Buyers and suppliers find many advantages at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market.
Originally printed in the September 2023 issue of Produce Business.
It’s been 12 years since the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market (PWPM) opened the doors at its new facility on 6700 Essington Ave. The market boasts a long, rich history of produce trading in Philadelphia, from Dock Street in the late 1800s to the Galloway market of the late 1950s and culminating with North America’s most advanced, fully enclosed, fully refrigerated produce facility.
For decades, the market’s vendors have allowed their customers to grow and, at times, even operate their businesses within its confines, says Tracie Levin, controller at M. Levin and Company.
“The merchants here have given their customers this opportunity by ‘sharing’ their market with them,” she says. “Customers can shop the market, make use of the fully enclosed areas to stage purchased items, and ship product directly from the market out to other customers.”
The word ‘opportunity’ is tied into ‘hope,’ explains R.J. Durante, co-owner of Nardella. “It’s the idea that something out there can be grabbed, and we can move toward it,” he says.
“In our market, specifically, I see the ability for vendors and customers who are looking to make a name for themselves to come here and get the best product and price available from pretty much anywhere around the globe.”
OPPORTUNITY IN EXPERTISE
Merchants in Philadelphia offer customers expertise in targeted areas, as well as traditional wholesale services. For example, M. Levin and Company Inc., while being a full-line distributor, also provides ripening services on-site.
“We offer our customers unique programs fitting their individual business needs, and we pride ourselves on our ability to work one-on-one with our banana partners to help them build out their ideal banana programs,” says Levin. “We ripen over 30,000 cases of bananas weekly and distribute these bananas up and down the Eastern Seaboard to customers both small and large in size.”
The longevity and multigenerational aspects of most of the market merchants offer a depth of knowledge. As Procacci Brothers Sales Corporation prepares for its 75th anniversary this year, Rick Feighery, vice president of sales, points to this milestone as something to celebrate with employees.
“We continue to grow to meet our customers’ produce and floral needs,” he says. “Like many of the vendors in the terminal market, we are a family business with multigenerational members working together to meet the challenges of our industry.”
PWPM experts work in tandem with local wholesalers and distributors. Baldor has been buying off the Philly market for decades. “Baldor and Philadelphia have been partners since Baldor first opened,” says Glenn Messinger, vice president of Baldor Specialty Foods Philadelphia. “To this day, we still pull a lot from the Philly market. We recently had the opportunity to build a Philly operation to better service our customers here.”
John Collotti, director of operations and purchasing at Collotti and Sons, advises his salespeople to be proactive with customers. “They’re constantly talking to customers and sending out communications,” he says.
Feighery agrees on the importance of reaching out with opportunity buys, programs and good sourcing. “It’s between us and the customer and also between us and the vendors,” he says. “Our vendors have the confidence that we always do our best to move product for them in the market.”
Harnessing this expertise is crucial for suppliers. “It’s important for a grower to select a wholesale distributor that understands what it takes to build a successful partnership,” says John Vena, president of John Vena Inc. (JVI).
“The stakes are higher, with season-long programs for imported products, especially those by sea. A seasonal commitment, once programmed, is difficult to modify if markets deteriorate or improve. When things go wrong, which they are apt to do, there can be a lot to lose,” Vena emphasizes. “It’s crucial that you have strong relationships, proactive communication, and clarity around expectations.”
Todd Penza, salesman at Pinto Brothers, illustrates the importance of strong partnerships with vendors and growers. “They understand our business, and we can capitalize on those relationships to benefit our suppliers and our customers,” he says. “We work with them when the market is tight and when it’s not as tight, we pass those opportunities on to our customers.”
OPPORTUNITY IN PRODUCT
The biggest opportunity at PWPM, Penza believes, is variety and freshness. “We have product arrive every day and we’re open 24 hours a day,” he says. “All the merchants work together to make sure we all cover our customers’ needs.”
The variety of product offerings at PWPM is unmatched anywhere else, says Daniel Vena, director of sales at JVI. “Our market has a comprehensive selection, with vendors representing local growers, major California labels, fruits, ethnic and tropical items, specialty — everything,” he says. “Shrewd buyers take advantage of the many choices they have here. Whether their goal is the best looking, the best tasting, or the cheapest produce, they are sure to find what they need here.”
The greatest opportunity for Isaias Medina of Medina’s Produce in Bellmawr, NJ, (an independent store that has grown over the past five years and recently moved into a larger space) is being able to choose what he specifically needs.
“I can get the exact quality I want to buy,” he says. “I shop five days a week, so I always have exactly what my customers need.”
Buyers are encouraged to physically shop the market, if possible. “The versatility of shopping store-to-store gives customers a broad range of options, so they can select the freshest quality available in the tri-state area,” says Rory Liberta, vice president of Wick & Brother. “Shopping the market in-person opens customers up to more deals. And they can get more ideas, since they see all the new items coming in.”
With produce being weather-related and market-driven, Rick Milavsky, president of B.R.S. Produce, says it makes sense for buyers to shop around. “Overall, they get a better product for the money when they see what we have,” he says.
