Riverwards Produce Market

Riverwards Produce Market

An urban retailer aiming to be the neighborhood store and expert source for produce and dinner.

The Philadelphia retail scene boasts all the major retailers, from big chains Ahold and Wegmans to Whole Foods to Mom’s Organic Market. New format retailers, including FreshDirect, have also made inroads into Philly. However, the most notable food retail buzz around the city isn’t the latest innovation by FreshDirect or Wegmans, but rather the comeback of the small, local neighborhood stores.

The changing way consumers shop behooves the smaller neighborhood stores, especially in urban areas, according to Vincent Finazzo, founder and owner of retailer Riverwards Produce Market, Philadelphia. “Many people don’t have time anymore to plan giant shopping trips or space to store large quantities,” he says. “They prefer to shop for only a day or two. We see people dispersing their time differently now.”

Filindo Colace, vice president of operations for Ryeco, Philadelphia, reports the small stores also follow this same, more frequent buying pattern. “Bigger chains typically shop twice a week and buy in larger quantities,” he says. “Now, we see more customers coming in four times a week and others who come in six days a week. Many of these customers have realized the more turns you have the better quality and the better gross profit. We see more and more small- and medium-sized stores following this buying pattern.”

John Hickey, managing partner at Coosemans Philadelphia, Philadelphia, says the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market (PWPM) thrives on these smaller, independent customers. “We need those customers,” he says. “They pull the three or four boxes to clean up lots and require more specialty items. It’s good to be able to offer a wider variety of products to these diverse stores.”

Catering To The Neighborhood

Riverwards Produce Market, located in the rejuvenated neighborhood of Fishtown, is a noble example of this new hip retail format focused on quality produce and serving its immediate community. Riverwards defines its mission as being committed to helping more families eat healthier food, more affordably. “This is a neighborhood market bringing natural and nutritious food to the people who live near it,” says Finazzo.

The store caters to people living within walking distance from the market. “These are both new and old neighbors,” says Finazzo. “Our neighborhood is changing very quickly. New families are moving in beside long-time residents. Young people especially are moving in because it’s the new cool area to live.”

True to demographic demand, the store focuses on local, high-quality, artisan products. “Millennials, hipsters, or whatever you want to call them, are some of the biggest supporters of healthy eating and are anti-fast food and anti-big box markets,” says Finazzo. “Riverwards stocks locally sourced produce, dairy, baked goods and meat, along with organic and fair trade products. We are proud to support a range of talented local food artisans and producers.”

The retail operation is actually an outgrowth of a wholesale operation started by Finazzo in 2015. Finazzo bought an old delivery van and started distributing produce to a few local restaurants. “The company slowly grew as I added more accounts,” he says. “In the summer of 2016, I launched a pop-up market in an old garage. It was only on Saturday and Sunday, and the neighborhood responded very well to it.”

In response to the neighborhood’s growing desire for this type of retail format, Finazzo sought out a new location and landed in the historic (circa 1873) Friends Fire Company building. The 1,200-square-foot location is overwhelmingly focused on produce, with fruits and vegetables occupying half the store space. Produce contributes about 40 percent to overall store sales. “Produce is what sets us apart,” says Finazzo. “We do produce well, and we do it right. Produce is not like grocery. The big chain grocery model doesn’t really work for produce — the quality and integrity of the product suffers. Retail needs to return to treating produce like produce.”

Curating The Product

The store merchandises a wide variety in little space — around 200 SKUs of produce items on average. But instead of looking cramped, the space is more akin to a staged photo shoot. Finazzo admits to being overly zealous when it comes to merchandising.

“I curate what I put out,” he says. “I come from an art background and the aesthetics of what I display is very important to selling it. It’s all about the details when you’re merchandising. You need to care about what you’re putting out and how you’re putting it out.”

Finazzo trends more toward a European model of retail. “It just makes more sense,” he says. “I’m very in line with a New York and the European market model. It’s an efficient use of space and merchandising.”

The store merchandises the bulk of its product on two 12-foot wire racks running down the center of the store, showcasing tropicals, citrus, apples, potatoes and onions, among other items. Beautifully appointed displays draw attention to specific items just like an art gallery. Apples and pears are uniformly positioned, standing upright. Perfectly positioned ginger and shallot displays in baskets are no afterthought.

A 7-foot, three-tier wet rack holds leafy greens, herbs and other wet vegetables. Highlighted products, such as local corn, colored peppers or cabbage, are featured in wooden crates flanking the stationary displays. Berries, salad mixes, mushrooms, microgreens and other delicate products are housed in a three-door refrigerated case. The perimeter of the store flaunts appealing gourmet dry goods, including spices, olive oil, pasta, cereal and natural butter and spreads. Another refrigerated case boasts specialty local dairy and meat products. The store also offers an 8-foot counter of bulk items, including dry beans, nuts, rice, dried chili peppers and dried fruit.

Crucial Support

Riverwards sources from a variety of suppliers, including directly with local growers, but a vast majority comes from the PWPM. Finazzo says he buys almost 100 percent of his produce from the PWPM from November through March. However, June through October it drops to 50 percent, as he sources more directly with local growers. On average, he pulls more than four pallets per day from the market.

PWPM merchants played a crucial role in helping Finazzo get his retail operation going. “They were extremely supportive when I was starting,” he says. “E.W. Kean Co. was especially helpful in not only supplying product, but aiding me with cooler space when necessary.”

Finazzo says he buys strategically. “I am at the PWPM every day, except for days when I go visit local farmers, and even then one of my employees is at the market shopping,” he says. “All the guys there are great, but my top places are North American, BRS Produce and E.W. Kean.”

He notes shopping the market every day provides him with a first-hand perspective of what’s happening in the marketplace. “We play the market to get the best deal on the best stuff,” he says.

Crucial factors for produce purchasing include traceability, quality and price. “I offer the best quality, but I’m also really competitive when it comes to produce pricing,” says Finazzo. “I want to be sure we’re less than the big stores.”

To reach customers, Riverwards utilizes Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. “Instagram has been the most successful for us,” says Finazzo. “We post something and bam, we sell out. We also promote our customers stopping in every day to figure out what they want for dinner.”

Knowledgeable store personnel also play a crucial role. “We need to be sure everyone here knows what they’re doing with respect to product,” says Finazzo. “Our customers are educated, and so every person on our floor needs to know what they’re talking about. If they don’t know we encourage them to use whatever they can to get the answer — ask a manager, use their phone, whatever. Our customers rely on us to guide them.”

Riverwards Produce Market
2200 E. Norris St.
Philadelphia, PA 19125
Tel: (215) 678-4304
Hours:Sun – Sat 8am – 8pm