Philadelphia produce wholesalers ready to flee antiquated operation

05/27/2011 10:24:00 AM
Dan Gailbraith

PHILADELPHIA — Distributors say leaving their old digs couldn’t come too soon.

Built in 1959, wholesalers say the older operation at Packer Avenue and S. Galloway Street was crumbling and had long outlived its purpose.

“This place is falling apart,” said Karen Waleski, saleswoman for John Waleski Produce Co. Inc. “It’s scary.”

Waleski, daughter of John Waleski, president and owner, said she remains inspired every time she visits the new operation.

“It is really impressive to see,” Karen Waleski said. “It feels nice to have something new to work in.”

Before the move, many distributors said they worried about the facility’s increased rent and cost to do business.

However, as the move-in date neared, the wholesalers said they were hopeful an expected increase in sales should cover the higher costs.

Paul Giordano Sr., owner of Paul Giordano & Sons, was one of those eyeing increased expenses.

“It will be challenge (working out of the new facility), but it should be beneficial for everyone from our mom-and-pop customers to the end-users,” Giordano said. “That’s because of all the food safety improvements and changes and cold storage capabilities. Basically, this new operation modernizes and updates our operations. We have to have it. Our old market is falling apart.”

Per-unit market rent is said to have nearly tripled, from $4,000 a month to $11,000 a month, distributors said.

Rich Clark, owner of Jesse Pitt Co., said he plans to expand his product line to help cover the cost of increased rent.

He said the constant 50-degree temperature in the new facility should help preserve product life.

“It’s going to be different,” he said. “In the summer, in the old market, people displayed fruit at 80-90 degrees and in the winter, lettuce gets frozen when it’s put on racks. With the new market, there should be a lot less waste.”

Every distributor, from the largest wholesaler to the smaller operators, expressed optimism.

“This is a very impressive building,” said Frank Stea Jr., vice president of Stea Bros. Produce Inc., speaking of the new operation. “It’s still something to see.”

Louis Penza Jr., partner in Pinto Bros. Inc., said the new operation should blaze the way for future U.S. produce terminal markets.

“You have to remember that if you trace back the history, we were the benchmark for the first new market when we opened our market in 1959,” he said. “Now, we are setting that goal again.”

Being a gigantic building, Penza said it was only natural to expect setbacks that delayed the operation’s opening.

John Vena Jr., market board member and president of John Vena Inc., said wholesalers tried to satisfy several objectives in building the new facility.

“We didn’t want to build a cold, lifeless facility,” he said. “We tried to put together a plan for a facility that solved our needs as a wholesale market.”

Vena said building such a facility remained complicated because the building has to satisfy the physical side of the business management of the cold chain and be usable for everyday work such as unloading of inbound trucks and loading of customers’ trucks. He said the market tried to include proper product management and handling changes required of a terminal market as well as include some aesthetic improvements.

“We wanted to build something where our customers could see not only the beautiful displays of product but be able to do business in a lively atmosphere where produce is created,” Vena said. “We are in a very exciting end of the industry. We interact with end-users, chefs and retailers. We wanted them to be able to feel that excitement inside the facility.”

Pitt focuses on bananas and tropicals.

Like others, Waleski said she worries about increased costs.

“It’s exciting and scary, as we are a small company,” she said. “We are hoping we can make it there.”

Waleski joined her father in sales at the company in 1998 after she graduated from college. She went to work in another industry but returned a couple of years later.



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