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Tour To New Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market Offers A Glimpse Into The Future Of Produce Wholesaling In America

Not long ago, the newly named Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market set out to unveil its new logo and announce its imminent move:

The Philadelphia Regional Produce Market (PRPM), a wholesale produce market providing quality, variety and service for over fifty years, introduces a new name and logo preceding the move from the market’s current location to a new, state of the art facility, now planned for January 2011.

Fortuitous timing meant that attendees at The New York Produce Show and Conference could have an opportunity to get a sneak preview of the revolutionary market design that could help maintain quality and meet food safety and food security standards, while operating in an energy-efficient and environmentally friendly way.

Before we head off to see the new market on a Bus Tour scheduled to depart the Hilton New York Hotel at 8 am on Thursday, November 11, 2010, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to speak with man heading up the effort to promote the new market and see if we could gain some insight as to what we will see:

John Vena
John Vena, Inc.
Philadelphia, PA

Q: We’re looking forward to participating in the launch of the new Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market and learning more about its development and impact. First, could you tell us about your background and what inspired your dedicated involvement with the opening and the marketing effort?

A: I am a third-generation member of our firm, John Vena, Inc. The company was founded by my grandfather in 1919. I planned a career in broadcast advertising, marketing and sales, but a couple of years after college, my father convinced me to join him selling produce. Because of my background in marketing and advertising, I took an early interest in working with the other merchants in The Philadelphia Regional Produce Market to promote ourselves as a viable source for fresh produce in our region.

Q: In what ways?

A: From the late 1980’s through the 90’s, we ran a small year ‘round promotion campaign designed to position our Market and the merchants here as the best source for produce and for information about produce. At that time, most news about fresh produce came from the wire services and did not address the local scene at all. Of course, our Merchants were well positioned to talk about what was actually happening here in our area regarding product availability for products from all over the world.

Also, we were and still are a large supplier of local produce, but the story wasn’t being told properly and it took a very long time to convince the local media that we were a good source of information and product. However, after about 10 years, our Board decided to reallocate funds and the promotion campaign budget was eliminated.

Q: Did the Market continue to prosper?

A: In the late 1990’s many of our Merchants began to realize that our aging facility was hampering our ability to grow our businesses. We had already spent a lot of money to make physical improvements to the building, but it became apparent that what was needed was a whole new market facility.

We could see that no amount of remodeling or refurbishing would provide us with the kind of facility to meet the demands of the very near future. In 2000, we embarked on the very long and difficult process that will very soon see our Merchants operating from the most advanced facility in our industry.

Q: Did you confront any major obstacles along the way?

A: Some of the biggest challenges we faced with this project were directly related to the nature of the timeline of development. As I said we have been working on this for 10 years. There were several sites under consideration throughout the early years. The budget was set early in the project. Since those days, there was a spike in the cost of concrete and steel, and natural inflation. Each site cost money to evaluate, much of which was paid out of our own operating funds. Rising costs and inflation created a need to “value-engineer” the project, which is a nice way to say that we had to decide how to do with less features and a smaller building and still remain true to the mission and personality of our Market.

Q: That must have involved some resourceful strategizing…

A: The burden of managing all these issues fell squarely on the shoulders of our Market Manager, Sonny DiCrecchio. Well before ground was ever broken for this project, he recognized the need to take the responsibility of working with the project developer and the construction and engineering companies to deliver this project on time, within budget and in line with the expectations of our Merchants. I know that there were many times that the only thing that kept this project on track was his determination. Our new market wouldn’t be ready to receive visitors on November 11, 2010, if not for Sonny.

Q: Have you jumpstarted a new marketing campaign to promote the transformation?

A: Our current effort to market the new facility actually began almost two years ago, not long after the official groundbreaking ceremony. Our Board mandated the formation of a marketing committee and I volunteered to lead that group. Since its formation, our committee has commissioned marketing research, and with the help of carefully selected professionals, renamed our new facility — the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market — created a new fresh logo, a Brand Guide, a Messaging Guide, a promotional calendar of events, promotional tools for our Merchants, and designed and launched a totally new website:

Our marketing committee will be on hand at the inaugural New York Produce Show and Conference to introduce our brand new facility to the trade for the first time.

Q: Could you provide our readers with a sneak preview to excite them about the tour? Do you have any fun vignettes or memorable moments that you could share?

A: The main concourse in our new building is one-quarter mile long. We had hoped to allow the people on the tour to race the length of the market for prizes, but due to the fact that it is an active construction site, we had to cancel that plan.

Q: For perspective, we’d like to learn the meaning and significance of this new market for the merchants, for the farmers that market through it, and for the buyers who buy there. What are the most important changes and impacts?

A: Many independent wholesalers scattered around the area have been upgrading their own facilities and systems in order to be able to compete in the future. A terminal market like ours offers much more than any individual business. We believe that our facility will deliver an opportunity for growers, shippers and customers to come together in a very competitively energized environment. All the best attributes of a ‘market’ will be retained in our new facility.

