Everyday, at around 9 a.m., Armando Fernandez sets up two large tables and a few milk crates in front of them. On the tables he places the fruits and vegetables he has the most of. On the milk crates, he props smaller boxes so his customers do not struggle when making their purchases, because as Fernandez emphasizes, his customers are the priority.
Street fruit and vegetable vendors are seen throughout the entire city, but in the Hamilton Heights area they are particularly special to the residents. Between three and five years ago, the number of street vendors in the area has steadily increased. On some of the blocks in the area, more than one street vendor can be seen, with what residents agree, are the best prices on fruits and vegetables.
“I have always preferred to buy my fruits and vegetables from the street vendors because the difference in quality is obvious,” said Anna Padron, 27, who was born and raised and continues to reside in the Hamilton Heights area.
Ramon Montilla, 48, sells fruits and vegetables, such as oranges, lemons, limes, apples, green plantains, corn, and broccoli among other foods. He is a licensed street vendor and his stand is located between 137th and 138th street on Broadway Ave.
“Since I get the merchandise at a great price, I can sell it for cheap and still make a profit,” said Montilla. “That’s why I don’t mind letting a customer get four limes for $1 instead of three limes for $1, which is how I usually sell them,” he added.
Further uptown, between 145th street and 146th street also on Broadway, Armando Fernandez, 53, also a licensed street vendor, agrees with Montilla that “depending on who your distributor is and the price you place on goods, you can, not only make a great profit, but also create a big clientele.”
Both vendors acknowledge that their clients are what keep their businesses going, therefore they are willing to accommodate to what their clients want in order to keep them and also attract more clients.
Montilla explained that, like any other business, being flexible with prices is key. You want to be savvier than your competition yet smart enough to still bring home a profit, because if you do not, you will lose money until you’re taken out of business.
“For a while, I would get my fruits and vegetables from the bodega downstairs or the supermarket,” said Padron, like many other residents who weren’t familiar with the street vendors.
Yet once she did make a purchase with a street vendor, she continued because she was much more satisfied with the products than when she purchased them in a bodega or supermarket.
“I love pineapples and the ones in the bodega are never ripe enough to eat when I buy them so I always have to wait about five days after I buy them to eat them,” said Padron. “When I buy them in the supermarket, they’re ridiculously expensive. But the ones from the street vendor are just right, I can eat them either the same day or the next day after I buy them,” she added.
Fernandez explained that he strives to only sell goods that are ready to eat or will be very soon. He notices that this is particularly important with certain goods that he sells, such as the avocados and oranges, among other goods.
“This is a predominantly Dominican neighborhood, and I know a lot of Dominicans are accustomed to eat avocados with their dinner. So, I only put out avocados that are ready to eat the same day or no later than the next day because it’s what my clients expect,” said Fernandez.
But street vendor customers expect something else associated with quality, that the goods displayed are essentially, good. “I don’t know why but I have found rotten fruits and vegetables on display in the bodegas and supermarkets in this area,” said Ivanna Garcia, 21, a resident of the Hamilton Heights area who is a regular customer to the street vendors in the area. “Honestly, that hasn’t happened with any of the street vendors I buy from,” Garcia added.
Fernandez knows from his customers, and his own past experiences, that seeing inedible goods gives the customer a sense that the vendor is careless, unsanitary and irresponsible. “When I see old or rotted merchandise, it shows me that the vendor didn’t take the time to inspect it before putting it on display, which means they treat their merchandise carelessly,” said Fernandez.
Jose Romero, the owner of a bodega in the neighborhood, defends his fellow bodega owners. “I understand sometimes my workers may not see a rotten fruit, but we take very good care of our goods. We wash them with the hose multiple times per day and even clean out the herbs we sell for cooking,” said Romero.
He continued to explain that if street vendors do indeed give neighborhood residents better quality of goods, it is because the responsibilities the two have, the street vendor and a bodega, are very different. “A street vendors’ only responsibility is to have the fruit on display ready to be purchased,” explained Romero. “They don’t have to worry about keeping a large space clean, managing multiple workers, or even multiple merchants,” he added.
Perhaps this ease in running the business is the reason why street vendors have been so successful in the Hamilton heights area. Both neighborhood residents, Padron and Garcia, agreed that once they found a street vendor that they liked, they haven’t made fruit or vegetable purchases in a bodega or local supermarket “in a while, its been a very long time,” said Padron.