As varied as the fresh produce that is available at the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market are the career paths some of the merchants followed to the market.
Stanley Corriea Jr., president of Stanley Produce Co. Inc., represents those who were weaned on radicchio, fennel and the like.
He runs the company founded by his late father in 1941 and continues a strong walk-in wholesale business while also delivering to independent retailers.
Jack Pizza, president of Washington Vegetable Co., began his professional life as an attorney.
The most circuitous route to the market, however, may be claimed by Rick Tombari, co-owner with his wife of Cooks Co. Produce Inc.
The son of a Navy “lifer,” Tombari lived in 16 locations before starting college. He obtained two degrees in architecture, while his wife earned a degree in genetics, and he later earned an MBA.
“We both enjoy cooking, and we’re both good with a hand truck,” Tombari said.
The catalyst to becoming owners of Cooks Co. Produce was owning and operating a restaurant in the 1980s.
“We couldn’t get good produce,” Tombari said.
Thus began a many decades-long friendship with Bill Fujimoto, whose family founded the Monterey Market and who today is on the Cooks Co. Produce staff. It was from Fujimoto and his family that Tombari “learned what was seasonal and what was organic and what tasted great,” he said.
Tombari is not one to sit in the second floor office and let others do the heavy lifting, said Michael Janis, general manager of the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market.
“Rick is on the floor. He’s filling boxes. He’s on the phone with chefs,” Janis said.
There is no sales staff at Cooks — just Tombari.
“We’re very hands-on, always looking for the best-tasting products, trying to convey that directly to the restaurants we supply,” he said.
There are no minimum order requirements at Cooks.
“We break cases on everything,” Tombari said.
Now in his 27th year at Cooks, Tombari traces the company’s success — it has grown every year, he said — back to his learning period at Monterey Market, where he began cultivating relationships with local growers. It’s a practice he continues to this day.
“Locally grown” is a phrase that continues to resonate with Cooks’ customers, he says.
“We produce a price list that actually lists the names of organic and pesticide-free products and the farm names next to the commodities,” Tombari said. “Some restaurants like to put that information on menus.”
What is difficult to put on the menus is the growers’ enthusiasm for the product.
It falls to Tombari and the drivers of the company’s 26 delivery trucks to take that message to more than 400 customers at restaurants all over the Bay Area and east to Sacramento and Modesto.
Another of Tombari’s roles is to serve as a consultant to growers. He occasionally suggests to a grower that he consider another commodity that Tombari knows will find acceptance among his customers.
“There’s always going to be good tasting stuff, and there’s no mystery about where things grow best,” Tombari said. “The idea is to find the farmers who do the growing best.”