NPR piece on inexpensive produce
NPR had a feature this morning investigating how it was that Chinatowns (focus on NYC, mention of SF and LA) offer produce so much cheaper than the mainstream outlets. The conclusion: shoppers there buy and use produce daily, so get it only when ripe and ready to eat. They also insist on fresh and not chilled down. The produce distributors who furnish fruit and vegetables to the larger-volume urban/suburban food outlets do not want it ripe and ready to eat because it would be over the hill before they could sell it; hence, ripe is cheaper. Very interesting piece. Not that I have found all Chinatown produce (San Francisco and Oakland, for me) to be of pristine quality, but a bit of shopping finds some fine goods at surprising prices. My friends who shop in Latino stores in SF's Mission district also often report great produce buys. Here is link to the NPR piece:
The NPR player isn't giving me back the show, only a commercial for a book that has nothing to do with the segnment.
Other reasons from what you've stated is that these small markets can take last minute items. One year the California cherry crop was late and the Washington/Oregon cherry crop was early. C.J. Olson couldn't sell all their cherries because of the cherry glut and a lot went to the markets in Chinatown.
I've noticed in my local Mexican markets they buy stuff from people's backyards.
The NPR website says "There's a prevalent belief that groceries are typically more expensive in lower-income neighborhoods"
Well, yes and no. If like Chinese and Mexican cuisine, it is based on fruit and veggies, there will be inexpensive produce and groceries. I'm loathe to shop for somethings at the main markets anymore because of the prices at some of these places. Not really produce, but I can buy fresh shredded cheese for $3 lb at the Mexican Market up the street. If I'm lucky Safeway has 8 oz of Kraft or whatever on sale for $2.50.
However, crime enters into it. A neighborhood that is perceived to have high crime won't have the bargain groceries because stores won't open in those areas. So sure, Chinatown will have cheap groceries because of high traffic and a reputation of being relatively safe.
i work in a restaurant and know what wholesale produce prices are, so supermarket prices for produce make me insane. 89 cents for one lemon? $2 for one cucumber? that's madness. i shop chinatown nearly every week (my local shaw's doesn't even carry watercress) and a wholesale produce market every friday. i save bundles.
most americans don't want to make the time to shop more than once a week,or make more than one stop, and i think are intimidated by ethnic markets.
Another reason produce is good in Asian groceries is that the customers simply will not buy bad food, period. In all the Chinese grocers I shop, the produce is always presented with all bad, bruised leaves etc. stripped off - you'll see staff trimming these off as they stack shelves. Or the customers will pull off bad parts before the vegetable is weighed. In San Francisco's Chinatown, the sidewalk can be swimming in discarded bits and pieces on market days. If all customers demanded similar quality, I'm sure the shops would have to comply.
I shop in Mexican food markets on the Central Calif coast and find meats and veggies and bulk dry goods foods mostly cheaper than chain markets. Dairy runs the same. Sometimes the produce is not so fresh, but I just pass it by. Other times, especially with chiles, the variety is stunning. What I love is the custom butcher counter, and the high level of customer service there.
Besides the shelf life that chains want, their buyers purchase in huge, insane quanities, truck loads at once. One would think this is less expensive due to volume and scale but it really leaves very little flexiblity and flux in prices and choice. It's essentially a closed supply network.
Ethnic markets work in a different network, old school produce wholesalers who consolidate from small and ethnic farmers or purchase smaller quanities from packing houses. These types are more willing to deal because they really want to move product, as opposed to see it literally wilt in front of them. Really different psych between moving 4 flats vs. 4 trailers. The other thing is both the old school wholesaler and the mom and pop produce seller are in the biz to "make a living" vs. "make a killing". It's a cliche but it's a way of life and very unromantic in its reality.