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Food - What The Wholesaler Does

( Originally Published 1917 )



WHAT THE WHOLESALER DOES

The wholesaler and his co-workers. The wholesale grocery house is about the most fascinating place to which you could possibly pay a visit. As we explore its wonders we cannot help saying to ourselves, "If every man, woman, and child who has helped to grow, to harvest, to prepare, to pack, and to carry the foods under this roof were suddenly to appear before us, we should look upon a strange and interesting sight, for we should see a great throng of people belonging to almost every race on the face of the earth."

Yes, nearly every country, nation, and tribe would be represented in that strange crowd. Even the inhabitants of the far off islands of the sea would have a place in that queer gathering. Suppose we should see that amazing throng of workers from the four corners of the earth in one great procession passing slowly before our eyes. How much more vivid would be our understanding of the wholesaler's task of providing our tables with the wonderful variety of delicious foods common today in most American homes. Beyond doubt that strange company of toilers would lead us to wonder how it is possible for us to buy our foods at so small a price foods far greater in variety, finer in quality, cleaner, and more wholesome than kings could command only a century ago.

The wholesale grocery a manufacturing plant. There is a common notion that the grocery jobber or wholesaler is a middleman in the strictest sense of the term, that he receives a general assortment of food products at one door of his plant and sends them out at another in practically the same condition in which they came in, and that for the mere matter of passing the goods through his hands he exacts a fat toll from the public. The merest glimpse of what goes on inside a great wholesale grocery is sufficient to destroy this idea and show its utter absurdity. As a matter of fact, in its everyday practice, a representative wholesale grocery is a manufacturing plant. The extent to which foods are worked over into new forms more acceptable to the consumer is not known or even thought of by the average person. Nor does the average retail grocer have any adequate idea of the amount of hard physical labor put into the cleaning, changing of forms, and mixing of foods into combinations to suit the varied tastes of the public and to meet the requirements of the national and state laws regulating the purity, cleanliness, and labeling of all food products.

The reason why the real work of the wholesaler is so little understood or appreciated is plain when it is remembered that the general public seldom sees the inside of a big food jobbing house. Even the retail grocer, who is the connecting link between the wholesaler and the consumer, is almost a stranger to the real work of the wholesaler. And the reason for the retailer's lack of knowledge is that, as a rule, he comes in contact only with the selling end of the wholesale establishment and does not see what is going on " behind the scenes."

The big wholesale grocery is really the very center of one of the most vital activities in the study of world geography the gathering of foods from all the countries of the globe and the distributing of them, in much improved forms, to the people of a state or a group of states. As a situation from which to study . practical geography there is probably no other place in the world quite so well adapted as is a wholesale grocery. By practical geography, we mean the kind that throws a searchlight upon the real and important transactions in the world's trade, thus giving us an illuminated, world-wide view of the great currents and tides of international traffic in the things most necessary to man's life, health, and comfort FOODS!

Changing food forms. Because the plain, hard, physical labor performed by the wholesale grocery house in the way of cleaning and refining foods is so important, let us confine our attention at the outset to the work the wholesaler puts upon them as they pass through his hands. Later we shall look at the other form of labor which the jobber is called upon to include in the service he gives for the toll he takes. For the present, let us take a trip through the wholesale grocery with eyes alert for only one thing: the changes which foods in the wholesale plant undergo to make them more attractive and convenient for distribution.

In the first place, the larger wholesale grocery houses, particularly those located in the business centers of big cities, are obliged, for the sake of economy, to maintain two separate plants. In both plants a certain amount of work is done in cleaning, refining, and otherwise changing foods.

The plant in the center of the city is devoted mainly to distributing rather than to manufacturing. Here only the lighter processes of cleaning and changing of food forms are carried on. By far the larger part of. this kind of work, especially its heavier and less interesting processes, are carried on at the other plant, commonly called the factory. Usually this plant stands either on the outskirts of the city or in some small suburban town having extensive shipping facilities and a sufficient supply of the right sort of labor. But if the wholesale house is not located in a large city, you are almost certain to find the distributing and the manufacturing activities of the establishment carried on under one roof. This is sometimes true of grocery jobbing houses situated even in the large cities, although the tendency is to separate these two branches of work in the manner indicated.

