As the rest of Oakland is either asleep or stumbling home from the bars, the corner of 3rd and Franklin is aglow with sobering fluorescent lights and crowds of small business owners bargaining for crates of fresh nopales, pallets of green beans, and 20-pound bags of onions. They will take the wholesale produce they buy here back to their restaurants, their cafes and their taco trucks, and prepare it for the day’s business before most of their customers are awake.
When Oakland’s century-old wholesale produce market opens around 1:00 a.m. near Jack London Square, each seller has several large storage rooms packed to the brim with produce. Bananas are one of the biggest sellers, bringing in thousands of dollars a day for some sellers. The storage rooms are usually empty by 4:00 a.m. and the smell of ethylene gas, which is used to ripen green bananas onsite, lingers on the old walls. The people hauling the produce back and forth on dollies and fork lifts are mostly men, while their wives and sisters take the cash and run the cards. They speak a variety of languages. Some were sailors and truckers in past lives; others graduated from top universities and came to help their aging parents run the business. The stands have been in their families for generations. The market itself has been around for more than 100 years.
From the outside, when the stands are closed during the day, they look like abandoned lots. But in the darkness of the early morning, they are historic monuments. One distributor at Farmer’s Produce shows off the long cobwebs from the wooden rafters overhead and pats the original brick walls, bragging about how they managed to survive the great earthquake of ’89. Pictures of pin-up girls, both new and vintage, are plastered on those walls along with fading Kodaks of family members. The customer base also goes back generations. Some customers used to come as children before they took over the family business. They come in their hoodies and jeans with steaming mugs of coffee and bags under their eyes. By 7:00 a.m., the last loyal customers are packing up their cars and the produce stands start to close shop. The lights go out and the market disappears behind metal roll-down doors that screech as they’re pulled shut and padlocked by dawn.