The Secret Life of the City Banana


Millions of bananas arrive every week in New York City.It takes a lot to get them from the boat to the bodega.

Written by ANNIE CORREAL; Photographs by VINCENT TULLOAUG. 4, 2017

On a hot day in June, the Hermann Hesse slipped into New York Harbor and headed for the Red Hook Container Terminal in Brooklyn. The 550-foot container ship, flying the Liberian flag, had come some 3,000 miles from Ecuador. It had gone through the Panama Canal, picked up cargo in the Caribbean and weathered a few squalls.

Its arrival in Brooklyn was only the beginning for the bananas on board.

Every week, a ship like this one brings 40 container loads of bananas — or about four million — to the Red Hook terminal, a fifth of the 20 million bananas distributed around New York City each week.

When bananas arrive in New York, they begin a second journey, traveling in a large loop around the city. They may be handled by customs officials in Brooklyn, blasted with a ripening gas in New Jersey, haggled over at an enormous produce market in the Bronx and finally taken in an unmarked truck, at night, to a fruit stand near you.

“If you ever saw what it took …,” said Joe Palumbo, the owner of Top Banana, a wholesaler in the Bronx.

In most of the country, the unseen, nocturnal business of ripening and distributing bananas is performed by grocery chains like Safeway. In New York, though things may be headed in that direction, much of the work still falls to local banana purveyors. They can trace their roots back to Antonio Cuneo, an Italian immigrant who cornered the market in the late 19th century and became known as the Banana King.

Cuneo was the first New Yorker to get rich supplying the city with bananas, and perhaps the last. Today, small family-owned businesses can make as little as a dollar a box as they convey bananas along the supply chain to grocery stores, hospitals, airports, and every last bodega.

“It’s 24/6,” Mr. Palumbo said. “And there’s no money in it.”

The Hermann Hesse at the Red Hook Container Terminal in Brooklyn.

After the Hermann Hesse came to port, Michael Stamatis, president of the Red Hook Container Terminal, stood in his suit, on the waterfront, watching as a container was lifted off the ship’s deck.

Once a major banana port, New York now gets most of its bananas by truck from out-of-state ports like the one in Wilmington, Del., where Dole and Chiquita moved their operations years ago.

The Hermann Hesse, part of the Seaboard Marine fleet, is one of the city’s few banana boats. It delivers Ecuadorean bananas with not-quite-household names: Belinda, Bonita, Selvatica.

“This is a mom-and-pop terminal,” Mr. Stamatis said.

The ship is a far cry from the old banana boats, steamships and schooners that crowded New York Harbor, like the one that reached the pier in August 1897, its decks “slimy with bananas.” The fruit now comes in refrigerated containers.

Like all cargo, the containers of bananas go through a radiation detector at the terminal. Mr. Stamatis pointed out the twin columns of the “radiation portal.” (Bananas, which contain potassium, are slightly radioactive and have been known to set it off, he said.)

A few containers from each shipment are taken to a warehouse at the terminal, where they are opened and inspected by United States Customs and Border Protection.

Mr. Stamatis, as it turns out, worked for decades importing bananas for Bonita, an Ecuadorean producer, and came to Red Hook when Bonita fell on hard times and the shipping line shut down. He brought bananas with him, starting up the new shipping line and even importing some of his own — Belindas.

“I’m a banana guy, right?”

His first job, at 19, was chalk-marking boxes of ripe bananas as they came from the ships on conveyor belts, at Port Newark. A single yellow banana could turn the whole box.

It was a rowdier time, he said. “I can tell you, we had spiders, snakes, crickets, cockroaches,” he said. “We’d open the hatches and just hear the crickets chirping.”

“And in the old days, there were stowaways,” he added, “so when you opened up the hatches, people would come running out. On many occasions, we’d be chasing people down the block.”

Bananas are shipped green and ripened at facilities like Exp Group in New Jersey.

The bananas’ next stop was a ripening warehouse in North Bergen, N.J. It belonged to Exp Group, the company that imports most of the bananas arriving in Red Hook.

As the trucks arrived, Emil Serafino and Anthony Serafino, father and son, came out from an office onto the warehouse floor. They wore short-sleeved green shirts with the company name on the breast pocket.

The Serafinos started out as just another produce wholesaler in Brooklyn, but over a decade ago they got into import and export, moved to New Jersey and became Exp Group. Five years ago, they started shipping their own bananas to New York from farms near Guayaquil, Ecuador, and built this facility.

They have become one of the biggest importers of bananas from Ecuador, though it is still a comparatively modest operation. If Dole and Chiquita and Del Monte are Big Banana, this is Little Banana.

“They would love to eliminate people like us,” the elder Mr. Serafino said.

It was 83 degrees outside, and the bananas had to be unloaded quickly so the fruit wouldn’t get hot. A worker on a miniature forklift zipped the boxes across the warehouse, while two other workers stacked them onto pallets.

You could see the bananas through the gaps in the cardboard boxes. They were not taxi yellow, but greener than an outer-borough cab and as hard as hammers.

