Residents of the Heights and beyond were soured by the news that Canino Produce, a community staple for 60 years, was closing last month.
Now a new vendor is sprouting in the Houston Farmers Market, and its owner and namesake hopes visitors have the same sweet experience at 2520 Airline Dr.
Junior’s Produce, set to open Saturday and operate from 6 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, will occupy the space vacated by Canino.
“I want to get all the customers back and let them know it’s not gone,” Junior Saldaña said. “It’s just the name on the front has changed. That’s it.”
Saldaña, 46, who has more than 30 years of experience in the produce industry, said he retained a little less than half of Canino’s 25 or so employees and will offer most of the same fruits and vegetables along with beans, herbs, nuts and preserves. He said his produce will come from Texas as well as California, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
Junior’s also will expand upon the offerings of Canino, with a larger organic selection, more refrigerator space for items such as berries, grapes and mushrooms, and fresh-squeezed juices. Saldaña also replaced the wooden tables that lined the aisles of the produce market with new plastic stands.
“He’ll modernize it some,” said Keith Hampton, a Houston attorney who is Junior’s co-owner and primary investor. “But it’ll still have the same quaint feeling.”
The change in produce vendors is part of a transformation of the Houston Farmers Market under MLB Capital Partners, which purchased it in 2017. In a news release, MLB Capital Partners said it plans to make the market a “destination retail experience offering more diversified products, renovated facilities and community programming.”
Junior’s Produce is the first new business in the evolving farmers market, and Saldaña is a first-time business owner. He spent the last 21 years working for nearby North Side Banana Co. and also had stints with grocery-store chains such as Fiesta, H-E-B and Kroger.
Saldaña, a second-generation American and native Houstonian, got his start in produce as a boy. He traveled to Mexico during the summers and harvested beans, corn, sugar cane and watermelon on his grandparents’ farm in Tula, a town in the eastern state of Tamaulipas.
Hampton met Saldaña about 20 years ago, when they worked together to help feed homeless Houstonians downtown.
“He’s networked over the years and helped people when they’re in trouble. He’s just a prince of a person,” Hampton said of Saldaña. “He’s as passionate about produce as any person I’ve ever met.”
Saldaña got to know Bill Canino and Lawrence Pilkinton, co-owners of Canino Produce, and said he admired their longevity and connection with the community. He hopes to follow their lead on those fronts and will give back to customers on his first day in business.
From noon-4 p.m. Saturday, Saldaña said Junior’s will grill complimentary hamburgers, hot dogs and vegetables.
“He was loved throughout the whole city,” Saldaña said of Bill Canino, whose father, Joe Canino, opened Canino Produce in 1958. “That’s what I want to do. I want people to know I love this industry. I’ve been in it since I was little. This is what I do.”