By DAN DeWITT
Dan Murphy's predawn job, filling his truck with produce, really begins when he pulls into the lot in Tampa where Sergio Arellana sells tomatoes.
Murphy inspects several of them under the glare of a bulb mounted on top of a utility pole. He nods to Arellana that they meet his standards -- red but still firm and nearly the size of softballs -- and counts out the cash payment on the lid of a cardboard box.
His business, Murphy's Market at 4003 Mariner Blvd. in Spring Hill, has been built on the tomatoes he buys at the Tampa produce market. They are fresher, tastier and cheaper than the standard, pallid supermarket variety, his customers say. Murphy gives them the prominence they deserve, stacking them in a shrinelike pyramid just inside the entrance of his store.
"When you go in, the first thing you see is that big tomato table," Murphy said. "Those tomatoes can cover a lot of sins."
Bertha Kunz, 65, agreed. "That's the number one reason I come here, the tomatoes," she said last week as she stood next to the display. "They're nice and solid. And they taste good on a sandwich."
The way Murphy buys them and his other produce is one of the few competitive advantages he has over chain supermarkets.
The chains have buying power, distribution networks, marketing studies and regional advertising campaigns.
He has the cluster of suppliers on a drab stretch of eastern Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa.
Murphy can touch and smell the peppers, melons and berries he buys there. He can compare the prices of a dozen vendors. If he gets a reputation for treating them fairly, they will warn him away from a shipment of grapes that came in smaller than usual, for example, or navel oranges that have gone a little dry.
Mostly because of this, Murphy's Market has not only survived for 15 years as one of the few independent grocers in Hernando County, its business has grown steadily despite the encroachment of chain supermarkets.
The Kash n' Karry at Mariner and Northcliffe boulevards is just north of Murphy's. In January, a new Publix with a delicatessen opened across the street, which even some of Murphy's customers thought might cripple his business.
Instead, Murphy said, the Publix brought more shoppers into the area who don't mind crossing Mariner for items his store is known for: Boar's Head cold cuts, Italian foods and produce.
"It's actually helped us," he said.
He is proceeding with plans to build a new store just south of his current location. When it is completed later this summer, it will cover 7,600 square feet, including a butcher counter, and cost about $900,000.
"I'm a little nervous because it's a big venture and we're mortgaging everything to the hilt," Murphy said.
"But I'm very confident that our customer base will continue to be there."
Many miles and hours put in before the morning sun rises
Like many small business owners, Murphy tells a lot of stories about how hard he worked in the early days.
His 90-hour weeks included three nocturnal trips to the market. His wife, Sue, now the girls cross-country coach at Hernando High School, stocked the orders while one of their baby daughters slept among the grapefruit and another watched from a backpack.
Murphy has since delegated one of the weekly trips to store manager Jeff Enders, but still makes two himself.
"This is the heart and soul of the business," he said.
On Tuesday, Murphy left his house south of Brooksville after midnight and, once he reached Tampa, ran several errands, including the return of a case of eggs that had been mistakenly added to his order the previous trip.
"Hey, Eddie," Murphy calls out to Eddie Outar, manager of Sanwa Corp., as Murphy slides a box of eggs from his truck onto the loading dock.
"You gave me 30 dozen loose and I ordered 15."
Murphy reaches the open lot crowded with small vendors, including Arellana, about 3:45 a.m. He will spend nearly two hours here on what is basically a scavenger hunt with serious consequences.
"It's a job, but it's a game, also," says one of his suppliers, Brad Short of Florida Produce.
Murphy can find real bargains among these vendors, who have low overheads and often buy directly from growers. If he is careless, though, he can be stung by someone trying to unload aging produce.
His shopping list of about 80 varieties of fruits and vegetables is attached to a clipboard. His regular suppliers are his guideposts in the market, which is filled with a disorienting variety of sensations: the smell of ripe melons and idling trucks, a television blaring a Spanish-language station, beeping forklifts, bright lights and corners dim enough that some workers have sought them out for naps.
Murphy parks near Arellana's territory, marked by an oak tree growing behind the lot. The purchase of 56 boxes of tomatoes doesn't take long.
