Strong retail competition bolsters Philadelphia produce markets

09/08/2009 04:15:09 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

To respond to the lower profit margins, Carkoski said Four Seasons has reduced deliveries by one day a week and helped save on distribution costs.

Ethnic groups such as Koreans have become more important to produce market sales, said Chip Wiechec, president of Hunter Bros. Inc.

“The Koreans are opening more and more bigger retail operations,” Wiechec said. “They as a group are probably one of the larger retailers that buy on our market. You have more of an opportunity to sell them than you do the big chains.”

While competition remains furious on the retail side, restaurants are also always competing for patrons.

Distributors note the economic slump has hurt foodservice sales, particularly the higher-end restaurants.

A prominent restaurant in the heart of the city’s historic district, Bookbinders, closed its doors in April. Autographed photos of many celebrities graced the walls of the famous seafood restaurant that attracted many tourists.

“These restaurants are hurting bad,” said Jack Collotti Jr., vice president of Collotti & Sons Produce Inc. “Everyone’s working closer and closer. The percentages of profits are lower.”

Consumers are spending more of their money at supermarkets and buying fewer meals at restaurants. That change in behavior has helped harm white-tablecloth restaurant sales, said Mike Maxwell, president of Procacci Bros Sales Corp.

The mass feeders and fast-food operators continue strong sales and haven’t been hurt as much as the upper end of the foodservice category, he said.

Maxwell said he recently read a Philadelphia magazine article that stated how new and creative chefs that bring different menus are doing well while the older and more traditional white tablecloth restaurants haven’t fared as well.

“If you have something offering a little different or present it differently, you will do okay,” Maxwell said. “But if you’re in the mainstay and you won’t go out and recreate yourself, you’re going to lose business. Those are the guys that are hurting.”

John Vena Jr., president of John Vena Inc., said local chefs add excitement to the produce market.

Chefs such as George Perrier from famed eateries such as Le Bec Fin, Susanna Foo and Marc Vetri from Vetri and Osteria have been visiting the market.

“We are starting to see a little trend of some restaurateurs to come back to the market in an effort to cut their costs,” he said. “The quality of the chefs only improves every year. More and more chefs are interested in specialties, particularly, to help them redefine themselves or to interpret ethnic recipes or cuisines. It crosses all ethnic lines.”



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