PWPM merchants offer seamless programs, as well as inspiration for customers. “There’s a tendency to commodify our products, but growing regions have a real impact on the quality and character of a product,” says Emily Kohlhas, JVI director of marketing. “We encourage customers to take note of these nuances and get as excited as we do when a notable variety starts out of its premier growing region. There is real opportunity here to build engagement and energy around produce.”
OPPORTUNITY IN INTERNATIONAL SOURCING
Via Philly wholesalers, customers can glean the best quality produce globally without the hassle of importing themselves. “We chase the product through the seasons to get the best quality at the best price at any given time,” says Feighery. “In November or December, grapes are out of Peru; in February, it’s Chile; in July, it’s California. We have the resources to deliver premium quality all year, and our customers rely on our services.”
JVI has an entire imports division dedicated to enhancing key fruit categories by extending seasons and improving quality in the shoulder and counter-seasons. “We are now focused on building strong counter-season import programs for two key fruits — pomegranates and fresh figs,” says John Vena. “When California finishes its season, we shift into high gear to bring in fruit from countries and growing regions heading into their peak to optimize quality.”
Nardella imports Chinese garlic, grapes and apples from Chile and Argentina, and tropicals from Central America, as well as numerous other products. “Turmeric from Fiji is the newest import for us,” says Durante.
M. Levin, importing bananas for 117 years, was also one of the first in the Philadelphia area to import tropicals. “We carry a wide and varied inventory of tropical and ethnic produce year-round,” says Levin. “Our customers have come to rely on us as a one-stop shop for all their tropicals, from ackee to yampi and everything in between.”
Messinger explains Baldor has channels set up for importing from Spain, Israel and many other countries. “When we see trends developing, we have the means and resources to find and bring those products in,” he says. “Our focus on authenticity leads to import necessity. We can give our customers the real experience. If you have an Italian restaurant, why not get radicchio actually from Italy.”
OPPORTUNITY WITH LOCAL
Closer to home, PWPM serves as a hub for local produce. “PWPM is a great place to see everything local farmers have to offer and get a wide selection of product from local growers,” says Kurt Poehler, owner of Spring House Produce, which operates eight farmers markets locations in New Jersey. “It’s all consolidated here, and it’s easy to see and buy.”
Feighery explains Procacci explores growing opportunities in all local regions. “Whether New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New York, Florida or Canada, we consolidate product in the market for redistribution,” he says. “We pass along all value opportunities to our customers. We are fortunate to be geographically positioned to receive within one day from harvest from many regions and quickly redeliver.”
Milavsky, of B.R.S. Produce, points out the benefit of a one-stop local supply, given current transportation costs. “If a customer wants a wide variety of local product to sell, they can get it all here instead of hopping around to many different local farms,” he says.
Local at PWPM also aids buyers in comparing product quality. “There’s a great chance here to choose the best quality from the right farmer,” says Pinto Brothers’ Penza. “Customers can see many farmers’ products in one place and have the chance to judge quality, since quality can change from day to day.”
OPPORTUNITY FOR BUYING SMART
The dynamic at PWPM provides advantages for savvy buyers to find deals. “Smart buying is finding the best deal for your business model,” says Nardella’s Durante. “We make sure customers are satisfied with the price for the product they’re getting. We help out our customers because we want them to build their customer base.”
Other smart buyers include those willing to put the labor into working a not-so-prime product, explains Durante. “This buyer might take a pallet at a huge discount, but work the product so it’s something they can put out and make money on,” he says.
“Especially in the current economic situation, you have to be a smart buyer. Consumers are willing to leave a store and go to another for a better price, so we have to help our customers keep their customers.”
A smart buyer is one who realizes the value the produce market has to offer them, says Levin. “The buyer can shop the market, form relationships with the merchants and make informed purchasing decisions based on quality, price and selection,” she says. “Buyers who purchase from the market have all the best product right at their fingertips. They can touch, smell and even taste the product here.”
Opportunity buys present a chance for flexible retailers to pass along valuable savings to customers. “You can’t prepare for abundant supply, like an accident, it just happens,” says Feighery. “Some retailers have the ability to adjust retail prices quickly to take advantage of these buys. You have to be ready to pivot and get it out there. Some do this easily; for others, it’s a challenge.”
At the Redner’s Lewes, DE store, the produce department specifically leaves open floor space between fixed displays so the store can take advantage of last-minute buys or special promotions.
“We have a planogram,” says Mark Marcinkowski, produce manager, “but we’re also flexible to be able to merchandise opportunity buys. For example, we just got a load of black grapes today that I didn’t expect, and we can highlight them on the floor.”
Buying smart revolves around communication, says Baldor’s Messinger. “When we know we can get a large load of Driscoll berries, we talk to our customers and let them know,” he says. “They then work that into a special or menu. On the other hand, if we know spinach is going to be tight, we communicate to customers so they can plan differently for the next week.
