My Pop's Fruit & Vegetable Business
By Bette Scavone
His youngest son, Nat, remembers ...
Michele Scavone was an illiterate immigrant from Pignola, Italy. Pignola is located in the region of Basilicata. Upon arriving in New York in 1907 the only work that was available to him was using a pick and shovel digging out the New York subways. He worked 10 hours a day for 80 cents a day, six days a week.
He knew there had to be a better way to make a living for himself and his family in this land of opportunity. Through friends and relatives Michele learned about the fruit and vegetable business and decided to try it for himself.
He used an old pushcart to peddle his fruits and vegetables from door to door. Eventually he was able to buy a horse and wagon. Even in those days peddlers were required to have a license from the City of New York, Department of Market. In those days it was 50 cents a year.
Michele established a regular route within several miles of his home. It was important that he call upon these customers on the same day each week at approximately the same time regardless of the weather conditions. This was the era prior to supermarkets. Because of his reliability, people looked forward to Michele Scavone coming weekly with his produce.
Presentation of these fruits and vegetables were very important, so Michele always presented a very fine sample basket. He would set the basket on their steps so they could select the items they needed. Most venders shouted out their wares, but he did not subscribe to this manner of selling his as he made his way down the streets.
Because bananas and strawberries were perishable, Michele never sold them. He always made sure that his produce was always fresh, clean, and ready for the table. This was a cash business, no credit. He acquired his inventory by having one day a week, Wednesday, set aside to go to the wholesale market. This market was located in East New York, Brownsville, the section of Brooklyn. Brownsville was a series of streets for wholesale distribution. They were also regulated by the city of New York. Most commodities could be purchased here for resale. It was a very interesting place and truly a snapshot of the melting pot of America. At the time most people had horse drawn carts, but some had trucks. Being a savvy shopper, Michele would walk up and down the crowded block of venders and buy from them using his fingers to negotiate the price. He knew how to bargain with the venders. It went something like this.
Michele would point to a commodity and the vender would respond by raising 1 or 2 fingers. One finger represented one dollar, two fingers, two dollars. If Michele did not like the price he kept walking until he was satisfied which vender had the best quality produce that he wanted to purchase. Sometimes he would return to a vender he had passed by earlier that had offered a higher price. They would motion Michele to come back and negotiate a new price with him. Crossing a finger on top of another finger meant 50 cents. So sometimes Michele would buy something for $1.50.
Price was not Michele s only concern. When he bought a bushel of apples or a case of oranges, he inspected the entire box to be sure he was receiving quality produce. He would not accept any damaged goods at a deep discounted price. He required only the best for his customers.
With this attitude about his business he built up trust and confidence with his customers. His produce was always of exceptional quality and he sold them at a reasonable price. He never became a rich man, but he was able to support his family of 10 children with his Fruit and Vegetable Business until the 1940 s when supermarkets made their appearance in New York