On the tree, bananas take weeks to ripen. Commercial bananas, however, are chopped down and shipped while they are still green, so the delicate fruit won’t be ruined on the voyage.

Now they were ready for ripening. The Serafinos walked down a broad passageway lined with tall, rolling doors painted bright yellow: the ripening rooms.

The name suggested a warm place suffused with orange light, to mimic the South American sun. But when the younger Mr. Serafino opened one of the doors, the room inside was dark and cool; less like a tanning booth, more like a garage.


Newly arrived bananas are stacked in ripening rooms.

The digital display outside a ripening room; a thermometer inside a box of bananas to monitor the ripening process; and an ethylene generator, which helps speed up and control the ripening.

Banana boxes were stacked from floor to ceiling, and a medical-looking device stuck out from one, trailing a cord. “A pulp thermometer,” he said.

The ripening rooms are filled with ethylene, a synthetic version of the hormone that naturally sets off ripening.

The thermometer tracks the banana’s internal temperature, or its pulp level, which tells the ripeners how to adjust the ethylene, humidity and temperature in the room.

This art of ripening took time to perfect. And there were some accidents along the way. Ethylene is combustible, and in 1936, the Pittsburgh Banana Company building exploded, causing it to rain bananas in the city’s Strip District.

Today ripening can be slowed or sped up by tapping a touch-screen. “If sales are up, we increase the temperature,” Mr. Serafino said. “If sales are down, we decrease the temperature.” The range was three degrees up or down, he said.

“You don’t want to stress the bananas.”

The ripening rooms are kept between 56 and 66 degrees. Too cool, and the bananas get chilled, turning gray and bark-like, he said. Too warm, and though they might look fine, they would be mushy inside.

The process takes about four days. When it is done, the Serafinos deliver ripe bananas to restaurant suppliers, wholesalers and grocery stores. To make sure everyone is on the same page, they refer to a ripeness chart, where shades of ripeness are numbered from one to seven — one being flag-of-Brazil green and seven a buttery yellow, with brown spots. No one buys sevens. “If I’ve got a bunch of sevens,” the elder Mr. Serafino said, “I’m not sleeping.”

It was perhaps to sell ripe bananas that United Fruit Company had Miss Chiquita sing in the 1940s and 1950s: “When bananas are flecked with brown and have a golden hue, bananas taste the best and are the best for you.”

The jingle seems to have influenced a generation. “I like to eat it just yellow,” said Emil Serafino, 61.

But times have changed. His son Anthony Serafino, 25, said, “I like them yellow with a green stem.”

That, he said, was the Millennial Banana.

Workmen loading bananas at La Ceiba, Honduras. Credit Black Star

From the time bananas began to be imported to the East Coast in the late 19th century, they were in high demand. Along with pineapples, they were particularly popular when local fruit was out of season. They came off ships in giant bunches, still on the stalk, and thousands sold within hours.

They were so plentiful that in some cities, peels became a hazard. Yes, seriously. People fell and were injured. At least one man actually died from slipping on a banana peel. A headline in The New York Times in 1896 declared a “War on the Banana Skin.”

It wasn’t just peels. Parts of Manhattan were covered in a thick layer of sludge: orange rinds, potato peels, hay, manure. But calls for action often focused on the danger of banana peels.

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This went on for years.

In 1889, a Times reporter described “a tall, heavyset man” who had “started briskly across the street … only to plant his foot on a mound of banana skins and black muck, which slid like soft soap from under him.”

That period, of course, is the origin of the gag, said Dan Koeppel, the author of the popular history “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World.” (Mr. Koeppel is now employed at The Wirecutter, a product-review site owned by The New York Times Company.)

New York’s first street-sweeping operation helped clean up the streets, but the notion of slipping on a banana peel made its way into American culture, Mr. Koeppel said, thanks to Yiddish theater, Vaudeville and, eventually, silent films.

In 1910, according to The Times, one woman, Anna H. Sturla, was arrested after claiming she had slipped on a banana peel — for the 17th time in four years. Credit The New York Times

Banana peels also captured the imagination of local con artists. In 1910, according to The Times, one woman, Anna H. Sturla, was arrested after claiming she had slipped on a banana peel — for the 17th time in four years.

For a while, a variety of bananas were available in New York City. There were dwarf bananas, and red ones from Cuba. As the United Fruit Company (which later became Chiquita) monopolized the industry and expanded throughout Latin America, one variety took over: the Gros Michel.

United Fruit was a ruthless corporate empire, but it was also vulnerable. Wherever the company went, it was pursued by Panama Disease, which causes banana trees to rot from the inside, and which it unwittingly spread in the soil that stuck to its tools. By 1960, the pathogen had all but destroyed the banana crop. “The Gros Michel was rendered commercially extinct,” said Mr. Koeppel, the banana historian.

