American Airlines Cargo Building 79, John F. Kennedy International Airport, Jamaica, New York: 5 a.m.
Mitch Spitz is waiting for his apricots.
“A box of fruit is like a woman who goes out at night,” Spitz says. “She puts on her jewelry, her makeup, but in the morning you know what you’ve got.”
A forklift deposits a pallet of fruit at his feet with a thud that echoes through the dreary, industrial space, the cavern hung with signs warning against elemental hazards: in bound dangerous goods…look out for forklifts…spill response kit. Spitz is on the lookout for subtler perils.
“Some sellers, they pack the nice stuff on top,” he says. “The only way to tell if it’s good all the way through is to turn it over and check from the bottom.” He opens a box, holding a lightly blushing specimen gently up for inspection. The apricots, almost cartoonish in their plumpness, their sunrise colors, seem the Platonic ideal of all apricots down to the bottom of the box. A small quick poke confirms they have just the right firmness.
“The fruit you find in big stores, in your Whole Foods, your Fairways?” Spitz asks, rhetorically. “It’s bred for the store buyer, not the consumer. It looks good on the shelves. It’s hard, good for piling into displays, but it’s taken away too early from its mother.”
He opens up a box of seedless grapes and delicately lifts out a bunch. “But this, this you gotta handle like a baby.”
Behind a chain-link fence, other huge containers await pickup. “Shoes from Italy, bodies, who knows,” Spitz posits wearily. Guns N’ Roses’ “Hell’s Bells” plays angrily over the speaker system. Snug in their boxes, those perfect apricots exist in a little cocoon of apricot perfume. They were on a tree, soaking up the northern California sunshine, just 48 hours prior.
Watch: A Day in the Life of Mitch Spitz
The Orchard, Coney Island Avenue, Midwood, Brooklyn: 11:30 a.m.
Mitch Spitz, 56, cellphone glued to his ear, is walking a loop around the center fruit display of the Orchard, the small but beloved fruit purveyor his father opened in 1957. He’s talking to a customer, his patter like an auctioneer’s: “Yep, firm, very sweet nectarines…some orange honeydew, very good, very good…multicolored radishes, yes, yes of course.”
Mitch’s father, Danny Spitz (aka Danny Pineapple), was an orphan who grew up in a group home and then bopped around foster care before taking a job in a local grocery store and, over the years, working his way up in a series of specialty food shops.
During a trip to California, he happened upon the food of the gods: a baby pineapple, nothing like the standard canned Dole slices on the shelves of his local corner store. Moved by what he’d tasted, the purity and promise of it, he flew straight to Hawaii with nothing but the clothes on his back, went to the market, and ate them at their source. A born businessman living in the jet age, he saw an opportunity and in time was flying crates of the pineapples direct to the East Coast. In 1957, having expanded his network of producers, he opened the Orchard, specializing in the best-quality fruit the world could offer—blueberries from New Zealand, specialty melon from the Caribbean. Long before locavore was a word, before people cared about carbon footprints, Danny Pineapple’s only requirement was that his customers get the finest produce available, and it’s a guiding principle that his son—32 years in the business and, after his father passed away recently, now the only Spitz at the helm—upholds daily.
Standing by a display of buttery avocados, blueberries the size of quarters, plums with flesh the color of a Crayola purple marker, Spitz plays equal parts big-talking salesman (“I can tell you the quality of a piece of fruit from across the room”) and produce gumshoe (“There was an article in the Times saying no one could find greengage plums? I found ’em”).
On this particular Friday, the store is bustling, rows of neatly packed brown bags ready to go out for delivery, a ravaged spread of bagels and schmear set out in the back for the employees (“It’s a tradition I like to keep alive for my dad,” says Spitz), phones ringing, UPS guys dropping off mangoes and berries, a revolving door of customers greeting Spitz with a hearty handshake and leaving with a “Good Shabbos.” (In recent years, the neighborhood has become increasingly Orthodox.)
“That’s Mark,” Spitz says, noting a neighborhood regular. “He likes his grapes to be firm and crunchy, and his melons super sweet. After all these years, I know exactly what my customers want.”
Produce is a challenging, low-margin business, even if you’re hawking cheap, last-off-the-truck, woody asparagus to clientele who don’t care much about quality. Selling perfect specimens of fruit, be they $25-per-pound cherries from Australia or $20-per-pound soursop from the Caribbean, requires the alignment of myriad unmanageable factors—weather, water levels, and airport schedules being just a handful. The product must be moved efficiently, and customers must be willing to pay a pretty penny (or one thousand of them) for it.
“It’s expensive, sure,” admits Spitz. “But these days, a pack of Twinkies will run you a few dollars, and that’s not even natural.” Most people who taste his fruit don’t leave empty-handed.
There have been a few disasters. Years ago, in the depths of winter, melons from the Dominican Republic arrived at JFK and mistakenly sat under the heat lamps in the cargo building, resulting in thousands of dollars lost and pallets of cooked melon jam. But after decades in the business, Spitz seems to have things running pretty seamlessly. It doesn’t hurt that many of his customers remember him from when he was a young boy helping out at the store, or that they rush to praise his dad.
One regular, Moshe, wearing a yarmulke, glasses, and full gray beard, comes in for three packages of kiwi berries around noon. They’d arrived the day before from Washington state, tiny baby kiwis tinged with red.
“I’ve been coming here for 10 years,” says Moshe. “The fruit is the best in Brooklyn. Mitch’s father, well, his father was a wonderful guy.” Searching for the best way to praise the Pineapple Prince, he adds: “He held the fruit very delicately.”
At around 1 p.m., Arthur Schwartz, Jewish food authority, arrives with a friend who had requested an impromptu food tour of the neighborhood. The Orchard was a no-brainer stop for Schwartz.
“Would you look at the size of those blueberries?” he asks no one in particular. Nearby, a local, long-bearded Talmudic scholar pays for four perfect apricots ($37.50) with a $100 bill.
Half an hour later, a young doctor (red hair, scrubs) runs in, breathless, to place an order for berries and melon after his shift at a local hospital. He’s been away all summer, and it’s his first time back in a while.
“Welcome home!” Spitz booms.