Philadelphia area's sales show resiliency in tough times

09/21/2012 10:57:00 AM
Doug Ohlemeier

PHILADELPHIA — Produce sales remain strong in the City of Brotherly Love, distributors say.

Though not unaffected by the recession, wholesalers say things could be much worse.

Mike Maxwell, president of Procacci Bros Sales Corp., said the Philadelphia area escaped much of the business drought harming other regions.

“We have been very fortunate,” he said. “Some areas were very hard hit.

“In general, the Northeast has done OK. We’ve been hurt, but we seem to be coming through it OK. We don’t like to see it, but it could have been a lot worse.”

John DiFeliciantonio, market board secretary and partner in Ryeco Inc., said his business is doing well.

“We’re up from last year,” DiFeliciantonio said. “The city’s economy is pretty good. The whole world hit a rough patch, but the big cities — Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Boston — they’ve held their own through this tough time. We’ve had to adjust because people have less to spend.”

The distributors are in their second year at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, after relocating to the new facility in June 2011.

“We have gotten lots of good press and lots of good publicity,” said John Vena Jr., market board treasurer and president of John Vena Inc. “There is a lot of interest in the new facility, but we have had a lot of challenges based on the economy and the weather.

“There have been a lot of growing pains this first year, and it hasn’t been without challenges.”

Produce keeping better

Mark Levin, co-owner of M. Levin & Co Inc., said business is increasing.

During the first quarter of fiscal 2012, Levin said the wholesaler sold a million more packages for the year from the first quarter of fiscal 2011 to the first quarter of fiscal 2012.

“A lot of customers were concerned about expenses at the new market would mean higher costs,” Levin said. “That wasn’t true because the produce keeps better here. It doesn’t cost less to operate but costs less to maintain the produce because the product stays better longer.”

While the move improved efficiency, Rich Clark, owner of Jesse Pitt Co., said sales remain challenging.

“We have been doing better than we expected in general since we’ve been here,” he said. “We’re looking for new customers at the market. It seems to be the same customers.”

Produce sales continue to thrive, said Todd Penza, salesman for Pinto Bros. Inc.

Pain from low markets

Low markets, particularly minimum tomato prices, remain a wrinkle in distributors’ and retailers’ profitability, he said.

“We had a growth in business this past year but because of the low markets, that’s where we see the effect,” Penza said. “It gets more competitive. ... It’s not a lack of business that hurts us. It’s the market. Whenever the markets are very low, it affects us.”

While it’s hard for distributors to make a living in today’s economy, Chip Wiechec, president of Hunter Bros. Inc., said it’s especially hard on grower-shippers.

He said ever-increasing energy costs drive up prices, and lettuce shippers are putting $5-6 cartons on a truck that costs $8,000 to ship across the country.

Wiechec said Philadelphia isn’t much different from other major cities that suffered economic losses.

“We have the same struggles as every other large metropolitan area, but our mayor’s business friendly,” Wiechec said. “Our convention center and travel bureaus do a good job promoting this area. We have a lot of tourists and conventions.”



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