Fruit Bowl’s doors opened on Dec. 13, 1975, and with very few exceptions they have remained open every day since defying hurricanes, floods, fires and pandemics to feed the community.
For several years after opening the tiny grocery store, which at first carried only fresh fruits and vegetables flown in from New York three times a week, Fruit Bowl owner Marty Goldberg and his brother knew they needed to expand. But the stores on either side of the one small bay they occupied at Wheatley Center on St. Thomas weren’t budging, until, once again good fortune graced the operation.
In 1980, the men’s clothing store to the west of Fruit Bowl’s original bay left the mall. That space allowed Fruit Bowl to double its footprint. With the additional bay the store began its evolution into a standard – though still small – grocery store, carrying more dry goods, flours, cereals and canned foods.
In 1999, another coincidence graced the operation. Goldberg’s son David was champing at the bit to come back to St. Thomas after graduating college and working in the restaurant business for a few years.
“I loved being around food,” David said. “But I was tired of being in the restaurant business.”
“Also, I always wanted to be back on St. Thomas,” he said. “There’s something special about growing up here, knowing everybody, watching everybody grow up, too.”
And, he said, “I loved the store – the array of fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Around the same time, his uncle David was thinking about leaving the island. David’s wife, Jackie, had completed her nurse practitioner training and was looking to further her career stateside. The couple also wanted to be closer to their parents – one set lived in Florida and the other in North Carolina.
It was perfect. The elder David Goldberg spent several months training his nephew.
“He did a good job,” said the younger David Goldberg. “It was fun, too.”
After his uncle left, David recalled sitting in the office looking down at the front doors and wondering, “What brings people in here?”
Even when he was young and his father was still flying in fresh produce he observed, “Four cases of plantains and people acted like they were the last plantains on earth. Why?”
Back then, son David Goldberg was in his 20s, full of energy and seeking adventure. Having come from the states, comparatively speaking, “There was nothing to do here.”
In an effort to stay out of trouble and avoid boredom he spent much of his time studying the food business and reading produce magazines.
The store was already on the cutting edge, having been the first to bring in stateside milk and fresh items such as raspberries, blueberries and other fresh produce that remained fresh because they were flown in.
“It was neat to have the best quality for the best price,” he said. “But I knew people wanted something more.” And so did he. “Being a foodie – I am always hungry and wanting more.”
Again, Fruit Bowl was ahead of the curve. Goldberg saw a couple of things that put him in tune with what was happening. Organic food, vegan alternatives and one-stop shopping were among the things he wanted – both for the community and himself.
“The Fruit Bowl was kind of like my own pantry,” he said.
But, not unlike his father, he was constrained by lack of space.
And then, good fortune showed its face again.
In 2008, McDonald’s, which was located in the last couple of bays on the western side of the shopping mall, decided to move across the street – where it remains – so that it could operate a drive-thru window.
“We were considering taking McDonald’s space,” Goldberg said, “when Bata-Bata the shoe store in the next bay to the east [which eventually morphed into Payless Shoes] grabbed it,” leaving their space available. Thus, the most recent Fruit Bowl renovations began and were completed without ever closing the store for even one day. “The contractors worked day and night.”
And that is a history that has repeated itself for the last 45 years. Hurricane Hugo left the store untouched. Six years later, when Hurricane Marilyn left the Grand Union across the street in Lockhart Gardens Shopping Center a pile of rubble, Fruit Bowl was again untouched. With curfews in place, they opened almost immediately and fed the community.
After the dual strikes of Irma and Maria two weeks apart in 2017, the store opened two days after each one.
James Clark, who had just had a hip replacement in the states, was back in the store seven days after Maria.
“I did my rehab on the floor at Fruit Bowl,” he said.
Again, the operation was hampered by curfews. Clark told the employees, who were trying to get to work by 7:30 a.m. before the curfew lifted, “Put on your Fruit Bowl shirts and be polite.” It worked, and once again the little store became a place of community and nourishment.
At a time when hundreds, if not thousands of residents were being evacuated, roads were blocked and rumors were flying, people met each other in the aisles and embraced with relief – knowing their neighbors had survived.
In March, the store once again escaped disaster when a fire, that blazed and then smoldered for more than 12 hours, destroyed all four businesses in the center east of Doctor’s Choice Pharmacy, Fruit Bowl’s next-door neighbor. Everything to the west was spared thanks to a firewall between the drug store and bridal shop where the fire started.
“We didn’t even have any smoke damage,” Marty Goldberg said. The store was open the next morning.
Simultaneously, COVID-19 was making its appearance in the community and around the world. The virus has left and continues to leave devastation in its path – unevenly infecting grocery store personnel and other essential workers.
Thank God, David Goldberg and Clark both reported, not one employee has contracted the virus to this point.
Their relief in that is palpable. The Goldbergs and Clark speak with one voice about their appreciation for and pride in their employees. The three current managers couldn’t wait to report in independent interviews that a current employee, Abraham Warner, is the grandson of former long-time employee Joyclen Holder. The three had stories to tell about the former and current employees. It was hard to miss the love and nostalgia in their voices.
Having a one-stop-shop necessitates keeping the shelves stocked, son David remarked.
“It’s hard to monitor one of everything in a small space.” Pam Audain, who has been with the store for three years, does that. “I never knew what great was until she came,” he said.
And Audain said she loves and is proud of what she does.
“I stock the shelves, so I know where everything is when a customer is looking for something.”
And it is true, she is the “go-to” person.
Entering Fruit Bowl after major events, such as hurricanes, pandemics and the recent fire, and finding shelves stocked with fresh food and other necessities, has long been and continues to be a cause for celebration – even joy.
But there is another beneficent event that also brings elation and support to the community. For 38 years, Fruit Bowl has sponsored “The STAR Women’s Jogger Jam” in support of local nonprofits.
When Marty Goldberg joined the newly formed STAR (St. Thomas Area Runners) running club founded by LaVerne Ragster, an idea was conceived, which has born much fruit since.
Ragster had run the event for two years with little outside support. Marty and his brother David – both runners – remember meeting Ragster and somehow – though none of them remember exactly how, the Goldbergs agreed to sponsor the event, which has been held without fail the Sunday before the Super Bowl, for 38 years.
“It was refreshing to have two men agree to support a race that would not allow men to run in or along with partners,” Ragster said.
In the first few years, the proceeds went to the Youth Multi-Service Center – an after-school tutoring program that dissolved in the late ’80s after providing much-needed help to hundreds of students. Since then, the event has supported the Family Resource Center.
“The Goldbergs and Clark have been good corporate citizens,” Ragster said. “They have clearly supported local hiring and training and been ever watchful for ways to help the community even as they increased their business.”
“Fruit Bowl has been a great example of a business that works to adapt to the changes, environmental and social, in the community,” Ragster, former president of the University of the Virgin Islands, said. “They made changes to adapt to evolving eating habits as well as social and economic changes and numerous natural disasters.”