In 2009, Mike Massaro and his wife, Rose, opened Produce Depot in Dyer, a market with fresh produce, much of it organic, and a counter where you can buy fresh breads and sandwiches. “It took off pretty good,” said Mike Massaro. “We got a lot of good customer referrals.”
The couple followed up in March by expanding with a second location in St. John. It took about a year to get things up and running, a little longer than planned, after an accident that put Massaro in a wheelchair for two months. The new location at 8126 Wicker Avenue is a larger store that includes a juice and smoothie bar with a café seating area, a coffee bar and a large walk-in cooler filled with fresh herbs and vegetables that is three times the size of the original store.
There’s also a bakery where fresh breads are made. The bakery portion of the business is run by Rose using some of her family’s recipes. Giardiniera bread, sweet oat bread and focaccia are among the breads made daily along with pies and muffins. Fresh soups and salads are also made on site in the kitchen. They plan to add gluten-free offerings to their product line. “We sell a lot of our baked breads,” said Massaro. “We’ll make 50 loaves and in two hours they are all gone.”
Jean Reinsma, of St. John, visited on a recent afternoon for some salad, soup and a smoothie. Although it’s been open less than two months, word is getting around. Reinsma said she was in a nearby business where a customer was recommending the smoothies and an employee jumped in, telling Reinsma she goes there almost every day for a sandwich. It was Reinsma’s second visit within three days. “I live in St. John and it’s nice to have a place like this so close. For me, I like healthy eating and like to get a healthy smoothie and the kale salad is good. It’s nice and crunchy,” she said. She’d had a green smoothie her first time there and was planning to order one with beet on the second visit. “I heard it’s good for high blood pressure,” she said.
It was the desire to eat well that led the Massaros into the business. “We always ate healthy, not 100 percent organic, but would buy a lot of organic,” said Massaro. “All the GMOs and poisons in food are scaring everyone.”
Organic agriculture is defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”
According to the Organic Trade Association, the industry has grown tremendously in recent years, with organics accounting for about $1 billion in sales in 1990 to nearly $28.7 billion in sales in 2010. That 2010 total was 10 percent higher than the previous year, showing that the trend shows no signs of slowing.
Michelle Elizondo, of Schererville, was in the store for the first time recently. She said she often buys organic. She was impressed by the reasonable prices on the fruit and the cleanliness of the store. “I don’t like going to farm stands where it looks like the stuff has been there a while and you see gnats. Everything here looks great,” she said. “And the veggie cooler in the back is awesome.”
While not everything you’ll find at Produce Depot is organic, there’s a substantial amount of products labeled organic, which includes fruits, vegetables and meats. Also on the shelves are a full line of whole grains, nuts and dark chocolate. You’ll also find wheat grass powders for adding to smoothies, a large selection of fresh and dried herbs and nitrate-free lunchmeats. The coffee bar serves alcoholic shots in coffee, with about 20 liquors to choose from.
Among the shelves, you also find uncommon vegetables and fruits that you may not see in your local grocery store. “A lemon is a lemon, but there are so many types and sizes,” said Massaro. “We have something called red velvet apricots. I don’t think anyone else carries them. We have Okinawa yams, which are purple on the inside with a white skin. We carry fingerling potatoes.”
Now that we are well into spring and growing season, Massaro said they bring in a lot of local stuff. You’ll already find Michigan asparagus in the store. “That’s the first thing that comes in and then we’ll start with the other fruits – nectarines, peaches and apples,” he said.