OPPORTUNITY IN FACILITIES
The attributes of PWPM’s facility provide significant advantages for its merchants, customers and shippers. “Customers benefit from the convenience and ease of working in this market,” says B.R.S. Produce’s Milavsky. “It’s easy to navigate, load and unload. It saves them a lot of time. Because we are in a cold building, everything holds up better. We get very little spoilage unless something comes in on the poor side.”
The PWPM cold chain is never broken, declares Mark Smith, PWPM chief executive and general manager. “Trucks can back their refrigerated cargo right into our refrigerated units,” he says. “Our showrooms are kept at temperatures that keep produce fresh and at peak. The spaciousness of our facility and its thoughtful design make for effortless loading and unloading.”
With extreme temperatures, whether hot or cold, PWPM gets added traffic, explains Procacci’s Feighery. “Buyers bypass Jessup and New York because of the comfortable shopping experience and product quality,” he says. “When we get those temperature extremes, we see a change of the license plates in the parking lot. They’re coming here because our fully enclosed refrigerated market allows product to simply hold up better.”
Filindo Colace, vice president operations at Ryeco, notes the importance of Philly’s ability to protect product from field all the way to the buyer. “That’s not the case with other markets,” he says. “More and more buyers recognize, during extreme temperature times, that they get two to three more days’ shelf life buying product from Philly because we keep it better protected.”
PWPM also gives customers opportunity to use its space to build business. “By allowing customers to work and grow their businesses from within our market walls, we’ve allowed many of our small- to mid-sized customers who don’t have their own warehouses to be competitive with larger operations,” says Levin.
Milavsky explains how shippers also benefit from PWPM’s easy, cold-protected receiving. “We stage received product on the back dock, which is under refrigeration, so a truck can get on its way,” he says. “Everybody is trying to get trucks in and out as quick as possible. This is more important than ever with the trucking crunch.”
OPPORTUNITY FOR MORE
Philly wholesalers continue to expand services to benefit customers. “Like all successful wholesalers, we intentionally keep our operation nimble so we can readily adapt when we sense a shift,” says Daniel Vena. “Today, it’s come to involve more sophisticated services, such as ripening, repacking, logistics services, marketing services and delivery. Those things have become core parts of our business, and now the question is: what’s next? Whatever it is, we’ll be ready — we have to be.”
In addition to its PWPM location, Ryeco operates an off-site facility for repack and is preparing to break ground by the end of 2023 on a new 24,000 square-foot warehouse next to it.
“Our off-site facility provides the opportunity for us to increase our services and items,” says Colace. “The new refrigerated building, which should be complete by fall 2024, will hold an additional 88 loads. We’ll be able to do cross-docking and pier work. We also have a fleet of 26 trucks delivering on a daily basis, from Rhode Island to Virginia Beach and as far west as Pittsburgh.”
Pinto Bros. provides warehousing and logistics services and has expanded delivery capabilities via sister company A. Penza Inc. “Through that company, we operate a fleet of refrigerated trucks for delivery within the tri-state area,” says Penza. “We also offer back-hauling, forward distribution and full distribution. We’re now expanding to do deliveries for smaller customer needs.”
TMK Produce also continues to expand delivery. “Twenty-five years ago, we leased our first truck, and we have literally added a truck every year,” says Tom Kovacevich, president. “Rising tolls, insurance, fuel, interest rates and wages, combined with lingering supply chain issues, make it an easy decision for our customers to prefer delivery over pick up.”
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PHILADELPHIA IS AN INTERNATIONAL PRODUCE HUB
Philadelphia’s location and port prove advantageous for both wholesale market merchants and other local distributors. Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market (PWPM) is perfectly situated near the port of Philadelphia (Philaport), as well as rail lines, highways and airports, explains Mark Smith, PWPM chief executive and general manager.
“Our ideal location is a pivotal factor in our ability to receive produce in an efficient, safe, and economical manner to better serve our customers’ needs.”
Philadelphia is the international produce hub, asserts Tom Kovacevich, president of TMK Produce. “As direct importers for over 40 years, we understand how to navigate the market volatility and logistics involved with moving a large crop in both easy and difficult times,” he says. “Our customers rely on us to steer them into items we know will work in their stores.”
The deepening of the main channel along the Delaware River has benefited the ports of Philadelphia, explains Rick Feighery, vice president of sales at Procacci Brothers Sales Corporation.
“Approximately 80% of South American fruit destined for the U.S. is coming into the port of Philly,” he says. “Improvements made in past years have really helped drive this business. The ease of logistics and our geography make us a great location for import and redistribution to the major markets throughout the U.S. and East Coast.”
The ports of Philadelphia are the largest volume in the nation for grapes, according to Kovacevich. “We have a team of inspectors scouring fresh arrivals on the docks for the best lots of grapes,” he says.
Knowing the customer and the customer’s customer is how we have built the business. By sticking our heads in the boxes, we get our customers excited, since they have the best product around. Grapes are a great differentiator at retail.”