The wholesaler's work varies with the seasons. When you come to think about it, you will realize that it is clearly impossible for you to get more than a mere suggestion of the variety and scope of the work which the wholesale grocery puts upon foods, unless you go through the plant as often, perhaps, as once a month. The reason for this is that foods are seasonal to a peculiar degree a fait which is continually being reflected in the change of work going on in the wholesale house from week to week.

Almost every food brought from a foreign country arrives at about the same time each year. If you were to walk through the plant, for instance, just after the big shipments of figs had arrived from Smyrna, you might be inclined to think that a large share of the wholesaler's work was the cleaning and repacking of figs. But if you made your visit a month later, you would probably not see any figs at all in the packing room. Therefore, you may be sure that no matter how often you may make a geographic pilgrimage to the wholesale grocery house, you will find some new work in progress,in the packing rooms which was missing from the scene when you were there before.

A glimpse inside a wholesale house. Here is a glimpse of the actual work being done in one of the largest wholesale grocery houses in the Middle West a house having an auxiliary plant in a large , manufacturing town near by where all the heavier work is done. The wholesale house proper is not far from the central part of the city and is the head-quarters of the selling, accounting, distributing, and administrative branches of the big enterprise.

Preparing prunes for the grocer. A large part of the top floor of this marvelously equipped whole-sale house is given over to the work of cleaning, sorting, and packing prunes, figs, currants, and almost every other kind of dried fruit. Here we see men handling great cakes or cheeses of prunes, opening the original packages, breaking up the big solid masses, and putting them into a hopper from which they are automatically fed into a vat of boiling water. After remaining there for an instant they are lifted on a revolving screen and dropped into another vat. This process is repeated six times. As the prunes come out of their sixth and last steaming bath they are not only well cleaned but are also immensely improved in appearance. This extreme care and thoroughness illustrates the progressive tendency of modern food manufacturers who are apparently alive to the value of making their products not only scrupulously clean but attractive as well. The processing to which the prune is subjected certainly gives it an appearance which makes an unfailing appeal to the eye of the consumer.

The remarkable machine in which many kinds of whole dried fruits are washed is capable of cleaning 30,000 pounds of prunes a day.After their last bath, the prunes are automatically emptied upon a moving screen which acts as a conveyorand at the same time dries them by shaking from them the last lingering drops of water. The conveyor dumps its burden into a clean bin the fruit is shoveled into boxes which follow each other in quick succession on the platform of a pair of scales. Prunes above the ordinary grade are generally packed by girls, who put them into the boxes in orderly tiers so that' they may make a pleasing and attractive appearance for display when the box is opened in the retail grocery. Sometimes only a few layers at the top of the box are arranged in this way, all the prunes underneath being put in loosely. This is called "facing."

Currants from Greece. On this same floor are other machines, constructed along similar lines, which are especially designed for the cleaning of immense shipments of currants from Greece. A man about to break open one of the original packages pointed to the word "Cleaned" branded upon the side of the package. He laughingly explained that this was stamped on the package by the American Consul or his deputy. While the currants were undoubtedly cleaner than those sent to other countries, they certainly did not come up to our present American standards of cleanliness in the matter of foods. We learn that this particular shipment of currants being cleaned came from Patras, Greece.

Cleaning and seeding raisins. Raisins receive a little different treatment, being given what may be called a Turkish bath. First they are placed in a room almost as hot as an oven and allowed to remain there until dry, at least on the surface. Next they are placed upon sieves in an automatic machine where they receive a"violent and thorough shaking which frees them from dust, dirt, and sand. Then they are given a hot bath, after which those to be sold as seeded raisins are sent to the seeder. This machine, though small compared with that used in the raisin factory, will seed 300 pounds an hour. This machine is only one among many other ingenious devices that make up the equipment to be found in the modern wholesale grocery.

