Come summer and fall, shoppers in the Philadelphia area expect local produce, which suppliers can deliver — no problem.
The rest of the year, the market demands more of everything from everywhere, including items that were virtually unheard of to mainstream consumers 30 years ago.
“Everyone wants to say it was grown in their backyard. Everybody wants value: good quality at a good price. But now we’re also trying to expand on exotics with importing,” said Fil Colace, vice president of operations at Ryeco, based at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market.
The company was founded on potatoes and onions, expanded with fruits from the East and West coasts, “and now we’re trying to do mangoes from Peru, fresh durian, kiwi from Italy, persimmons from Spain and grapes from Chile and Peru, for example.”
There are about 1,000 customers walking through the market daily, plus about 750 people working, said Christine Hoffman, marketing director of the wholesale market.
Today’s incarnation of the Philadelphia market boasts a cool, shiny interior that’s a competitive advantage to its counterparts in Boston and New York because it was created eight years ago as a fully refrigerated, fully indoor terminal market for wholesale fresh produce that’s more than 14 football fields long.
The continuous cold chain meets strict food safety standards and preserves product shelf life.
“People are only going to drive so far,” Colace said.
“Obviously, we compete against New York, and people who understand produce certainly realize that this place is a value because it’s cold and product is not going to sit out in the heat in summertime or the cold in wintertime.”
Last winter’s snow and sleet brought retail customers from farther distances, said Rick Feighery, vice president of sales for Procacci Bros., which is headquartered offsite from the wholesale terminal market, but still in Philadelphia.
“We see tags from Maryland, New York, Virginia. They know that not only are we are selling more because it’s local,” it’s the temperature-controlled with all the benefits that brings, Feighery said. “There’s definitely been a little shift with our retail partners.”
Retail market share
The latest Shelby Market data, which tracks retail business, shows that Keene, N.H.-based C&S Wholesale Grocers has a 24.2% market share of the East Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey region, which includes Philadelphia.
Next are Ahold Delhaize/Giant Food at 19.5% share, UNFI at 16.5%, Wakefern at 15% and Walmart at 14.7%, rounding out the top five.
Those self-reported rankings can be misleading because the large companies at the top are cooperatives or supply many well-known retail chains, which can be lumped into their numbers in different ways, wholesale leaders said.
“The answer to all the data is that we live in a very demanding, competitive marketplace from a consumer standpoint. These retailers and another 10 we can rattle off answer that demand,” Feighery said.
Many of those top retailers bypass wholesale distributors to buy directly from farms, but companies at the Philadelphia market get indirect business from the biggies.
“Some of that business comes from this market for fill-ins. I might not have a relationship directly with a big one like Wakefern, but one of my customers does, and I help them,” Colace said.
Time is an increasingly valuable commodity itself, and not just for keeping food fresh.
Just like consumers shopping online from home, increasing truck delivery capabilities is one way to save time for retail customers.
By early spring, Philly-market-based John Vena Inc. had two trucks and was pushing hard for delivery business, said Emily Kohlhas, John Vena Inc. marketing director.
“We’re a little late to the game, but it’s getting bigger,” Kohlhas said. This year, John Vena Inc. celebrates a century in business.
Ryeco offers delivery seven days a week because the customers don’t want to spend the time to trek back and forth to the market anymore, Colace said.
It’s a trend that began about a decade ago, but it’s picking up even faster the past three years. Colace’s 16 trucks travel from Maine to the Carolinas and can leave the warehouse on short notice.
The company is also undergoing a warehouse management overhaul that should increase the speed of fulfilling orders by 25% in October with the help of digital bar code scanners, he said.
“It’s desperately needed. We’re trying to increase our product offerings to our customers to give them ability to not have to shop at other stores. So, there are more places to look in the same size space,” Colace said.
A more efficient order fulfillment process is a technology needed right now.
“Ultimately, that saves time. I don’t have time to wait for the next generation,” Colace said.
Just in the past year, the businesses at Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market dropped from 22 to 20 vendors, following the trend of a dwindling number of suppliers seen nationwide.
The Garden State Farm division of Procacci Bros. Holdings expanded to four vendor units by acquiring A. Vassallo in April. Patterson Produce also left the wholesale facilities.
“We rebranded our presence over there in the market as Garden State Farms to cater to that stream of business. We wanted the terminal market business to be a more distinct entity,” Feighery said.
When Ryeco joined the market, there were at least 27 vendors. When he was a child, there were around 40 vendors.
“When you cut it down that much, the competition is getting that much tougher. People are doing more and more what they can to protect their market share, like adding trucks,” Colace said.
“Customers that are here and walk around have choices from 20 stores. Now, customers who we deliver to, that protects us from that.”
The pace of consolidation is certainly a challenge, said John Vena, president of John Vena Inc.
“Maintaining relationships as buying responsibilities shift and procurement strategies focus on short-term efficiencies has been a rocky road — but we keep learning and adapting. That’s a must in this day and age,” Vena said.
Quality edges over price
The focus was on low prices in the years after the financial collapse a decade ago.
“But now it’s shifting. Flavor and shelf stability are higher priorities. There’s a customer willingness to pay more for better quality, which there wasn’t five years ago,” Feighery said.
“We care about cost, but it’s secondary to quality. That’s something we’re aware of in our breeding and research program for varieties that can cost more.”
T. M. Kovacevich-Philadelphia Inc., based at the market, has 240 pallet positions to serve its 700 customers, predominately smaller retailers, from Virginia to New York.
“Our niche in this produce world is paying really close attention to the produce and giving retailers exactly what they want,” said Tom Kovacevich, the company’s president and COO.
In late February, Kovacevich gave a tour of his chilly warehouse behind his colorful shop out front, a rainbow swath of items both familiar and exotic. He held up a plump, deep purple-red plum speckled with orange.
“Maybe to a super huge retail chain store, a red plum is a red plum ... most people don’t really know what a larry ann plum is, but our buyers do. It’s hard, I think, when you’re gigantic, tailoring varieties and sizes, all kinds of little things that our buyers do, those who come down and look at it and taste what they’re looking for.”