All photos Laura Hayes

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Jerry Hollinger buys beans with his eyebrows. The executive chef and co-owner of The Daily Dish in Silver Spring drives to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to fight over fruit at the Leola Produce Auction. His fellow bidders range from Mennonites in bonnets looking to stock their roadside stands to a man whose face tattoos scream, “I’m not from these parts.” 

Each buyer has a unique way of placing a bid—some nod, others subtly flick a thumb. Hollinger looks into the eyes of the auctioneer and arches his eyebrows to signal that he’s ready to bid on a box of heirloom tomatoes, peaches, or corn to serve at the restaurant he co-owns with Zena Polin

“I can never do it the way Jerry does because I have had Botox,” Polin jokes. “There’s another guy who bids by tapping the auctioneer on the shoulder. You and I will be like, ‘What just happened?’ And Jerry will have won.’” The duo also operates the Dish & Dram in Kensington and runs a catering business.

Hollinger is one of the few chefs at the auction. Order buyer Aaron Hoover says half a dozen come sporadically. Michael Snyder, who has managed the auction for 17 years, thinks that’s an overestimate. “There are not a lot of restaurant guys, just Jerry really.” It doesn’t make sense for a small restaurant to come because bidders have to buy in large quantities. Most buyers are from grocery stores or other farms. 

Produce prices skyrocket by the time they make their way to grocery stores and markets closer to D.C., but for those who can find time to travel, purchasing them almost directly from Pennsylvania farmers is far more economical. Hollinger filled a Ford SUV for $398.90. But the real reason Hollinger pours his coffee before dawn to drive two hours to bid is emotional, not financial. 

Hollinger grew up 15 minutes from Leola, also in Lancaster County. He’s the youngest of seven. “I’d go with my dad as a kid to Philadelphia to buy produce,” he says. “He’d go to the orchards, so I kind of learned a bit from that.” His parents opened Hollinger’s Farm Market in 1952, which started as a roadside stand. “People still remember my parents from the grocery store, and I still have family in the area.”

Zena Polin and Jerry Hollinger

When the highway turns into a road that splits corn fields, Hollinger is home. Three young girls in a miniature wagon pulled by a miniature horse roll by on the right. To the left, a young man rides by on a special scooter with bicycle-sized wheels. Hollinger drives slowly because there are just as many horse-drawn buggies on the road as cars. Their metal wheels grind at the pavement.

There are varying degrees of conservatism amongst Mennonites. While they unite over general principles such as leading a life of service, frugality, and pacifism, groups splinter off based on hyper-specific rules, according to Hollinger. His family left the Mennonite church before he was set to be baptized around age 12.

“There’s the Black Bumper Mennonites,” Hollinger explains. (The group is formally known as Old Order Mennonites.) “They’re allowed to drive cars, but the bumpers have to be black because silver bumpers are too worldly.” The Amish, who also go to the auction, split off from the Mennonites in 1693 when Jakob Ammann, a Swiss Anabaptist leader, called for even greater separation from the modern world. They don’t drive, but they will pay to ride shotgun in a Mennonite person’s car, according to Hollinger.

Pulling up to the auction, parking spots alternate truck, buggy, truck, buggy. The area it encompasses is about the size of two football fields, open to the seasons along the sides but covered by a roof. Barefoot children dressed in hats and suspenders or simple dresses wheel carts and place crates of produce from their family farms in designated rows. 

Snyder scans the market and estimates that there are 7,000 watermelons for sale. It’s late August.

The floor is partitioned by “lot” size. Hollinger makes his bids in the area where farmers sell a minimum of four boxes and a maximum of 16 boxes. In this area, if a seller has a lot with eight or more boxes he can opt to sell it in two halves. That’s Hollinger’s sweet spot. He can come away with four to eight boxes, which is the right amount for his restaurant. 

These smaller lot auctions start after the grocery store buyers have gobbled up pallets with 30 or more boxes. That means Hollinger has time to window shop. He walks row by row, eyeing which heirloom tomatoes look and feel the best. Polin trails behind, calling out her list as she goes: “Get peaches. I want to serve them with burrata and prosciutto.”