Q: Could you highlight the key advantages?

A: We are 26 different companies, each one with a different taste in suppliers and in the products and services offered. Operating inside a common facility makes it easy for customers to shop for whatever level of variety or quality they want. But from our new home on Essington Avenue, we will be able to offer all the basics of what we do inside a modern facility unlike any other.

For the merchants, we expect to develop an even greater synergy among ourselves as a result of the shared systems for power, refrigeration and communications. For anyone bringing in or picking up product, the effect of weather and breaks in the cold chain are eliminated. The simple fact that this is a totally enclosed facility will eliminate many problems associated with food safety and make the place easier to keep clean.

For customers arriving to buy and load, we expect a huge jump in satisfaction levels due to a large increase in available truck parking and product staging areas.

Q: In addition, what are the broader public policy implications for local food systems and for a vibrant entrepreneurial and independent sector?

A: For the last 10 years, our merchants have been working on turning our dream of a new, vibrant facility into reality. In fact, our segment of the industry has been an important link in the fresh food supply chain in the region since the City of Philadelphia was first laid out by William Penn.

Q: So the market has a long history…

A: The roots of our market reach back hundreds of years to the Philadelphia riverfront, and the arrival of fresh produce by boat from farms in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Wholesale dealers set up on the “docks” to service all customers. The area, called Dock Creek, later became Dock Street and was totally dedicated to produce wholesalers. Most of the merchants in our Market can trace their own business roots directly back to that neighborhood and those days.

Moving from the Dock Street area to a new facility within the Food Distribution Center south of the City was accomplished through a public/private “partnership” forged between our Association and the City of Philadelphia. The result of that partnership is the facility that we have occupied successfully since 1959. However, our particular role in the local and regional food system has grown as a result of our survival.

Q: How?

A: Other channels of distribution in our region, particularly the old Railroad Vegetable Depot and the Fruit Auction, no longer exist and our merchants have had to handle an increase in fresh produce from around the country. We have had to provide a service to the region that required more than our space in the Philadelphia Food Distribution Center was able to handle.

Recognizing that, former State Senator Vincent Fumo and Governor Edward Rendell took the necessary steps to preserve our ability to continue to serve the State of Pennsylvania and the region, by again aligning public resources with our own small business resources to create a new standard for the fresh produce business and to underscore the importance of food-safe technology in a local free-market setting.

Q: How important is the market to the areas it serves? What is the competitive environment and is that changing?

A: The Market has served as a distribution hub for produce from local, national and international growers throughout the region. We have served retailers and foodservice companies of all sizes, along with the local market.This particular dynamic creates value for our suppliers and our customers, because, as a group, we are well positioned to supply a wide range of products and a wide range of price points.

By working along the entire spectrum of customer demand, we are particularly well suited to match a customer to every lot offered for sale. Also, because we are a living, breathing “marketplace”, we are economically very efficient.

As much as we value the quality of our products and service to our customers, basic economics — supply and demand — really drive us every day. This simple model is at the heart of what we do and will continue to drive the business in our new facility. We know that in order to maximize the impact of the cutting-edge technology of our new market on the customers and the consumers in this region, we must be competitive within the food system, within the supply chain. There isn’t any way to escape that. The technology and the facility are just tools, and we realize that our own experience and attention to the economic basics will be the keys to success.

Building new wholesale markets is not an easy thing to make happen. All the political and economic stars need to be brought into alignment, and so the achievement in getting this market built should not be underestimated.

Modern markets are different, not in degree but in kind, from the existing facilities because they eliminate the exposure to the outdoors. That break in the cold chain and exposure to the elements risks quality issues and food-security issues.

So the chance to visit Philadelphia’s new market is an opportunity to glimpse the future of wholesaling.

And wholesaling may well be in for a revival. Local and sustainability both draw on an ethos that celebrates the small-scale, the independent and the community-based. If one believes in those values, then one will ultimately be drawn to wholesaling and terminal markets.The alternatives are either limited — such as direct sales by farmers to consumers — or large scale — such as big supermarket chains buying directly. It is only the wholesale sector that will intermediate between the midsize family farm and the midsize ethnic entrepreneurs redefining urban retailing.

Any time you have an opportunity to see where the future is going, you are wise to grasp it.

We’ve also added sugar and spice to this tour.

Wegmans is the supermarket foreign retailers most ask to see when we are arranging tours. And so when the opportunity arose to make a stop at Wegmans in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, we jumped on it.

Of course, smart produce people don’t only want to learn about produce — they want to know more about everything. So to entertain and inform us on the ride to Philadelphia, we have persuaded none other than Ben Franklin to hop aboard the bus and regale us with entertaining tales of this most historic region.

So from the colonial past to the future of produce wholesaling, this tour is a very special opportunity.

You can learn more about The New York Produce Show and Conference here.

You can register for the show and a tour here.

Or you can just sign up for a tour alone, right here.

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