Foods cleaned by hand. As we pass along in this large room we notice several girls standing, or sitting on stools, at a row of sinks. These girls handle the various nuts and dried fruits which can be cleaned to better advantage by hand. At present they are cleaning a consignment of large almond meats from Valencia, Spain. One of the workers tells us that the house also obtains almonds from Italy and California.

A favorite from the tropics. Of all the dried or cured fruits that are brought to us from foreign countries probably none is in more urgent need of a good hot bath and similar attentions than dates. Dates begin their long journey in a torrid country on camel back, continue it on a freight train, and are then perhaps stacked on the deck of a tramp schooner with the fierce sun beating down upon them. Next they are transferred to a regular ocean liner and finally reach the wholesale house with the sticky, sugary sirup oozing from every crack and crevice of the original package. This oozing begins in the oasis where the dates are grown. It continues throughout the trip across the desert, on wharves and docks, on the decks and in the holds of the vessels, in freight cars, and at every step of the long pilgrimage. By the time the package reaches its destination it is literally encrusted with a thick covering of combined sirup and dirt of about the consistency of tar.

While the dates inside the package are considerably protected, still the dust and dirt penetrate to them. This is true only of bulk dates, and not of those packed in small and tightly sealed boxes before they leave Arabia.

The process of cleaning dates is not essentially different from that of washing prunes, except that hot steam as well as hot water is used.

As we pause at the elbow of a girl who is seeding and stuffing dates, and note the skill that is required to get the seed out without taking any of the meat along with it, we are greatly impressed by the pains-taking care with which this delicious food is pre-pared for our consumption.

Making a reputation in the coffee trade. The coffee room is one of the most important places in any wholesale grocery house; this is not only because coffee constitutes an important commodity in the wholesale and retail food trade but also because the average consumer of coffee is probably more particular about it than about any other article in his whole range of foods and drinks. Another consideration which emphasizes the importance of the coffee room is the fact that high quality in 'coffee, as the consumer sips it from his cup, is far more a matter of successful blending and roasting than it is of choosing just the right raw material, or natural berry. But it must not be understood that there is not a decided difference in the characteristics of the coffee beans or berries from the various coffee-growing localities.

Any master of the art of blending and roasting can take a coffee which in itself would not make a pleasant drink and, by his clever and skillful blending with other varieties, produce the basis of a brew that will win high praise from the most exacting coffee drinker. This is admitted by coffee experts generally and it is therefore easy to realize that the work done in the coffee room must be of the most expert and dependable character if the house is to make a notable reputation on its coffees; and this is usually what it tries to do if it is wide awake and progressive.

Preparing coffee for the trade. The first thing done in the process of cleaning the raw bulk coffee berries is to send them through the separator. This machine operates on about the same principle as an old-fashioned fanning mill, or small grain separator. It consists of several rapidly shaking screens, and as the coffee passes over these the sand and dirt fall through the mesh while the chaff and dust are carried away by air suction.

The coffee is dropped from the separators into the bins from which it is drawn for blending. After it has been blended, the coffee is elevated to the roasters where it is roasted for from fifteen to twenty minutes. The more modern roasters are so arranged that a small stream of coffee is constantly trickling through an opening from which the expert in charge of the roasting may at any moment draw a sample. This he does frequently.

From the roasters the coffee is dropped into a bin or bins below. It is on its journey from the bin to the compartments tapped by the sacking chutes that the coffee is freed from small stones and other particles too large to pass through the mesh of the separator's screens and too heavy to be carried off by air suction.

