cherry, grape, roma, heirloom cherry… A lot of watermelons: 45 counts, 60 counts, carton watermelon. Oh my god. There are so many more things.”

But you get the idea.

Harder to understand is the business behind all those fruits and veggies. Here’s the gist: C&D buys produce from far-ranging suppliers and then sells it wholesale, mostly to “broad line distributors” throughout New England. Those distributors then act as one-stop shops, selling everything from ingredients to takeout containers to local and regional restaurants as well as other food service efforts. The one-stop shop distributors buy from C&D because buying produce directly is an especially complicated endeavor; for one thing, it requires tracking and understanding a large class of individually quirky commodities whose supply or demand—and therefore pricing—are constantly in flux. “[Produce is] not a manufactured commodity… You really have to pay attention to the markets, watch everything and buy in at the right time—and make sure you’re buying from a place where the quality will be good.”

Unpredictability, it turns out, is to be expected. “Markets fluctuate based on the weather or, really, it could be anything,” DeSarbo notes. “There are so many facets to how food goes around the country and in our local area.” A severe storm, or labor or political issues in a certain region, or “a big chain store rejection”—which “could saturate a smaller area with a lot of a certain product, and that would cause the price to drop in an area even if nationwide it’s a very tight item”—requires special experience and expertise to navigate.

And as it happens, Carbonella & DeSarbo has been doing that kind of navigating for a very long time. Founded roughly 100 years ago as J DeSarbo & Brothers—and subsequently owned and operated by the founder’s son and then grandson, both also named Joseph—it’s been headquartered at the New Haven Food Terminal for about 55 of those years. Like many early food terminal tenants, the business had begun more humbly, at the old food market across from Union Station, which the terminal was built to replace during the city’s infamous urban renewal phase.

Not long after the terminal’s construction was completed in 1964, then-mayor Richard C. Lee, a staunch champion of renewal (though he would later regret it), gave a speech hailing the new market and assailing the old, inadvertently preserving a picture, albeit an opinionated one, of the way things had been. “The old market was a tangle of stress, often so congested that normal business was impossible,” he said. “Most business was conducted from the tailgates of trucks. This was a truck market in every sense of the word, with little tax return to the city and few permanent jobs. The buildings that were used were obsolete and inefficient, relics of a bygone age.”

More than 50 years later, it’s the food terminal that’s aging, and Carbonella & DeSarbo—the “Carbonella” part was added during a merger with D Carbonella & Sons in 1969—is preparing to take another leap into the future, for at least one reason you wouldn’t likely guess: HACCP certification. The acronym, pronounced something like “hassep,” stands for “Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points.” Think of it as a post-9/11 notion of food safety, in which a food handler like C&D could monitor and log every touchpoint that happens on its watch and ensure, among other things, that nefarious interests haven’t gained access to the food. “We’re committing to knowing everyone who’s entering our building,” DeSarbo says. “We’ll have total control over what areas even our own employees can access.”

Because C&D can’t achieve that level of security in the food terminal—and because the space is feeling tight at this point for the business, which employs 40 people and counting—its main operations are moving to Branford starting October 5, into a “fully modernized” facility on East Industrial Park Road. DeSarbo says the company looked hard for property throughout New Haven, hoping to be able to keep its headquarters in the city, but nothing could have been ready quickly enough. HACCP certification is becoming a more important standard among C&D’s clients, she says, so the move is driven by an increasingly urgent core business interest.

That said, the company is holding onto its food terminal address, at least for now. DeSarbo sees advantages to having a facility that’s familiar to many of its smaller longtime customers and is less corporate and locked-down—and therefore more approachable and flexible—than the forthcoming Branford location. Moreover, it’s already “set up for what we do,” she says, meaning it could serve as a satellite facility if they ever need one in a pinch.

Other reasons for holding on are less tangible. “You know when you just have a good thing and you don’t want to let it go?” she asks, expressing an urge that surely has something to do with the family history that lives within the space and the pride that goes with it. “One thing I think is really, really special is that we’ve made it four generations,” DeSarbo says. “Yes, there are [other] businesses that have done that, but really, in the grand scheme of things, not many at all. So I’m very proud of my father, and my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, and I’m so thankful for all of the hard work and sacrifice they’ve made over decades to keep this going.”

Carbonella & DeSarbo
Legacy location: 307-309 Food Terminal Plaza, New Haven (map)
New HQ location (as of 10/5/19): 50 E Industrial Rd, Branford (map)
Mon-Fri 5am-3pm, Sat 6am-noon, Sun 2-6pm
(203) 624-5127
www.carbonellaanddesarbo.com

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Image 1 features Maria DeSarbo.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories.

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