We’ve visited the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market each year as an official tour of The New York Produce Show and Conference. We reviewed these tours in pieces such as these:
As we prepared to head back down to Philadelphia, we asked Jodean Robbins Duarte, contributing writer for sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS, to find out more:
Q: Each year, the New York Produce Show and Conference has a bus tour to the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market (PWPM). Can you tell us a bit more about what this is for folks who may not be familiar with wholesale markets and their role in the supply chain?
A: Terminal markets have always played an important role in the distribution of fresh produce, in particular, along the East Coast in cities such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia and even Baltimore. As those cities were developing, terminal markets emerged as a place where local farmers could bring their produce to a designated area to market it.
The PWPM’s roots trace all the way back to the days of William Penn. In those days, local farmers literally brought their product in by boat to a dock in Philly (hence the Dock Street market), where local distributors would receive the product and then sell it to shops, restaurants or whoever wanted to buy it.
As transportation improved and the city developed, the market also developed by becoming a home for many more merchants and receiving product from further and further away. My grandfather received product by train from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Over time, the terminal markets established even greater reach and became a produce hub for larger geographical areas. However, while this growth was happening, supermarkets grew bigger and developed their own distribution centers and thus business for terminal markets diminished in many parts of the country.
But along the East Coast and even in the Midwest, terminal markets are still very viable because there is still demand for what the terminal offers.
Q: What do the markets offer today that make them viable and to what kind of customers? Are terminal markets a relic of the past or do they offer something for the future?
A: In our current day, not only are terminal markets viable but they are desirable. The terminal market provides more advantages for customers who know how to use one. It allows a customer to literally walk from merchant to merchant and inspect every brand, variety and commodity that’s on offer. They get a chance to see the color and taste the sugar content.
We reference variety, quality and value as key benefits. Buyers can judge for themselves when they look at the package – an important ability they don’t have when placing an order on the phone.
Our customer base is really everybody who wants or needs to buy fresh produce to either resell or serve directly to consumers. This includes large wholesalers or distributors around the area who fill in ‘shorts,’ independent retailers who need a full range of products, and smaller mom & pop stores who shop every day.
Many customers use us as their warehouse and shop every day. For larger customers, we provide flexibility in giving them an opportunity to smooth out their supply chain if they need product at the last minute or to take advantage of a favorable market.
Q: PWPM in particular is fairly unique among wholesale markets. After over a decade or more of planning and striving, the Philadelphia merchants finally had a state-of-the-art facility built. What makes the facility so unique and how did that come about?
A: What makes PWPM unique and different from every other terminal market in the country is that it was designed to be a live market, a place where people can come meet with suppliers and see the product, all under one roof maintaining cold chain integrity.
The facility we have built here doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. We are almost 700,000 square feet of space and fully refrigerated. That just doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world for produce and certainly not anywhere else in this country.
Building this facility was a long, arduous process, but we had a group of merchants who decided early on to put competitive differences aside and work for what would benefit our business and our customers.
In 2000, our merchants began to recognize that we needed a better facility than we had. We put together a list of needs for a new building, meeting not only current desires but taking us into the future, especially with respect to food safety and cold chain requirements. What set us apart was the willingness the merchants had to work together, get the job done and create a new facility from which we could serve our customers well into the future.
Q: PWPM has been in operation now for a little over six years. Would you say it’s been a success rather than just a notable technological achievement? What reactions have you seen?
A: PWPM is absolutely a success and a great achievement. During the past six years, business has grown for everyone and our customer service footprint has expanded. Transportation improvements have made it easier to get customers from an even wider geographic area.
We are now regularly shipping product not only within our region but also from the Carolinas to New England. We have a wide regional coverage and our customer base is growing.
From a customer point of view, if they’re located in a place they can be served from this market and they’re not buying from PWPM, then they are missing a huge opportunity in terms of quality and value. Just the simple logistical facts of what we can do here that doesn’t exist in another market have been noted by buyers taking full advantage of PWPM – especially the cold-chain benefits and the willingness of our merchants to work together to ensure customer needs are met.
Q: What about shippers? Do they gain any value or perspective by visiting?
A: Absolutely. Shippers should visit to take a look at how much better their product is handled here and how we help them maintain the quality of what they’re putting into the marketplace. And, for shippers who visited the market in the past but are not sending product here, we especially encourage them to revisit the market.
They need to see what their competitors are doing here and how they’re utilizing this market to build their business. A lot has changed in six years, and now most brands marketed up and down the East Coast are being marketed here.
Another important aspect from a shipper point of view is how the merchants in the market have improved their distribution capability. Many have added trucks to already existing fleets, have created fleets of their own, or made good third-party arrangements for transportation.
We’ve seen shippers moving more product through the market without having to deliver it on their own. That’s been a big deal for a lot of shippers because we can protect the cold chain and we have increased capacity.
Shippers are more willing to send product knowing the merchants here can solve the “last mile problem.” This represents an opportunity for shippers to expand their customer base.
Q: So what should participants on the NYPS bus tour expect to see at PWPM during their visit and what should they particularly be looking for?
A: People are going to see that this market is still revolutionary, even after six years. Just walking the Buyers Concourse, being able to walk up and down the street in an enclosed facility, but in natural light because of the skylight, is revolutionary. It’s a very comfortable environment – as long as you wear a jacket, because we maintain a 50-degree temperature.
It’s easy to buy product; and it’s easy to get your truck loaded or unloaded. Every loading door is sealed and has load-levelers. There’s no need for dock plates. We’ve put everything into place to optimize moving product.
They’ll also see the importance we place on managing our recyclables and waste. We have a separate building outside the main market building dedicated to managing waste and recycling. We have a system in place whereby employees are constantly moving recycling and waste materials to this facility.
We recycle corrugated, plastic, corner boards, and wood — all collected and set aside for reclamation centers or pallet-pooling companies. We have the space and the team to sort all this out and make sure what can be recycled or reused is. Also, all our waste product is sorted for animal food or compost.
It’s important for customers and shippers to know we’re doing everything we can to keep things out of landfills. In addition to that, every Friday morning we work with Philabundance, our food bank partner, to reclaim unsold product for distribution to families in need, thereby reducing our food waste footprint even more.
Q: What do you hope the people on the tour will walk away knowing?
A: For shippers who visit the market, whether it’s their first time or tenth time, I hope they see how they need to consider the merchants in the market as an addition to their sales and marketing program. Building programs for customers is important and a crucial part of what we all do at PWPM with our suppliers.
We all push our suppliers to give us product on a year-round basis and let us help them build a program with consistent brands and quality levels. The shippers who send product here regardless of market conditions are the more successful ones. Our ability to build programs has become evident.
For customers, they are going to find vendors able to offer them programs. We can offer preconditioned fruit, including mangos, avocados, bananas and melons. You can put together the program for specialty products or commodities that you’re looking for.
We’re also a terrific source for local product. A lot of customers don’t realize they can come here and buy Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Delaware product in-season every single day. It’s all here.
We all just want as many people as possible to visit and see the opportunity PWPM has to augment their business.
Let us know here if you wish to add this tour, or any tour, to your existing registration.
You can register for the tour and The New York Produce Show and Conference right here.