How “Sam the Banana Man” made $30 million selling bruised bananas.
Back in 1895, an eighteen-year-old Russian immigrant by the name of Sam Zemurray found himself down at the docks in New Orleans where crews were unloading transport ships filled with copious amounts of bananas.
The crews unloading the tens of thousands of bananas in great big heaping bunches belonged to United Fruit, the largest most powerful fruit company in the world at the time.
Not unlike most Americans in the late 1800s, this was likely the first time Sam had laid eyes on the strange yellow looking fruit that resembled something akin to a phallus.
At the time, the fruit was considered wildly exotic. So much so, that when it was introduced to the masses at the World Fair in 1876, bananas were treated like a delicacy, eaten with a fork and knife out of a piece of tin foil.
Sam saw an opportunity.
As Sam watched on, he noticed some of the bananas were being piled into a sort of “discard pile” off to the side of the dock. To the naked eye, the bananas looked delicious and certainly edible, but when scrutinized up close one could find a small black spot or two.
Since United Fruit was responsible for slinging bananas all over the United States at the time, they would throw out any banana that had even the tiniest of blemishes.
Bananas, not unlike people, have a way of influencing one another. One ripe banana can cause an entire boxcar of bananas to ripen early.
Like cutting off an infected limb, United Fruit was willing to throw away perfectly good bananas to avoid their haul from ripening and eventually going bad before they could get them to their wholesalers.
Money trees are the perfect place for shade.
One day, Sam walked up to a higher-up working for United Fruit and asked him if he could buy the entire discard pile for a couple hundred dollars.
The higher up said yes, and as they so often say, the rest was history.
For the next three years, Sam Zemurray would buy United Fruit’s ripe bananas and sell them himself, by hand, out of a rented boxcar.
By the age of twenty-one, Sam was worth $100,000 (that’s roughly $3 million today).
Four decades later, he would ironically go on to become president of United Fruit and one of the companies largest shareholders. At the height of his banana empire, “Sam the Banana Man” had accumulated a fortune of $30 million.
Dough can be made from the discard pile.
Sam hasn’t been the only person to build an empire from scrapes.
In another edition of Stranger Than Fiction, we explore Kingsford Charcoal, which was created from the scrap wood in Henry Ford’s sawmill.
Another more relevant example is a company called Misfit Market who sells the ugly discarded fruit that doesn’t quite meet the grocery store's standards but is still fresh and good to eat.
Like Sam the Banana Man, Kingsford Charcoal and Misfit Market… it’s worthwhile to remember that with the right amount of hustle, scraps can be turned to gold.
By Cole Schafer.
P.S. If you want the full story, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The fish that ate the whale by Rich Cohen.