It happens all the time. We're developing a recipe in our test kitchen, and someone yells, "Hey, I need some galangal root, stat!" That's when we put in a call to Melissa's, the largest distributor of specialty produce in the United States. Bill Gerlach, Melissa's director of research and development, tells us what it takes to ensure that when we need something obscure, even if it's halfway around the world, it will arrive in midtown Manhattan within days.
Sophie Brickman: What do you do? Bill Gerlach: I look for new produce, thinking five to ten years ahead of time. We use our own internal prognostications of what the market is going to be like to target our search. About a quarter of the time, I'm traveling. There's no substitute for going and seeing a grower's farm.
What's the travel schedule like for, say, a baby pineapple? They are grown in South Africa, then fly through Heathrow to LAX. They arrive in our warehouse one to two days after being picked. You know what's great about a baby pineapple? You can eat the core. I've seen people in Africa peel them and eat them like Popsicles, holding on to the fronds like sticks.
Do you get panicked 3 a.m. calls from the border? We have people from Melissa's working on-site, on the docks and the borders, and, sure, if there are quarantines or product holds, they'll phone us in the middle of the night. It's a courtesy we provide. We might have customers depending on that shipment.
Anything new on the horizon? I'm always working on procuring new tropical fruits and other exotic things. As far as what to look forward to this spring, I'd be excited for white apricots—we call them Angelcots because they have an angel-food flavor. They're really juicy and fragrant.
What produce items do you wish were available in the U.S. that aren't? Some great tropical fruits bruise easily. Açae [a tart berry from South America] will almost melt before a person's eyes. That's probably why the USDA hasn't cleared it for import.
Ever smuggled any in? Absolutely not! In fact, even when I get dried samples of products, which are legal to bring in, I dutifully go through the USDA line at the airport knowing full well it's going to slow me up. I do it to make a point. I've even complimented the officials there, saying, "Oh, wow, you have a really important job, and we thank you for protecting our agriculture!" One lady gave me a look, then said, "Just take your luggage and get out of here."