MILTON – When a Russian immigrant named Isador Albinder bought a pushcart and began selling apples on the streets of Brooklyn in 1932, he didn’t expect that his family would one day preside over a behemoth in the very same business.
But that is exactly what happened.
As three subsequent generations of Albinders tell it, “Izzy” sold so many apples that the pushcart became unwieldy and he was forced to rent a horse-drawn wagon. And with that $1.50-a-day investment, he began casting around for better quality apples than he could buy at the markets in the city to ensure his business had an edge.
The quest took him to the Hudson Valley, to buy apples directly from the farmers who grew them, and soon he was acting as their broker. By 1963, his son, Harold, was on board. Hudson River Fruit Distributors was born to pack and sell apples for their neighbors and, eventually, to grow 400 acres of their own.
Today, Hudson River Fruit is a multi-million dollar vertically integrated business – growing, storing, packing, selling and shipping apples – that supplies a range of customized services to other farmers, many of them descendants of the growers with whom “Izzy” worked 50-plus years ago.
The company is now the region’s biggest marketer of New York apples, shipping 20-plus varieties of apples to supermarket chains (including ShopRite, Price Chopper and Stop & Shop) from New Hampshire to Florida to Wisconsin, to the tune of 2 million boxes a year.
“Our business is all about relationships,’’ said Alisha Albinder Camac, who joined her father, Daniel, and grandfather, Harold, in the business in 2013 as operations manager. “We don’t have contracts, we have handshakes.”
To prove this point of pride, the family displays a 1936 receipt from Hurds Family Farm in the lobby of its offices above the 60,000-square-foot packing floor on Old Indian Road. The Modena orchard, a seventh-generation family business, is still a customer.
The harvest at its peak
The services that Hudson River Fruit supplies to growers, to get apples from the tree to the store, are on full display now, as the apple harvest reaches its peak and the packing house operates seven days a week.
Pickups, flatbeds and box trucks of every size crowd the loading dock, forklifts beep incessantly and cavernous controlled-atmosphere storage rooms steadily fill with apples that are arriving from orchards or departing for supermarkets. The smell of apples infuses the air as the packing lines produce box after box of ready-to-sell fruit.
“Once the harvest starts in mid-August, it’s four months of mayhem – the volume of orders is highest in the fall - but it’s those eight weeks or so of picking when it’s really insane,’’ Albinder Camac said. “The rest of the time, we’re just busy.”
The amount of coordination among sellers and buyers is staggering given the pick-and-chose nature of Hudson River Fruit’s services. Some farmers deliver apples by the bin, variety after variety, for the Albinders to store, pack, sell and ship. Others store them, and yet others store and pack them, until Hudson River Fruit calls for them to fill orders.
“This is what makes them such an important cog in the machinery of the Hudson Valley apple industry,’’ said Dan Donahue, the tree fruit expert at Cornell Cooperative Extension. “They allow smaller producers to remain in business, remain competitive, without making capital investments in the millions of dollars.”
The requisite investments go beyond the packing lines and controlled-atmosphere storage rooms and refrigerated trucks to such things as federal and international certifications for good agricultural practices and food safety and traceability programs for domestic and foreign sales.
In addition, few growers produce enough of any one apple to supply a supermarket chain week in and week out for 10 months but, collectively, Hudson River Fruit’s customers can – a concept that Harold Albinder pioneered.
“It’s not a cooperative, but a coming together for the greater good,’’ Albinder Camac said.
The Albinders’ flexibility also meshes with the mixed marketing model that prevails among Hudson Valley growers. Some are wholesale, and some are a combination of wholesale and retail, augmenting their business through farmers markets, farm stands and pick-your-owns.
The packing house
Hudson River Fruit packs to order, to shorten the time from orchard to supermarket as much as possible. One variety is packed at a time, but it is generally done in several different permutations simultaneously – five-pound totes, three- or two-pound bags, trays of loose apples – to fill multiple orders. Then other varieties are packed in the same way to complete shipments.
Honeycrisp, Gala, Fuji and the enduring classics, Red Delicious and McIntosh, are the Albinders’ best sellers. SnapDragon and RubyFrost, new New York-exclusive varieties developed at Cornell University, are increasing in popularity; Macoun, Jonagold and Cameo are declining.
“Some early and late varieties survive for that very reason, but many heirloom and older apples are becoming a staple of farmers markets and farm stands,’’ Albinder Camac said. “Supermarkets and consumers always want what’s new.”
Invariably totes and bags – and the decorative 18-box equivalent floor display bins - sport the New York Apple Association’s “Apple Country” logo to identify them as “local” or “New York” at a glance.
“You want to brand them to tap into the eat-local movement and build support for local agriculture,’’ Albinder Camac said. “Without branding, they could be from anywhere.”
The packing lines
Hudson River Fruit overhauled its packing lines in 2015 to include the newest technology and to double production, to 140 bins, or 2,500 boxes, a day.
Apples are dumped mechanically from bins into water and washed before they are moved to conveyor belts where an optical sorter takes 40 pictures a second of every one of them to grade for color, size and other standards.
The sorter ejects apples that fall short and they are sold for pressing into cider.
And the sorter even goes so far as to dictate which apples get PLU (Price Look-Up code) stickers en route to one of 18 packing stations. Apples that will be packed in trays and sold individually get them, and apples that will be packed in precoded bags do not.
The apples move to the stations in a stately enough fashion that packers and box-makers can keep pace. Two people can pack 16 bags at one time of apples of uniform size and color that add up to the required weight. The bag is still weighed again before it is boxed.
The process has the effect of providing supermarkets with apples of the same variety that look identical to each other – which is exactly how they want them.
“Everything we do is part of putting our best foot forward,’’ Albinder Camac said. “We have a reputation in the industry for quality, and we want to meet the expectations that go with that.”