Monday, December 7, 2009

'Buy local' pioneers open doors to public

'Buy local' pioneers open doors to public

Story Discussion Font Size: Default font size Larger font size By MIKE IVEY
The Capital Times
Posted: Sunday, November 15, 2009 8:30 am
(3) Comments

Owner Robert Golden and son Devin display some of the fresh vegetables available at R.E. Golden Produce on Madison’s south side.

MIKE DeVRIES - The Capital Times

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Related: R.E. Golden Produce website

Stepping off the sun-splashed loading dock into the refrigerated warehouse at R.E. Golden Produce is like walking into a giant vegetable bin.

Waxed cardboard cases of broccoli, yellow peppers and purple eggplant cover the floor of the south side business. The produce is so freshly boxed, in fact, the crushed ice used to keep things cool on the truck ride hasn’t even melted.

And now after 30 years of serving small restaurants and groceries, R.E. Golden Produce is opening its doors to the public.

The family-owned company with roots in the original Mifflin Street Co-op is offering fresh and frozen fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, nuts, spices and specialty cheeses at 1337 Gilson St. It has a new website -- -- that allows customers to order items for pickup during regular warehouse hours from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

“Our stuff is fresher than Woodman’s, and it’s cheaper,” boasts Devin Golden, 25, showcasing crisp red peppers selling for 90 cents a pound.

Devin is the son of company founder Robert Golden, 62, who got interested in food issues while serving as a VISTA volunteer in Boston in the 1960s.

“That’s where I decided I wanted to develop a benevolent community based around food,” says Golden, a soft-spoken native of Walworth County.

The Madison that greeted Golden in 1968 was alive with opposition to the Vietnam War. Along with war protests came a commitment to natural foods and a system of food delivery that fell outside the corporate-owned grocery world.

Golden jumped right into the fray. In 1971, he became the first employee at ICC, the Inter-Community Co-op later known as North Farms Co-op, which served as the wholesaler for the growing number of co-ops and natural food groceries in the region.

But those heady early days soon gave way to the realities of money. The co-op movement faced the same financial pressures that affect any new business. Frustrated with the political infighting, Golden broke out on his own in 1978, founding R.E. Golden Produce based on delivering conventional produce to all takers rather than organics to the true believers.

“There was just too much BS in the co-ops and not enough realism,” he says. “I wasn’t so much about justifying the process. I just enjoyed the work.”

So over the past three decades, Golden quietly focused on serving customers and helping local restaurants secure difficult-to-find items, from fresh quail to exotic Middle Eastern spices.

“Bobby has great stuff, plus he’s just such a nice guy to work with,” says Rosemary Schiavo, an owner of the Cafe Continental restaurant at 108 King St.

The Schiavo family relationship with R.E. Golden Produce goes back to the days of Antonio’s Italian restaurant on South Park Street. When Cafe Continental opened in 1998, the Schiavos knew where to turn for their wholesale food needs.

“Honestly, there are times when they’d be over here twice a day dropping off different things, rather than twice a week like the big delivery houses,” says Schiavo.

In the early days, the R.E. Golden Produce business survived mainly on delivering local cheese and Nancy’s Yogurt. But starting in 1985 when the business moved into its current location on Gilson Street, the company has been slowly expanding with sales approaching $5 million annually.

R.E. Golden has since increased its transportation fleet from one truck to several. The business now counts 15 employees and an 80-page list of products from beans and rice to oil and vinegar. Even the outside of the warehouse has a new paint job.

Ironically, Golden has lasted long enough to watch the food industry come full circle. Organic produce, once available only in co-ops or directly from farmers, is now available at Wal-Mart. Corporate agriculture critics like Michael Pollan have excited the mainstream media with calls for a “slow food” movement.

Golden says he’s cheered by the discussion but maintains his interest has always been food more than politics. He yearns for a return to the “lost art of peddling” where vendors would sell specific items as they became available.

“Trade is really the basis of civilization, moving goods from one place to another for the benefit of both parties,” he says. “When you’re sitting with a case of quality oranges wondering who is going to buy them, then you see the real economy at work.”

If Robert Golden is reluctant to get too excited over the slow food movement, his wife of nearly 30 years isn’t. Barbara Golden notes that 90 percent of the family business comes from locally owned restaurants.

“We’ve always been about ‘buy local,’ since all our customers are local,” laughs Golden, who serves as human resources director of the company, which she notes offers health benefits and paid sick leave to employees.

Barbara Golden has long been active in community issues. She has fought to level the achievement gap between students of color and whites in Madison public schools. Her name appears frequently in letters to the editor.

Robert Golden has largely avoided the political spotlight but does take credit for hiring convicted Sterling Hall bomber Karl Armstrong out of prison. Armstrong still rents space at 1337 Gilson for his Loose Juice food vending cart.

The Goldens took an interest in Armstrong’s case during his trial, and when he was granted parole in 1980 on the condition of a job, they made an offer through their attorney.

“As it turned out, we were the only ones who did make an offer,” says Robert Golden. “I had never met Karl until he started working for us, but over the years we have become friends.”

These days a growing business is taking up most of the family’s time. Work begins before dawn with drives to the farm markets in Chicago. There are also regular trips to local suppliers for craft cheese, morel mushrooms or other specialty items.

“That’s the most satisfying part of the job, when you can help somebody find something that’s really hard to get,” says Devin Golden.

Joe Heggestad, the former owner of the Regent Food Market, says he’ll always remember the senior Golden for agreeing to serve a tiny grocery and supplying fresh produce in small amounts.

“Bobby is a real good, below-the-radar kind of guy,” says Heggestad. “We used to joke with each other that there was always room at the bottom.”

Heggestad also recalls that Golden never did any advertising and didn’t have any real points to offer other than personal service.

“You could call at 11 a.m. and he’d do his best to get it over the next day,” he says.

Golden agrees his produce business has never been about beating competitors, like giant L&L Foods of Verona.

“All we can offer is quality because your next sale is based on that quality,” he says. “If a customer never has to throw anything way, they will always remember you for that.”

With nearly 40 years in the business, Golden also isn’t sure how much longer he will keep at it. But he is encouraged by seeing Americans take a larger interest in where their food comes from.

For example, why would a local grocery in Madison sell tomatoes grown indoors in Canada? And why does the richest country in the world have such high rates of cancer, heart disease and childhood obesity?

“(American) consumption is not separate from its militarism,” says Golden. “The aircraft carrier is part of the same system that has produced the McDonald’s and the Burger Kings. But I think things are changing.”

Selling fresh produce from a small warehouse in Madison, Golden says, is just another step in the journey.

Posted in Business on Sunday, November 15, 2009 8:30 am Updated: 10:21 am. Robert Golden, Devin Golden, R.e. Golden Produce, Mifflin Street Co-op, Rosemary Schiavo, Cafe Continental, Gilson Street, Barbara Golden, Karl Armstrong, Joe Heggestad, Regent Food Market,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Often we forget the little guy, the SMB, in our discussions of the comings and goings of the Internet marketing industry. Sure there are times like this when a report surfaces talking about their issues and concerns but, for the most part, we like to talk about big brands and how they do the Internet marketing thing well or not so well.

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