The breed chosen by the industry to replace it, the Cavendish, was resistant to that particular strain of Panama Disease, but it wasn’t as sturdy as the Gros Michel. It transformed the industry into the one we know today, Mr. Koeppel said, requiring boxes, refrigeration and advanced ripening technology.

Today, almost all export bananas in the world are Cavendish. Chosen more for its disease resistance, it is not necessarily the most flavorful variety, according to Mr. Koeppel. He called it the McDonald’s of bananas. In India, where there are hundreds of banana breeds, the Cavendish is known as the hotel banana.

Once the bananas had ripened in New Jersey, they were loaded into trucks again. Some went to Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx, where they were unloaded at Top Banana.

The Hunts Point market is a vast distribution center where trucks line up at warehouses a quarter-mile long.

In Area D, Top Banana’s owner, Joe Palumbo, sat at a large desk on a recent afternoon. Around him were dozens of framed photos of his five children, some Mets paraphernalia and little pyramids of fresh bananas. Top Banana has its own ripening rooms, and the too-sweet smell of ripe bananas was inescapable.

Lot C at Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx.

Some of Mr. Palumbo’s bananas come from the ripening warehouse in New Jersey; others arrive green from the big importers that ship to Wilmington. “Chances are if you bought a Dole or a Chiquita,” he said, “it came out of here.”

Mr. Palumbo sells bananas “to everyone,” he said, “from your Costco to your mom-and-pop store.”

Among his buyers are a group he calls the Turks. They are, in fact, mostly Turkish. They serve a very specific market.

On a recent night, one of them, Dogan Ferahoglu, stood between towers of boxes, leaning against a hand truck while his brother did the bargaining. “My brother and partner walks around, and whoever gives him the best price,” he said, shrugging.

Their customers: Manhattan fruit stand vendors.

Bananas were their No. 1 selling product, Mr. Ferahoglu said, followed by blueberries and strawberries. A box cost the deliverymen about $16 at the market. There are about 100 bananas in a box.

According to Mr. Palumbo, there were once many banana families around New York. “It’s down to a handful,” he said.

Long Island Banana Corporation shut down not long ago, after the owner was implicated in the death of a prostitute, who overdosed during what a news report called “a drug-fueled sex romp.” (He also embezzled his employee’s pensions.)

Most businesses closed for less dramatic reasons. The younger generation didn’t want to carry on the family tradition, Mr. Palumbo said. It was a tough business: nocturnal, low profit, full of headaches. “What goes on,” he said, shaking his head. “Rainstorms, snowstorms, the Jersey Turnpike.”

Personally, he had diversified. In addition to huge quantities of the Cavendish, Top Banana dealt in green plantains, pineapples, cantaloupes, watermelons, limes, tomatoes, aloe vera and even exotic root vegetables like yautia.

“It’s not enough, bananas.”

At the end of the day, few bananas remain at a fruit stand at 96th Street.

And the future is uncertain for everyone in the banana trade.

The Cavendish is susceptible to a new strain of Panama Disease known as Tropical Race 4, or TR4. The Cavendish is essentially a clone, and while genetically identical bananas that look and act alike are good for business, Mr. Koeppel said, “when one gets sick, they all get sick.

“There is no question that the Cavendish banana is going to be severely stricken by Panama Disease,” Mr. Koeppel said. “There are reputable plant pathologists saying this, not just banana-loving journalists.”

He added: “Nobody knows when.”

Some in the industry play down the threat; others are looking for a replacement banana. In Asia, they’re trying to breed a resistant Cavendish, Mr. Koeppel said. “But you can’t just breed in resistance. You might be breeding out other stuff, like flavor.”

In the meantime, the hustle continues. In the wee hours of the morning, the Ferahoglus leave Hunts Point and make their rounds in a box truck, unloading several boxes of bananas on the corner of 96th Street and Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It is one of the busiest fruit stands in the city, open day and night, four umbrellas long.

“This is the best spot in the city for street selling,” said Oktay Suleyman, one of the dayside vendors, on a recent weekday.

Bananas were typically four for $1, and on a good day they sold as many as 15 boxes, or roughly 1,500 bananas, Mr. Suleyman said. Monday, after people had run through their weekend supply, was their busiest day.

Mr. Suleyman had half a lemon handy, which he used to wet his fingers to more easily open plastic bags. “In the rush hour, I have to be fast,” he said, as commuters began to spill out from a nearby subway stop.

He sold bananas to an Irish carpenter, a retiree from Puerto Rico, a business school student.

Sandeep Dusa, the student, picked out some bananas and handed Mr. Suleyman a dollar. Mr. Suleyman swiped his hand on the lemon, opened a bag and dropped them in.

“I have to take them out of the bag,” Mr. Dusa said. “If you have a ripe banana, you’re going to upset the other bananas.

“They sync up,” he said. “Smart fruit.”

By nightfall, a pile of empty boxes lay on the curb, and on the table just a few lonely bananas remained, flecked with brown and with a golden hue. The supply would be replenished, in just a few hours.

A fruit stand at 96th Street on the Upper West Side.

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