By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York restaurants and grocers scrambled on Thursday to make alternative plans for supplies of fresh food ahead of a possible strike at the city's largest wholesale produce market.
Some 1,300 members of Teamsters Local 202 were poised to walk off their jobs on loading platforms and storage facilities at the Hunts Point Produce Market in the South Bronx when their contract expires at midnight, a union spokesman said.
The market has contingency plans to stay open in case of a walkout, a spokesman said. The union said it was unlikely the market could remain open.
Negotiations were at a standstill, the union said. At issue are wage increases and healthcare costs for the produce handlers, it said.
"We've extended an offer to them, and we are waiting for their response," Robert Leonard, spokesman for the market, said.
Hunts Point, which claims to be the world's largest wholesale produce market, supplies about 60 percent of the produce in the New York metropolitan area, Leonard said.
Its customers primarily are small food markets and green grocers, along with wholesalers and purveyors that sell produce to restaurants, he said.
The market's employers are 150 businesses that bargain as a group, the union said.
Chefs and restaurateurs who shop directly at Hunts Point would be hit if a strike shuts down the market, said Dan Soloway, a food industry veteran and an owner of Jake's Handcrafted restaurant in Brooklyn.
"Everything is there," he said. "So you have a lot of folks going in and out of there buying direct."
In the event of a strike, customers would have to turn to food wholesalers or large distributors for supplies, Soloway said. "If everybody's caught off guard or not preparing themselves, you could have some issues," he said.
Baldor Foods, a Bronx-based distributor whose fleet of more than 200 trucks supply produce to the city's top hotels and restaurants, would go to wholesale markets in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Maryland, Michael Muzyk, its president, said.
"I go to those markets on a daily basis so it would just be shifting my buy," Muzyk said.
The Teamsters last went on strike at Hunts Point in 1986.
Finding alternatives could affect price and quality, said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, which represents restaurants, bars and hotels.
"But chefs are resourceful, and they'll make it work," he said.
(Editing by Frank McGurty and Leslie Adler)