NEW BEDFORD — As Sid Wainer and Son moves into a new era as a part of The Chefs’ Warehouse family of companies, co-founder Henry Wainer is looking back on the legacy of the SouthCoast food business that started more than 100 years ago with his grandfather.
The Chefs' Warehouse, described on its website as “a family-operated specialty food distributor that has been purveying high-quality artisan ingredients for chefs for over 30 years,” announced the purchase of Sid Wainer & Son Jan. 29. Based in Ridgefield, Connecticut, The Chefs’ Warehouse has companies including Dairyland, Allen Brothers, Ports Seafood, Michael’s Finer Meats and Seafood, Del Monte Meat Co., MT Food Service, Provvista Specialty Foods, Ozina, Bassian Farms, Fells Point Wholesale Meats and Wabash Meats.
In a recent phone interview, Wainer said he will remain president of the company and his daughter, Allie Wainer, will retain her position as vice president of sales. As with other companies that The Chefs’ Warehouse has purchased, Wainer said the company will retain the Sid Wainer & Son name.
Jansal Valley Provisions, the gourmet retail outlet at the Sid Wainer & Son headquarters, 2301 Purchase St. in New Bedford, will remain open to the public for the foreseeable future.
“I guess it’s something they need to digest and determine what to do there. I do know we have great quality and a great reputation,” Wainer said.
The Chefs' Warehouse approached Sid Wainer & Son several months ago with a deal that was palatable for both companies, Wainer said.
Wainer’s grandfather, for whom he was named, started the family food business as Wainer Brothers in New Bedford at the bottom of Union Street where the YMCA is now located. From what he’s heard from his relatives, Wainer said that area of downtown New Bedford was thriving with produce, meat, and cranberry and seafood companies.
Wainer’s father Sid joined the family food business when he returned from World War II in 1948.
Wainer remembers pitching in at the business when he was young.
“They didn’t have a lot of technology. They depended on the trains to get up to Boston to get their product. ... I spent 20 years loading product off trains that came from across the country,” Wainer recalled of his early years working for the family business. “I remember at 5 years old going up to Boston at 3 in the morning with my father and his driver.”
They also used to go to the once-thriving Providence Fruit and Produce Warehouse on Harris Avenue in Providence, another regional distribution hub for produce shipped across the country by train. “I always wanted to get people to deliver to me directly and to be able to work with the farms directly because we always worked with the local farms,” he said. “It was the Old World and the old school.”
In the late 1960s, Wainer went to Martha’s Vineyard, where he lived with chefs who worked on the island after working at places as diverse as Colorado ski towns and the Caribbean. They’d tell Wainer the ingredients they wanted, but the ingredients were hard to get in New England. At that time, produce growers catered to supermarket chains and they weren’t fulfilling the needs of the chefs who were looking for other types of produce.
“So I jumped on a plane and flew to California and found a produce company that would fly me everything these people (the chefs) ever dreamed of," Wainer said. "Then, we came up with a crop plan and devised a way of having what we wanted grown in the way of specialty foods and organics and I’d fly in what no one else was. That’s what started who we ended up being."
That specialty produce included baby vegetables, baby potatoes, unusual tree-ripened fruit, unusual berries, eggplants, tomatoes, beans of all colors and sizes, and different types of greens including mesclun, mizzuna, baby spinach, tatsoi and baby lettuces.
Much of that produce was unfamiliar to chefs in this area so Wainer went out and showed the chefs how to use it. In the days when a restaurant salad was typically iceberg lettuce, a cucumber slice and a tomato, Wainer helped usher in a new dining era with revolutionary vegetables and fruits, one restaurant and one hotel at a time.
Wainer’s next step was to teach the next generation of chefs through classes and presentations at Johnson & Wales University. “Everything is about educating the future chefs of America," Wainer said. "It’s amazing how many lectures and classes I taught back then where 20 years later people would come in and say they remembered it."
In the early 1970s, Wainer spent a lot of time in Central America and South America, where he went out into the jungles to learn about the tropical fruits and vegetables.
In the 1980s, Wainer met and married his wife, Marion, and the couple started traveling to Europe and Asia. Their travels launched the next phase of Sid Wainer & Son when they branched out into cheese and charcuterie and specialty foods.
Wainer developed strong relationships with his providers because he treated them like they were his best customers.
At one point, the mayor of Turin, Italy, had a parade to welcome Wainer and his family on one trip there.
Unlike the generation of importers who came before, Wainer said he wanted to learn from the farmers and growers he met along the way. “I wanted to go to their fields and their farms. I wanted to cook out in their backyards to see what they did with it, and then I wanted to share all that wonderful information that I learned from all these talented people who were in the dirt all day long and wanted to eat healthy and take care of their families at night.”
Wainer, who was at the grassroots of when food changed in America, said the key to that was improvements in freight shipping that allowed for the transportation of temperature-sensitive products nationally and internationally without breaking the cold chain. But it wasn’t without challenges, said Wainer, recalling times when products got held up in customs or the product wasn’t in good shape when it arrived and the company had to throw it out and start the process all over again.
“There was a lot going on. It was constant and it was exciting,” Wainer said.
Over the years, Wainer said he gave presentations to hundreds of thousands of chefs in areas that people would never dream of. “I was able to share the knowledge that I learned from the source: from the producer, from the creator, from grower. That started the whole farm-to-table movement,” Wainer said.
With the introduction of all these new products, Wainer employed chefs to sell to other chefs and that’s still the case at the company headquarters. “That differentiates us from everybody else. My people know what to do with it. They can talk the language and they respect the people they’re selling it to,” said Wainer.
While Sid Wainer & Son has built a name for itself in the produce and specialty food realm, The Chefs’ Warehouse is particularly known for its high-quality center-of-the-plate proteins such as wagyu beef.
“It would have taken me years to sell wagyu beef the way I was growing," Wainer said. "The idea was that we have a tremendous opportunity to broaden what we’re doing. We have a tremendous produce program and they have facilities all over the country. It will certainly broaden what we offer customers all over the Northeast."
As part of the deal, Wainer retained ownership of the company’s farm in Dartmouth, not far from the Westport line.
As of a couple of weeks ago, nothing had changed at Sid Wainer & Son in terms of the services and products the company offers customers, Wainer said.
“They bought a great company," Wainer said of The Chefs' Warehouse. "We’re servicing an amazing area, we have a great reputation and they have warehouses in New York, which is great for us. ...
"The reason I wanted this to work is because of the synergies of the two companies. If the synergy wasn’t there I never would have considered it. My daughter is in the company. I want her to be successful and happy. Everything I’ve ever done I did because it was logical and made sense and that’s how I built the company – by listening and doing things that made sense."