Messages In Shorthand One-Liners

Jon Vena, Wholesale Market

Originally printed in the April 2018 issue of Produce Business.

My father had a couple of mottos that he believed allowed him some ability to manage the demand for an item‭.

His favorite‭, ‬“Move it and Sell it‭,‬”‭ ‬was a challenge requiring us to physically move a product from wherever it was on display to another location on the floor‭. ‬Not‭ ‬difficult when everything is on pallets‭, ‬but when I started in the business most of our product was stacked on the floor‭. ‬The intention was to put the item in a more visible place‭; ‬secretly hoping customers would assume the item just arrived‭. ‬He employed‭ ‬another method to create the illusion of scarcity‭. ‬The cue‭ ‬“Put a SOLD sign on it‭.‬”‭ ‬I saw this done any number of times‭, ‬usually with Jersey tomatoes packed in baskets‭. ‬Buyers thinking they had overlooked our tomatoes would ask him to cut the other orders and give some to them‭. ‬

Recently‭, ‬I noticed the acronym FOMO used in social media‭: ‬Fear Of Missing Out‭. ‬It was as true then as it is today‭.‬

Every industry develops its own lexicon‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬adages‭, ‬proverbs‭, ‬euphemisms‭, ‬one-liners and catch phrases intended to streamline conversation‭, ‬convey meaning and highlight important bits of information‭. ‬The language is colorful‭, ‬if not always grammatically correct‭. ‬On the loading platforms of the old Philadelphia Regional Produce Market‭, ‬I heard phrase after phrase designed to convey‭, ‬or in some cases to obscure‭, ‬nuances of meaning‭. ‬Other examples of these maxims were intended to remind one of the basic tenets of survival in a supply-and-demand world‭.‬

The most common of these expressions deals with the everyday conversations that take place between buyers and sellers‭.

  • An inquiry about an item’s flavor‭, ‬“How does it eat‭?‬”‭ ‬would be answered with‭ ‬“like sugar‭,‬”‭ ‬whether the salesman had tasted it or not‭.
  • A buyer noticing a carton of product was leaking might make a remark about possible decay‭, ‬to which a salesman might be overheard responding‭, ‬“Yeah there’s a little decay‭, ‬but what’s good in there is good‭.‬”
  • If a buyer asks‭, ‬“Do they all look like this sample‭?‬”‭ ‬the salesman can only reply‭, ‬“We don’t make samples‭. ‬That’s original‭.‬”‭ ‬
  • A savvy buyer I knew used this retort if a salesman over-described the expected shelf life of his product‭: ‬“You know‭, ‬you might fool me‭, ‬but you can’t fool these flies‭.

Much good advice was boiled down into a few words of encouragement or coaching for young salesmen‭. ‬Dealing with perishable product and growers that needed to ship prompted my father to often say‭, ‬“Catch hell for selling‭.‬”‭ ‬It was his way of telling you that as a‭ ‬“salesman”‭ ‬you were in‭ ‬“it”‭ ‬and you were responsible for making pricing decisions‭, ‬right or wrong‭. ‬Often those decisions reflected sales prices based on product condition‭, ‬market conditions or simply‭ ‬“getting picked off‭.‬”‭

‬Getting‭ ‬“picked off”‭ ‬would always bring up the question‭, ‬“Did you walk the Street‭?‬”‭ ‬Walking the Street was something you were meant to do every morning to see what the competition was offering and to test your own ideas about market prices‭. ‬Sometimes no matter what you did to maximize your prices and sell out‭, ‬you still might not‭ ‬“clean up‭.‬”‭ ‬In those cases you would hear‭ ‬“Your first loss is your best‭!‬”‭ ‬This is the reminder that fresh produce often doesn’t appreciate in value in the short term and selling out today at whatever price you can get ‬will be infinitely better than the‭ ‬price you may be offered tomorrow‭.‬

John‭ ‬“Sonny”‭ ‬Fiorella‭, ‬son-in-law of our company’s founder‭, ‬managed the office in the family business‭. ‬He often shared these words of wisdom‭: ‬“Pay the farmers fast‭, ‬and you’ll always have a store full of stuff‭.‬”‭ ‬He was right‭, ‬of course‭, ‬and he religiously mailed checks every Friday to our farmers in New Jersey and Delaware and he would get a call on Monday if they didn’t find their check in Saturday’s mail‭.

A savvy buyer I knew used this retort if a salesman over-described the expected shelf life of his product‭: ‬“You know‭, ‬you might fool me‭, ‬but you can’t fool these flies‭.

Uncle Sonny used to have lunch regularly with a group of senior Philadelphia businessmen‭. ‬They sat at a table in a private room‭ ‬in the Old Original Bookbinders‭, ‬a landmark restaurant in Philadelphia‭. ‬My grandfather’s original location on The Dock Street Market was literally across the street from the restaurant‭, ‬and Sonny had been lunching there for years‭. ‬He often related the advice he heard at lunch‭. ‬My favorite axiom was associated with a story about a business that fell into bankruptcy‭. ‬“You can steal the profit‭, ‬but not the cost‭.‬”‭ ‬Apparently that businessman was too greedy for his own good‭.

I often reflected on that sentence and considered the broader meaning it implies‭. ‬In those days‭, ‬our business was commission-based‭, ‬and the‭ ‬“cost‭,‬”‭ ‬the proceeds from our sales after commission‭, ‬were returned to the grower‭. ‬I was taught to protect those returns even if it hurt us‭. ‬After all‭, ‬that grower was going back into the field and we would get another chance the next day to make a‭ ‬“good sale‭.‬”‭ ‬That was my father’s way of saying‭ ‬“Well done‭, ‬you nailed it‭.‬”‭

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.