This bin is really a big hopper (A-A), from the bottom of which a large pipe or conduit leads off at a downward slant, ending in a smaller bin (B). The pitch of this pipe is just sufficient to keep a stream of coffee moving steadily along. From the top of the smaller bin, into which the slanting conduit—along which the coffee is carried by the force of its own weight empties, is a pipe (D-D) which leads to the big storage bins above. Through this pipe moves an upward suction of air, whose strength is so regulated that it is just sufficient to pull up the coffee beans, which have been lightened by roasting. At the same time, this air current allows the small stones and other heavier particles to slide along the remain-der of the slanting chute and drop into a still smaller bin (C).If the coffee is to be ground and sent out to the trade in sealed cans or airtight packed ages coffee , the hopper containing the blend will feed direct to the grinding machine. A coffee-grinding machine of large capacity is capable of turning out 1,000 pounds of ground or steel-cut coffee a day. It is well to remember, however, that only about 10 per cent of the coffee sold is ground in the wholesale house. This is because ground coffee loses strength unless it is in airtight packages, and consumers usually wish to have the coffee berries remain whole as long as possible. By far the greater part of the coffee used is ground by the retail grocer for each individual customer.

Unground roasted coffees are commonly sent out to the trade in drums that resemble in appearance small barrels or casks. These are also tightly sealed.retailers carry a small stock of unroasted coffees, which are sent to them in sacks, as it is not considered necessary to keep unroasted coffees in airtight packages.

Spices. Now for a glance into the room where the wholesaler prepares his output of spices. Unless you have been in such a room, you may quite naturally imagine that the fragrance of the spices would be decidedly pleasant, but that is not true. When the spices are being ground they give out an aroma altogether too strong and pungent to be agreeable. It is even quite disagreeable to stay for any great length of time in the room where cinnamon is being ground, and this is the least offensive among all the spices. Usually each spice grinder is able to turn out from 500 to 600 pounds of ground cinnamon, cloves, or pepper a day.

"That is what we call broken cassia cinnamon," explained the man in charge of the spice-grinding machines. " It is the kind that is almost invariably ground. Of course we also carry the fine Batavia cinnamon which is sold to the retailer unground or in what we call `sticks.'

It is interesting to study the native materials used as wrappings for original packages from remote places, like the Moluccas (Spice Islands) and other islands of the South Seas, where most of the spices are grown. Cinnamon, for example, comes in packages containing about 100 pounds. The outer wrapping is of rushes or bamboo. Each kind of spice usually has its own particular style of package and wrappings.

In spite of the fact that automatic scales are used to weigh the spices for the little packages or boxes in which they are to be sealed, the amount of work involved in putting the spices into their final containers is by no means small.

Pulverized sugar. The grinder that turns out pulverized sugar is a curious type of mill. Instead of having stones, burrs, or rollers to reduce the granulated sugar to the finer pulverized form, this clever device is so constructed that it forces the sugar crystals themselves to do the work of grinding by their friction against each other. An interesting feature of the pulverized sugar room is the nervous battery of bolters by which this finely powdered sugar is screened. The bolters are huge sifters covered with bolting cloth of varying degrees of fineness, through whose meshes the powdered sugar passes.

Baking powder. The baking-powder mixer is simply a long cylinder inside of which revolves a corkscrew mixer or "agitator," which stirs and blends the ingredients of baking powder with systematic thoroughness.

Tastes in tea. We cannot explore a large wholesale grocery house for the particular purpose of learning just how much work the wholesaler puts on the foods he gathers from far and near before he passes them on to the retailer, and fail to visit the room in which teas are blended. While it is true that certain blends of tea are commonly used throughout the whole country, on the other hand it is hardly too much to say that many communities have developed individual tastes in tea. Perhaps one town will demand a special blend, which no other place in the territory of that wholesaler re-quires. Very many times this is due to the nationality of the inhabitants of the community. For example, a retailer in a locality largely settled by Russians would naturally carry a heavy black tea of a blend to be drunk with only a slice of lemon in it. On the other hand, a retail store-keeper in a typical New England town would be very sure to sell much more green tea than black. Again, this local taste is undoubtedly often fixed by what may be called social accident. For instance, some society leader in the town has a decided preference for a special blend of tea and is not backward about talking of its merits. Those of her friends who are inclined to follow her lead will scarcely fail to ask their own grocers for the brand of tea she serves.

