Once again this year, participants in the New York Produce Show and Conference will have an opportunity to take an official post-show tour of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market (PWPM) on Thursday, Dec.16, 2021. The Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market is the world’s largest fully-enclosed, fully-refrigerated wholesale produce terminal, with 686,000 square feet. Its most distinguishing operational benefit is cold-chain protection for fresh fruits and vegetables. The 19 PWPM merchants carry a full line of fruits and vegetables and serve all types of foodservice and grocery businesses. We asked Susan Crowell, a Contributing Editor at pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, to chat with John Vena, president of John Vena Inc. and longtime PWPM merchant, to learn more about the unique facility and the business that goes on at the market.
Q. Before we get to the PWPM, John, could you tell us your background and connection to the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market?
A. I work for a company named after my grandfather, a Sicilian immigrant who started in business around 1919, so the company is over 100 years old. I worked for the company a little bit in summers and holidays when I was in high school, but after I left college, I started a career in marketing and broadcasting. In 1976, my father proved to me what a good salesman he was, and convinced me and my wife to join the business because he could use the help. So, in 1976, I changed my goals and said, ‘OK, we’d go home and try this business and see what happens.’ It must be working out, because I’m still here.
Having grown up around this business, I knew what I was getting into. When my father was running it, it was a small company, so you did a little bit of everything. To make a living, you depended on yourself and your coworkers, and there were very few coworkers, as it was mostly all family at the time.
Q. Once again, the New York Produce Show is sponsoring a post-show bus tour to the PWPM. For those unfamiliar with the facility, what will we see?
A. We’ve always been located in the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market.This first location was on Dock Street, in Old City Philadelphia. From there, it moved to the Philadelphia Produce Market on Galloway Street in 1959. And then, in 2011, the market moved from Galloway Street to Essington Avenue. The building that we left was very similar to almost every other market in the country, with loading docks and everything all at ambient temperature. So when we moved to this building, after several years of designing and planning, we came to a building that is entirely enclosed and refrigerated so that the whole chain is protected the entire time.
The difference between our facility and other refrigerated facilities is that this building was designed to be a live marketplace for fresh produce. So customers come in, they walk the market, they see the products, they make their selections, and then they have to get their trucks loaded and get the product out. The design features in our building are here to facilitate that. Our building is set up in sections. There are 10 towers around the building and each tower has a ramp that goes to the outside because we have customers with small trucks. They can’t make the larger truck dock plates, the dock seals, and they have to be serviced, too. So we have ramps and we have covered areas for them to load their product. But any customer that has a truck that can back in at dock height, can back into any one of 224 doors that we have all around the perimeter of our building. So with all of those doors and all of that traffic in and out and up and down, the design of our building had to be done to facilitate that. Because it’s not just a distribution center, it’s not just a warehouse. It’s a fully enclosed refrigerated marketplace for fresh produce.
The biggest challenge, while designing, was how to manage traffic flow, and we have one-way traffic around the building.
Visiting this market is an opportunity to see a facility that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world — completely enclosed and refrigerated, we protect the cold chain 100%. It’s a working marketplace situated in an ideal position. Geographically, we’re at the confluence of many major modes of transportation. Within a long pass from here, we were reaching the ports of the Delaware River. We have major confluence of major highways, Interstates 76 and 95. We’re a hop, skip and a jump from Philadelphia International Airport. So from a logistics point of view, we’re extremely well positioned. We’re also only a few minutes from the cold storage facilities in South Jersey or in southeastern Pennsylvania. There’s a lot of produce activity in our area.
Q. So 10 years later, is that design still working?
A. There have been some modifications to our waste management facility, but to be honest, the original building, designed the way it is to facilitate trucks of all kinds and covered areas for customers with small trucks, was really well thought out. And our building is 100% occupied, which means the businesses that are here are growing and have a positive outlook.
My company, T.M. Kovacevich, Ryeco, M. Levin & Company, Pinto Brothers — these are all companies that now occupy more space than when they originally moved in. And everyone feels the outlook for the market is strong.
Q. I know you can’t speak for all the merchants, but have there been any shifts in services over the past 10 years in the new facility?
A. I think the biggest, and most obvious, shift is that there are more deliveries taking place. And companies that don’t maintain their own trucks are having to find creative ways to get product delivered to customers, because that’s become more and more important.