"Sergio always does a good job," Murphy says. "Very fair. Very honest."
He then heads toward the floodlights shining on Daniel Gonzales' display cases. He likes the looks of his cantaloupes and buys a bin of them the size of a hot tub.
Gonzales tells him the price of cauliflower has jumped from $8 for a box of 12 to $12, which is especially bad news because Murphy has just placed an ad offering them for 99 cents apiece.
"I'll take eight cases, I guess," he says, shaking his head and crossing off the price he expected to pay on his order list and writing in the new price.
The green peppers, at $8 a box, strike him as a little high.
"I'll let you know on these in a while," he says.
He asks Gonzales to take the order to his truck, which is idling in line with several others that look just like it, and moves on.
Picking up a box of pale-green Cubanelle peppers, he notices they leave a few drops of juice. After smelling the peppers, rooting through them and smelling again, he finally locates one so rotten it turns to mush in his hand.
The grape tomatoes that look plump and ripe turn out to be too ripe. Murphy, sifting through them, finds several that have slit open.
"Too many problems," he says, and walks toward the next broker at his usual brisk pace, which, along with the shifting of produce cases, has left his gray T-shirt stained with sweat.
A neighboring broker offers green peppers for $7 a box. Murphy reaches deep into the carton and finds what he suspects: A layer of large peppers covers gnarled and undersized specimens buried beneath.
His eyes brighten, on the other hand, when he sees a display of eggplant. He doesn't have a big need for them, but their green caps indicate they were probably picked the day before.
"Pretty," he says. "I'll get four of these."
By the time he returns to his truck, several loaded pallets have appeared behind its cargo box. Remarkably, after checking the load against his list, he finds that everything he ordered is there.
The next stop is Florida Produce, a supplier that operates in a converted garage on the north side of Hillsborough. He buys several varieties of fruit as well as radishes, though he is stunned to learn their price has soared to $11 a box.
"Crews has them for $12," Short, the manager, says, referring to another supplier. Murphy shrugs and includes them in his order.
"Maybe Crews is higher and maybe he isn't," Murphy says afterwards. "If he isn't, (Short) knows I won't be getting them from him for a while."
He calls in the rest of his order to the nearby Tampa Wholesale Produce Market, which is contained in a warehouse about 100 yards long.
Its interior looks like a small downtown, with suppliers lined up along a concrete lane busy with the traffic of pedestrians and forklifts. Murphy stops by each vendor to pay for his orders and inspect them. By the time he has finished, trees and grass can be seen in the daylight through the big doors at either end of the market.
On to the deliveries, computer work and . . . the day's business
Murphy still has to drive north to Hernando County, deliver produce to some of the restaurants he supplies, and help enter into the computer the notations that now cover his order pad.
It is exhausting but necessary to compete with supermarkets. The big stores have used their buying power against him, Murphy said, with one of them recently pressuring a mutual supplier to stop offering a deal to Murphy that had drawn customers to his store for years.
Offering better, cheaper produce is Murphy's most effective way of striking back, he said. His prices were lower on several items the Times checked last week, including tomatoes, which were 79 cents a pound at his store and $1.29 for the "vine-ripened" variety at Publix.
Supermarkets have rigid delivery schedules that even their produce has to comply with, he said. Their tomatoes are usually picked green and hard, so they can withstand long-distance shipments, Murphy said. The ones Murphy bought Tuesday had been harvested a day or two earlier in Ruskin.
"I will match any market in the county on the price and the quality of my produce, and it is mainly because I hand-pick most of it myself," Murphy said.
"We have various full-time buyers who scour the country for the best deals and the best produce available," said Lee Brunson, a Publix spokesman.
But Jim Kantor, 71, who said he also shops at chain supermarkets, makes a special stop at Murphy's partly because he appreciates quality tomatoes.
"I used to grow a good tomato," he said last week.
A tomato grown in Florida will never quite match those grown in the richer soil of the Northeast or Midwest, he said. But the ones at Murphy's are a lot better than those sold in supermarkets, he said, because they are picked ripe and never refrigerated.
"With these," Kantor said, "it's off the vine and onto the table."
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