Supply Chain: A Visit to Specialty Foods in Newmarket Square
Welcome to Supply Chain, where we go behind the plate to get a feel for the day-to-day of Boston’s most relied-upon restaurant purveyors.
It’s a breezy, cloudless afternoon in Newmarket Square, Boston’s own Bermuda Triangle of loading docks right off I-93. The area is mostly home to food supply warehouses, making it the 60 most important acres in the state for our city’s restaurant industry. Steve “Nookie” Postal, chef of the upcoming Steinbones and Commonwealth, walks into Specialty Foods—where the floor is littered with half-opened boxes and thick plastic bags of just-picked vegetables—like a wide-eyed kid in a candy store.
Co-owner Sean Mooney strides out of the mid-afternoon bustle to greet him. He’s tall and soft-spoken, with ruddy cheeks and a solid handshake. He steps gingerly over stacks of flattened cardboard to make his way into the different nooks and crannies of the crowded room, as he ticks off some new arrivals on one hand; fiddleheads, Muscat grapes, and cherries (“early for the season, but not bad”).
“The two of us founded this company 25 years ago, delivering out of the back of our car,” he says, gesturing to Rich D’Antuono, who stands on a wooden pallet peering at a checklist over his glasses. “We were importing fish from Australia, New Zealand and the Fijian islands and packing it into the backseat…which made it very rough. Especially in the winter when you turned the heat on…”
D’Antuono grins and chimes in, “We’ve had some very funny moments…”
“…Especially when the John Dory and the Dover sole juices really maxed out,” Mooney finishes. D’Antuono shakes his head like he can still smell it.
The third and final owner, Jim Wilker, has the day off, and according to Mooney, is usually the “mouth” of the operation. “The brains!” Nookie adds. “Ohhh, I don’t know about that…” someone says, and they all crack up.
Five years after opening, Mooney explains, they became a full service produce company. They still dabble in select cheeses and meats from time to time—he holds up a package of fresh quail from Cavendish Game Birds of Vermont (the recent victims of a nightmarish fire that killed 20,000 of its quail breeding stock in March), and points to miniature cartons of delicately flecked quail eggs the size of quarters. They supply all of Joanne Chang’s Flour outposts with dairy from Western Mass., and carry harissa, chili pastes and a whole mess of specialty spices (Danish Viking Smoked sea salt, anyone?) for those with more exotic tastes.
“When we started out, we were just specialty everything, but then we realized that we needed to find one niche to fill,” he explains. “We went into produce because it was the most interesting and diversified field.”
The main consensus among their chef devotees is that, simply put, the trio behind Specialty “gets it.” They all have background in the restaurant industry, whether behind the line or as a part of the front of house staff, and their collective eye for quality is a result of years of hands-on experience.
“As a chef, you can go down to the market on your own at five in the morning, sure,” says Nookie, eyeing a bag of ramps while D’Antuono’s voice echoes in the background (“4 French breakfast, 4 basil…”) as he continues the morning’s inventory, “but sometimes you want to hire people like these guys who have an even better eye for things. They can get you the best possible stuff.”
Mooney nods in agreement. “It’s not often that you have the three owners in the cooler picking through every order,” he says, looking around the room. “We know exactly what’s going to Rialto, to Craigie, to Rendezvous. Absolutely everyone gets the same level of service and product.”
Nookie mentions that one of the best things about working with Specialty are the drivers—consistently the friendliest and most knowledgeable about their deliveries, and always a bright spot in an otherwise hectic day.
“Freddie, how long you been here?” Mooney shouts, over the loud clangs of trucks and scrapes of dollies, to a driver folding waxy cardboard boxes.
Freddie’s face splits into a shy, proud smile. “15 years! Forever.”
“See? Everyone’s been here forever,” Mooney says. “Our drivers really are ambassadors for the company. They care about the product they’re delivering, so it trickles all the way down. I think that’s key.”
With three owners, 17 employees, one bookkeeper, ten trucks, and 90 restaurants accounts, Mooney admits the company has their hands full. They currently work with around 30 growers and farms around the country, and it’s hard to imagine where any more produce would fit into the warehouse.
“We still want to run this place like we’re a small company. It gets to be more and more of a challenge to maintain that quality, because we’re not really interested in growing. We’re content,” he explains. “It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s great, because that means the restaurant scene in Boston is doing very well.”