The fruit looks plucked from a Paul Cezanne still life—there are no visible imperfections and the colors are so vibrant it looks like you’re viewing them through an iPhone’s chrome filter. Peaches are the size of grapefruits. Tomatoes weigh as much as melons.

Snyder explains why the produce looks pristine. “Years ago, when they first started, one farmer did everything: cantaloupe, watermelon, corn, tomatoes, peppers, stuff like that,” he says. The Leola Produce Market started in 1985. “Those guys got out of that. What they do now is specialize. One guy does ’lopes, one guy does watermelon.” 

Rules govern how much time can pass before farmers have to bring their harvested bounty to auction. They pick most fruits and vegetables the day before or that morning. But some bidders still try before they buy, cutting thin slices using a pocket knife. Those looking to eat more than a free sample can go to a snack bar and choose between “Meadow Tea,” fragrant with local mint, burgers, fries, and specials. A ham loaf sandwich costs $4. 

When an auctioneer crosses the threshold to the small lot section, Hollinger takes note and gets ready to start bidding. “Need a nine, need a nine, need a nine, need a nine, need a nine, SOLD for $8 to 170,” the auctioneer spits, and just like that the first cartons of tomatoes are off the market. “The auctioneers start where they think the price will end up,” Hollinger explains. “They’ll come down.” 

Each bidder has a number. Some register for them in the morning, but regulars like Hollinger have earned permanent digits. As soon as the auctioneer calls out which number has taken a lot, a Mennonite woman hand-writes the seller’s number and the buyer’s number. Then she dashes to the office, handing the paper off like a baton in a relay. There, an employee enters the data into a computer for when buyers come to settle up using cash, check, or credit.

“If I know that I want it, I’ll jump in right away,” says Hollinger. “If I’m not sure and think it’s going to go higher, I’ll wait and see how much higher. Sometimes I’ll jump in halfway though because it seems like the other guy is going to stop. When I know who I’m going up against, I duck behind somebody and try to be very subtle.”

Side deals are also part of his strategy. Hollinger will talk up buyers before the auctioneer reaches a lot he’s interested in to see if anyone is willing to split it. “They don’t frown upon it unless you are actively trying to suppress pricing,” Hollinger says. “It’s not colluding. The manager would be upset if we weren’t bidding, but it’s just a function of not needing so much.” 

It takes about two hours for the auctioneers to snake through the four rows that pique Hollinger’s interest. His haul consists of peaches, corn, pole beans, purple and white polka dot potatoes, peppers, and heirloom tomatoes. At a final table, reserved for single boxes, he buys bunches of mint, sunflowers, a small box of okra, and a hodgepodge of hot peppers. Most of these boxes go for $1 or less. 

Back in the truck, he and Polin immediately start gabbing about how they plan to use their purchases back at the restaurant. Sometimes when Hollinger buys too much, he’ll text a small network of chefs and sell to them directly. Pam “The Butcher” Ginsberg, who made her name at Wagshal’s, is one of Hollinger’s favorite buyers. 

The Daily Dish opened in 2009, but they restructured their menu a few years later when Hollinger started going to the auction, creating a stage for their prized produce. “Our dinner menu has a salmon, chicken, a daily fish, steak, and pasta but we don’t have set sides,” Polin says. “Every day is a special menu. We can change it daily or weekly depending on what we’re getting in. It’s more fun than serving a set menu.” 

For example, Hollinger serves the season’s last soft shell crabs with a succotash made from corn, pole beans, okra, and peppers. He also makes an heirloom tomato salad. Polin, who is responsible for pastries, bakes a peach and blackberry crisp. 

While Polin and Hollinger encourage servers to chat up diners about the produce, the average Daily Dish customer may not know the deep connection the restaurant has to a simpler life two states over. When Hollinger and Polin purchased the property in 2009, they needed a name for their restaurant.

“We were driving in Lancaster County and we popped up with The Daily Dish,” Polin explains. There’s the biblical phrase, “give us our daily bread,” that speaks to Hollinger’s Mennonite upbringing. “People are like, ‘It’s like the Daily Grill, it doesn’t mean anything.’ Actually it means a lot.” 

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.