Overall, services are adapting to customers’ needs. Many of us are engaged in a little bit of a cross docking, and we’ve invested in better communication systems to communicate with customers. My company has our own ripening facilities onsite. One of our competitors here on the market, M. Levin & Company, consolidated from an offsite facility and they created ripening rooms in their facility. They’re a full line wholesaler, but bananas are a big part of their business, so they moved those services to the units here on the market. We have a repack facility here where we do business for meal kit companies, and we do some co-packing for companies that serve retailers, and we also do a lot of packing for foodservice here. And some of the PWPM merchants have taken space outside the market to add services such as those. So it’s because of these services that the industry is requiring of us that many of us have added facilities off the market we want to maintain enough room for the wholesale business! We’re all still very actively involved in the wholesale business and the market is an ideal location for that business.
Q. So that is also married to this question. Have there been shifts in customers over the last 10 years?
A. Yes. And I think what we see here in our region is similar to what’s happening across the country. There’s been consolidation at all levels of retail, not just the major retailers that we read about in the trade press. There’s also been attrition with customers, but new entities have formed.
I think that one of the big increases for our merchants here in the market has been among the Latino population. We’ve seen a large increase — not just in Philadelphia, but in our area in general, which is all of New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, down into Virginia and the DC area. So we have access to a lot of new and developing Latino customers.
We’ve seen a drop for our vendors here from other ethnic communities, such as Indian or Korean communities that have grown through consolidation and created their own supply chains, so their business with the wholesale markets is down a little bit from where it used to be. But that’s typical of retail companies. I mean, from years and years ago, for example, Acme Markets used to buy a huge percentage of its produce from the Philadelphia market back in the days of my grandfather, probably 100%, and then distributed to their stores. Of course, that changed. So we see the same thing happening to some of our ethnic customers. As they grow and add stores, they also put in their own distribution centers. But in many cases, just like the big retailers, the national and regional banners, you know, they have late trucks, they have shorts, so they have a need to maintain a relationship with markets like ours.
Recently, we’ve also seen a shift toward farm stands and produce-only retailers. Those kinds of stores were very popular when I first started in the business in the’ 70s, and then it kind of petered out a little bit. We used to have a lot of what we call road stand customers in some of the less-developed areas in Philadelphia. As more and more development pushed these people out because they either didn’t own their property or they sold their property and retired, now we’re seeing a resurgence of independent, produce-only stores. It’s supported a little bit by the pandemic. I think people are more interested in neighborhood produce stores than they used to be.
Q. The past 24 months have been a rollercoaster. How has the PWPM survived, and is there a take-home message?
A. Just like a rollercoaster: Hold on and scream! Well, as I said, some of the smaller, community-based retailers have done well throughout the pandemic, and those are definitely customers that support our market, and we’re a main supplier for many of them. Of course our foodservice customers suffered, but many diversified to do more take out and use delivery service, many are now rebounding.
Some of the mandated relief efforts from the government were difficult at first to implement, but in the long run, they really helped a lot of us. In other words, we had to comply with very generous leave policies, especially in the first part of the lockdown in 2020. And we learned how to do things like contact tracing to keep our people healthy and safe. And so, those are some of the things that, at first, we thought would be burdensome, but in the long run turned out to be benefits. Because people needed time off to sort things out. And because of these leave policies and because of the way the government supported that, we were able to adapt and give our people the time they needed.
The government didn’t offer much guidance for businesses like ours, but the market board of directors got together with the merchants and looked at what we needed to do. Some of the steps were taken immediately, like reducing our hours, and reminding all the merchants here in the market about different kinds of HR issues, and providing information on programs that the government was offering and how to manage them. People who didn’t need to be in the facility were told to stay home, which is a difficult thing because working from home isn’t an option if your job is to pick orders.
We’re in the city of Philadelphia, so we have to follow their rules, and right now our building still has a mask mandate because that’s what the city requires, although our regular hours have resumed.
I think it’s important to look at what’s happened to us as an industry, and to my business, and to figure out, and try to plan ahead, so that when things like this happen again, how will our market react. How our business react? There are three key things that I realize are part of our basic philosophy, our basic culture. We have come to call our culture statement “partners in quality,” because we believe that as a company, we can’t do anything without our suppliers and we can’t do anything without our staff. We can’t do anything without our customers. So, taking care of your people, that’s what’s most important.
We’re really only as reliable as our suppliers and I’m sure everyone has stories about not getting enough help to pick product or get product through the supply chain. So we needed to be flexible with our suppliers, too. And it’s important to maintain a diverse customer base for a lot of reasons and the pandemic was certainly one of them.
We thank John Vena for sharing this update on America’s newest market. The New York Produce Show and Conference was established just as the new market was opening and we’ve been able to include a tour ever year. This year John and his extraordinary wife, Cynthia, have agreed to host the bus tour down to the market and regale our group with the history, and excite us all about the future of this exciting facility.
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