PWPM: A Tale of Evolution


You can’t expect to meet the challenges of today with yesterday’s tools and expect to be in business tomorrow‭.  ‬‮—‬‭ ‬Anonymous

Evolving channels of distribution and consolidation of buyers and sellers across the industry make this particularly poignant advice for those of us in the produce terminal market business‭. ‬Careful planning is essential and it almost always requires more than throwing dollars at the ever-evolving challenges we face‭. ‬For instance‭, ‬hiring new sales personnel‭, ‬in and of itself‭, ‬isn’t enough‭. ‬It doesn’t do to just plan on adding to the sales team in order to meet revenue goals if we don’t include the rooms‭, ‬coolers‭, ‬docks and desks we will need to‭ ‬“service what we sell‭.‬”‭

Growing up in a small family wholesale business operated from a single unit on the old Philadelphia Market‭, ‬we developed some tricks to make more space‭. ‬We became adept at hand-stacking baskets of local tomatoes‭, ‬peppers‭, ‬peaches‭, ‬apples‭, ‬etc‭. ‬in a pyramid‭ ‬configuration as high up the wall of our store as we could reach without squashing or dropping any fruit‭. ‬Now‭, ‬I know‭, ‬that was‭ ‬a good tactic‭, ‬but not a strategy‭.‬

As our product line evolved toward specialty and greenhouse produce‭, ‬I began to visit facilities in Israel and The Netherlands‭. ‬Our overseas trading partners were playing on a global field and had invested in their facilities as a strategy to achieve their‭ ‬goals‭. ‬Their farms‭, ‬warehouses and distribution centers were planned to optimize productivity and facilitate growth‭. ‬I began to‭ ‬see how the puzzle of strategic planning and improved facilities came together‭.

As a charter tenant in the newly constructed Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market on Essington Avenue‭, ‬we had the opportunity to make our strategic plans the driver in the facility-design process‭. ‬As a result‭, ‬our new units have led to profound growth in our company in many significant ways‭, ‬not just in additional revenue‭.‬

The old Philadelphia Regional Produce Market on Galloway Street was as modern a terminal market as you could find in the Northeast‭, ‬but that Market had been built in the 1950s with technology from the 1930s‭. ‬We had a‭ ‬“single stream”‭ ‬solution to trash and recyclable materials‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬the street in front of our loading dock‭. ‬Our‭ ‬“cold chain”‭ ‬was missing a few links‭, ‬and driving a forklift across the platform would loosen your teeth‭. ‬Just backing a truck into the dock‭ ‬to load or unload became a debate‭, ‬or worse‭, ‬over who had the right to use that spot‭. ‬A lot of energy was wasted just getting through the day‭.‬

The most compelling aspect of moving into a modern facility was the change in mindset that spread throughout the company.

From the first month in our new building‭, ‬our staff and customers quickly adapted to new procedures and practices‭. ‬We had plenty‭ ‬of dock doors and a well-planned trash and recycle system‭. ‬Much of the physical stress associated with getting product unloaded‭, ‬serving customers and cleaning up at the end of the day vanished‭.‬

In moving our operation from Galloway Street to the new site on Essington Avenue‭, ‬the‭ ‬“packing station”‭ ‬we had in a corner became a full-store unit dedicated to packing to our customer specifications‭. ‬We went from ripening avocados in one of our trucks to using high-pressure rooms capable of pre-conditioning many kinds of fruit‭. ‬On Galloway Street we had to choose to either unload product or to load customers’‭ ‬trucks‭; ‬now we are able to do both simultaneously around the clock‭. ‬We never invited prospective customers to Galloway Street‭. ‬Now‭, ‬we are willing to send a car or bus to bring visitors‭, ‬and The Market runs tours every month for schools‭, ‬trade visitors and groups of all kinds‭.‬

The most compelling aspect of moving into a modern facility was the change in mindset that spread throughout our company‭. ‬It fostered willingness across all departments to consider new projects and methods that we had never tried‭. ‬We learned to say yes to‭ ‬customers when they asked us to pack or ripen products we hadn’t before because we had the right facilities to try it‭. ‬Some of those initiatives led to small failures‭, ‬a few to near disasters‭, ‬but all led to learning and innovation that we would use on future projects‭.‬

Our new facility has opened up advancement opportunities for staff and created new positions filled by talented‭, ‬skilled people‭ ‬that might not have been comfortable in our old site‭. ‬And as industry buyers become more concerned about the sources of their products‭, ‬we have the ability to remain relevant and meet their concerns‭. ‬We can demonstrate that our facilities and our team are‭ ‬in sync with food safety protocols‭, ‬cold chain preservation‭, ‬productivity and efficiency‭. ‬And yes‭, ‬revenue is growing‭. ‬But more‭ ‬importantly‭, ‬we are a better company than ever before‭, ‬and we see more opportunity than ever before‭.

John Vena is the owner of John Vena Inc., a family owned and operated produce business located in the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. Founded in 1919, the company is a fourth generation family business bearing the name of John Vena’s grandfather.