But no matter how each community may have arrived at its preference for a certain kind of tea, the fact remains that the tea blender in the wholesale house must be able to keep close tab upon these various local preferences and so mix his materials as to satisfy each particular taste. In order to do this with the highest degree of success, he consults as frequently as possible with the traveling salesmen of the house and carefully considers with them the tea taste of each town in their territory. This information is all systematically recorded.

The tea blender in the big wholesale house is essentially an artist in catering to individual and community tastes in an article about which people are uncommonly exacting and sensitive. Therefore, his task is not an easy one. But it should not be inferred that every community demands an individual blend of tea not known and marketable in other towns; it is true, however, that many communities do demand an individual blend.

Extending the olive market. Now let us take a look into the olive room, which is quite likely to be in the basement of the wholesale house unless the packing is done at the "factory." Indeed, you will probably find that nearly every wholesale grocery which maintains a separate factory handles olives there and in its main establishment also. Practically all our green olives come from Spain. The Spaniards put them up in huge hogshead like casks called "pipes," containing from 160 to 180 gallons of olives and brine. Only a very few retailers are able to handle olives put up in these big original packages. Consequently the wholesale grocers have the task of opening up the casks, grading and washing the olives, and repacking them in smaller and more convenient and attractive containers.

The grading and packing are done because the American consumer buys, in the matter of olives at least, on the score of appearance. If he feels he can afford the best he insists upon having a bottle of big, fat, selected olives for which the merchant is obliged to charge him a corresponding price.

The consumer who must be careful in his expenditures goes to the other extreme and buys the smallest olives. If there is any actual difference in quality or taste between these two extremes it is usually too slight to be noticeable. By this process of grading and repacking bulk olives, the varied, tastes and demands of consumers may be met at prices they can afford to pay. At the same time the jobber extends his own olive market and that of the retailer beyond the limit that would be possible if the ungraded bulk olives were put upon the market just as they are received.

The stuffed olive is highly suggestive of the alertness with which the wholesale food merchant watches for an opportunity to put more work instead of less upon the materials that come to his hands, in order that they may make a still wider appeal to public taste. Not many years ago the stuffed olive was unknown; today almost every retail grocer in a town of any considerable size carries this delicacy as a staple.

The wholesale grocer, looking for something new to make a fresh appeal to the fastidious consumer,tried a combination of the green olive and the sweet red pepper called pimiento, both imported from Spain. The result was so satisfactory that the idea proved to be little short of an inspiration. The work of removing the stones from the olives and inserting the little rolls of pimiento flesh is usually done by girls, as is also the packing of olives in bottles. Both are laborious processes and require deft and highly trained fingers to do them well and swiftly. As far as possible, the girls handle the olives either with little tongs or with forks, refraining from touching them with the fingers except when it is absolutely necessary. If in packing the olives any have been touched with the fingers, they are again washed before the final brine is poured in and the bottle sealed. This seems to be the rule in the olive rooms of all houses where olives are packed.

Work in the factories. Where a wholesale food house maintains a separate factory, the work done there is more strictly manufacturing. In these factories, making jellies, jams, and preserves, putting up pickles, sauces, relishes, salad and meat dressings, and preparing nut butters of all kinds are only a few of the activities that the visitor may see at almost any time.

Along one side of the factory you may see a long line of steam jacketed kettles and caldrons standing on a concrete platform, each kettle being so equipped that it may be mechanically tilted with the greatest ease by means of a lever. These huge kettles are of varying sizes and are employed in cooking almost every kind of food product manufactured in the plant. At one time you may find practically all the large kettles devoted to cooking ketchup, while at another time they may be filled with beans. The factory is probably never more savory than when some of the kettles are devoted to making confections composed mainly of maple sugar or maple sirup.

A word to the wise. Please remember that in this hurried trip through the wholesale house with just a peep through the door of the special factory where canning and preserving and pickling are the main lines of activity you have followed only one single line of observation. That is, you have seen only what the wholesaler does to the foods which he sells to the retail grocer and the work required to make them more acceptable to the consumer from the standpoint of attractiveness, of convenience, of cleanliness, and of wholesomeness.



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