How Italian immigrant grocers helped make Portland a foodie paradise

By Emily Hamilton (OPB)
May 31, 2024 1 p.m.

Produce Row is home to a tight-knit network of Italian American families who have been serving Portland farm-to-table for generations

Over a century ago, a tight-knit network of Italian American families started selling local produce in Portland’s Central Eastside. It began on a single city block and expanded from there — carts and wagons overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables often arrived before dawn to set up shop. It was “farm-to-table” before “farm-to-table” needed a special name.

Eventually, this area in the Central Eastside grew to be known as Produce Row, and many of the food traditions that helped make Portland a foodie paradise were born in those unassuming warehouses along the Willamette River. Today, generations later, many of those same families are still there, proudly carrying on the traditions of their parents and grandparents.

Map of Produce Row on Portland's Central Eastside.

Map of Produce Row on Portland's Central Eastside.

Emily Hamilton / OPB

David Rinella of Rinella Produce, whose grandfather started selling fruits and vegetables from a cart in 1914, recalls making early morning deliveries with his dad when he was just a young kid. “I remember at three in the morning, him singing outside… And the other guy is yelling. He said, ‘Frank, you have a wonderful voice. But do I have to hear ‘O Sole Mio’ at three in the morning?’”

These days, if you want to visit Produce Row, Sheridan Fruit Company still operates a thriving retail business. Sheridan, which first opened in 1916 and has been operated by the Poleo family since 1946, is one of the oldest independent grocery stores in Portland.


Anne Barwick, president of Sheridan Fruit Company, grew up at her family’s store. “I was 11 when my grandfather died, but I always heard stories from my grandmother of what he did.” For Barwick, “to be able to carry on what [her grandfather] started, to be able to have people walk in here and things are fresh, and this is where they want to be… That means the world.”

But a trip to the Central Eastside isn’t always necessary to see Produce Row in action. It’s common to see trucks from Sheridan, Rinella Produce, Pacific Coast Fresh Company, United Salad and Gatto & Sons making deliveries to beloved local restaurants. “I have customers that have been with me for 30 to 35 years and that’s family,” said Rinella, “like El Burrito Loco on 82nd.”

And Produce Row’s influence extends beyond just Portland. “We go all the way from Hillsboro to Battleground to Troutdale and all the way out to Carlton, Oregon,” said Jesse Scarth, wholesale manager at Sheridan Fruit Company.

While the produce tradition has been passed down through generations of Italian families, there have always been important friends and colleagues along the way who also care deeply about good food and the Produce Row tradition.

Byron Hanson started doing bottle count for Sheridan 30 years ago, “and then I did the cashier and the retail side, and then I was a supervisor. And now I do everything. I’m the GM now, and I run the store,” said Hanson.

“Byron, God bless that man,” said Barwick, “people joke that that’s my work husband, but he truly is. We have each other’s back all the time.”

So whether it’s picking that perfect apple at the store, or taking a bite of a delicious meal at a favorite local spot, everything that makes Portland a foodie paradise is here on Produce Row — from the history to the fresh local food, to the people who care about getting it to your plate.

“I’m lost without this place because nothing gives me more joy,” said Rinella, “us Italians, we don’t let go. We keep going strong. I feel a responsibility. I got a responsibility to 60 people. I got to keep making that payroll, you know, I got to do it.”


Tags: Culture, Superabundant, Food, Restaurants