( Amy Sowder )

The saying “you can’t be everything to all people” holds true in business, but then again, in some ways, not so much. 

Diversity in product and operations is helping to sustain Philadelphia businesses that either need to stay afloat or are growing more than ever.

To succeed, these companies are doing more in two ways.

Variety

Most of the businesses at the Philadelphia market serve smaller, independent retailers like health-oriented grocers and stores that cater to tastes from a particular part of the world.

The diversity of the Northeastern population helps Philadelphia’s companies meet its consumer needs at smaller, independent retailers, which are plentiful in the region.

“I think there is a lot more diversity of supermarkets on the East Coast than the Midwest because of the diversity of people. You’re not going to have near the same number of independent markets in rural areas than you are at inner cities,” said Fil Colace, vice president of operations at Philadelphia-based Ryeco.

John Vena Inc. has carved out a pretty large niche for specialty produce. 

The company’s largest volume items are avocados, mangoes, limes, baby arugula, watercress, radicchio, Belgian endive, greenhouse bell peppers and plantains, said Dan Vena, sales director. Some of the fastest growing items include pineapples and tropical roots.

Emily Kohlhas, John Vena Inc. marketing director, said coraline endive, purple ninja radishes and yellow dragon fruit are trendy items worth the hype.

“Consumer demand for ethnic foods and flavors keeps on growing — and we can definitely feel it in wholesale distribution,” Kohlhas said. 

“We have a core market for a lot of these items from within the Mid-Atlantic’s vibrant ethnic communities. The Latino population on the Eastern seaboard, in particular, has been growing and diversifying.”

In 2019, John Vena Inc. discovered a stronger market for some of the more niche products from Mexico and the Caribbean, specific to particular ethnic groups, such as huazontle, tejocote, chayote espina, sour oranges and mamey, she said.

Vertical integration

Large retail chains are contracting directly with farms and bypassing the wholesaler, so that means most of the customers at the terminal market are independent grocers and smaller regional retailers with one or 10 store locations.

Procacci Bros. is an example of a company that has adjusted to this trend, becoming more and more vertically integrated so that it plays the roles of the farm, the wholesaler, the marketer and the distributor, all in one. 

“Utilization of a third-base home from wholesaler to retailer has been diminishing, unless you’re distributing items specifically from a grower, like we are with our tomatoes we grow primarily in New Jersey, the main area, then also Florida and Mexico and California and Puerto Rico,” said Rick Feighery, Procacci’s vice president of sales.

The company has reached even further back with its seed research and development programs, creating hardy varieties that taste great.

“We control the development of product from seed to distribution,” Feighery said. “You can’t bypass us because we are the grower. We wear multiple hats.”

Besides its distribution services, wholesaler Ryeco added an import division in 2018, taking in $20 million in sales from 400 permits from five countries, Colace said.

“We used to buy a lot of this second-hand from other companies. In order to be more competitive as we increase our product line, this helps,” Colace said.

John Vena Inc. is also doing more direct importing of niche items.

“We just wrapped up our first season bringing in citrus direct from Israel — largely orri mandarins and sunrise grapefruits,” John Vena said.

But the most growth is in the extra services the company is undertaking, from custom ripening of avocados, mangoes, and plantains to repacking value-added products for foodservice and retail customers — plus organizations with unconventional needs, such as the meal kit sector, said Dan Vena.

Regardless of tariff wars, new food safety rules, added freight regulations, trade disagreements and tomato dumping, it’s a good time to be part of the fresh produce industry, these Philadelphia business leaders said.

“We’re blessed to be in the industry we’re in. We’re providing a healthy product in a time when everybody is trying to have a healthy diet,” Procacci’s Feighery said. 

“We’re selling the original plant-based diet.”

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