By Art Petrosemolo
Sea Bright’s Charlie Rooney is ‘The Produce Man’
Strawberries and baby arugula in January. Broccoli rabe and artichokes in July. We want fruits and vegetables in and out of season at our favorite restaurant and on our dining room table.
Produce man Charlie Rooney sums it up best: “Consumers want everything, every day.”
The Sea Bright produce wholesaler (C. Rooney Produce) has not taken a day off since he started the business in the 1980s and isn’t planning one soon. Several nights a week, you can find Rooney spending the overnight hours on a road trip to the modern South Philadelphia Produce Market.
Rooney buys produce for 75 customers so the fruits and vegetables they serve their diners are of the highest quality and freshness.
“We arrive at the market around 8 p.m.,” says Rooney, “and it takes about five hours to assemble and stage the orders at one of the 100 bays. Then the hundreds of individual boxes, crates and trays have to be carefully loaded onto the 24-foot straight truck – like a complicated puzzle – in the exact way they will be unloaded for my customers in the hours ahead.”
Rooney has his business philosophy on his truck’s sides and roll-up door: Big Enough To Serve, Small Enough To Care.
“I live it,” he smiles.
He has kept his customer base manageable and in relatively close proximity so that he can assure them when they open for business their order has been delivered and placed in storage in the manner they have specified.
“It’s truly personal service,” emphasizes Rooney, who uses two vehicles to deliver when he returns to Monmouth County. His team does not finish up until about 10 a.m. – some 16 hours after the trip began. And, they repeat it up to two more times each week – week in, week out.
The route vegetables and fruits take from farm to plate is a long one but surprisingly quick. Domestic fresh produce leaves farms in the South and West in the winter and nationwide in the summer to arrive at regional produce markets (New York City, Boston, Dallas, Miami, Chicago, and the like) in the middle and end of each week. Fruits and vegetables from Central and South America – shipped by air – are timed for similar arrivals during the winter months.
In a 24/7 operation, decades-old family-owned “direct receivers” buy and stock produce at these regional facilities. They inventory boxes, crates, trays and bags of everything from raspberries to radishes, apples to artichokes.
Many supermarkets have buyers who purchase for multiple stores or by region. Large warehouse stores like Costco, BJ’s and Walmart may bypass the produce markets entirely and deal directly with growers on mega-purchases to be distributed nationally. Restaurants, Rooney explains, still establish relationships with local or regional wholesalers who supply their needs daily and weekly.
What makes small businesses like Rooney’s unique is how the relationship with customers transcends just business.
“I know all my customers on a first-name basis,” he says, “and have dealt with them for years,” as he shakes a large ring with dozens of keys. “These are keys to my customers’ buildings and I deliver to their storerooms during the middle of the night, placing their order where they want it so it is not in the way when they arrive early for their business day.”
The path these fresh commodities then take to your table is varied. “I have long-term relationships with the family produce companies,” he says. “I have worked with a Philadelphia broker for decades. He assures I get what I want for my customers at the right price.”
Although Rooney has bought direct from the receivers, he and much of his competition now work closely with professional buyers. Rooney met second-generation Philadelphia produce broker Frank Monte nearly 20 years ago and has established a strong business partnership.
“Let me explain how it works,” Rooney says as the truck rumbles down I-295 toward the City of Brotherly Love on Monday night. “I call my orders into Monte just before I leave for the market. Frank sources all my orders from one of the two dozen receivers at the center looking not only for the best price but the best quality.” Rooney explains that Monte knows the market and has an eye on what is coming in daily that Rooney regularly buys.
When Rooney’s truck arrives at the loading dock, Monte has his orders sourced and instructions (picking tickets) waiting for Rooney’s assistants. Eddie Giron has been with Rooney for 20 years. Brandon Gephardt has been aboard about two years. Both men snooze in the truck cab on the way to the market knowing they have a long night and morning ahead.
Driving motorized forklifts, Giron and Gephardt whiz around the market like race car drivers picking up orders. After schmoozing with the night sales staff and Monte, Rooney retreats to the cab of the truck for three hours of sleep. “Not many owners of produce companies are the buyer, the driver and delivery person,” he says. “I need to catch 40 winks to be able to drive back to Monmouth County refreshed and ready to make deliveries.”
Rooney emphasizes how important it is to get the truck loaded correctly. “We don’t have time to be looking for two boxes of asparagus on the third stop in New Jersey at 3 a.m. at a customer’s back door. It has to be where we can get it as soon as we stop.”
Rooney starts making deliveries soon after he crosses into New Jersey. The strawberries for a customer in Howell need to be where he can put his hands on them a few hours later. A large sub shop chain needs lettuce and tomatoes – and lots of them – as soon as they open for the breakfast crowd. Customers not only get their produce but bills so they know costs immediately allowing them to price and plan accordingly.
The Rooney family arrived in Sea Bright from Jersey City in 1962. Charlie Rooney’s dad, the late Charles Jr., served as a councilman for years and mayor of the town for two terms. His mom Frances has staffed the family hot dog cart on Ocean Avenue since the late 1970s. It had been the summer job growing up for young Rooney and his sister Fran. Mrs. Rooney, now 80, shows no sign of closing the (what is now) Sea Bright institution. “Like my mother Frances, I am a Capricorn,” Rooney says, “and I am a workaholic, a lot like her and will probably be working too into my 80s.”
Rooney got into the business by accident. While recovering from a serious knee injury suffered training for a triathlon, he began to sell vegetables from a road stand near the hot dog cart.
“I was paying way too much for vegetables from a wholesaler,” he said. With guidance from people in the business, Rooney began to buy his own produce from a wholesale market in Newark. “When fall arrived, I needed to find something to replace the road stand,” he said. The manager of Ichabod’s (now Woody’s) in Sea Bright asked Rooney to supply him with the juice oranges he used for his famous screwdriver cocktail. Rooney found a supplier, made the sale and as he quips, “one customer led to two, three four and the rest is history.”
In 1996 Rooney and his wife Marisol purchased a small deli opposite The Grove on Broad Street in Shrewsbury. They renamed it Stroker’s. Today, the small deli has a huge following for quality breakfast and lunch fare. And yes, Rooney keeps his wife well supplied with produce.
Rooney feels he is one of a dying breed of family-owned produce wholesalers. “Today, everyone wants to be bigger,” he says. “My philosophy is to stay the right size to serve my customers’ different needs. I want them to succeed and prosper and if they do well, I too will do well. It’s a win-win situation.”
“It’s a demanding business but I love it,” says Rooney heading for home for some needed sleep. He’d have it no other way.
Feature writer Art Petrosemolo spent an overnight with Rooney and crew jammed into the cab of his truck. He walked wide-eyed through the Philadelphia Market and came away (along with a huge tray of fresh strawberries) with a new respect for how his vegetables arrive on his plate each day.