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Diversification leads to growth on Philly market

“If my grandfather or father were alive to see the business today,” says Mark Levin, CEO of M. Levin & Company, Inc., “they would be in total awe by how the industry has changed over the years and in disbelief that we are now ripening bananas with technology that allows us to do so with our cell phones.”

Michael Levin, a Lithuanian immigrant, began selling bananas off the back of a horse-drawn wagon in what is now known as the Society Hill section of Philadelphia.

His original wagon from 1906 is proudly displayed in Unit H-6 at the Market, adding a bit of old-world charm to the gleaming modernity of the high-tech facility.

After 112 years, Levin offers an extensive product line, including a broad range of ethnic items and delivery as far North as Canada and south to West Virginia. Perhaps more impressive is the arrival of the fifth generation, and Levin’s hopes the company will continue “for another 100 years.”

While most all merchants carry a full line or fruits and vegetables in common, diversification and specialization is good not only for the market but for its tenants.

“John Vena, Inc., has been at the forefront of the specialty produce category since the 1980s—basically when specialty became a category in the first place,” says Emily Kohlhas, director of marketing for John Vena, Inc.

A case in point is the arrival this past spring of kiwano fruit, known as horned melon, which John Vena began importing from New Zealand via sea container directly to the East Coast.

Previously imported into Los Angeles and shipped across the country, John Vena is setting the stage to position kiwano as a must-have at retail in this region, following in the footsteps of another exotic fruit, kiwi, brought into the country by West Coast pioneer Frieda Caplan in 1962.

It’s this kind of imaginative risk taking, innovation, and forward thinking that has allowed the folks at John Vena to expand the company and their space at the market and celebrate 99 years in business. “Next year, we can’t wait to celebrate our centennial,” says Kohlhas.

In addition to the breadth of fruit and vegetable offerings at the market, the PWPM is trying to stay at the forefront of promoting itself and its merchants as well.

The market’s website and social media platforms demonstrate where progress and tradition meet. Peppered throughout the online venue are snippets about the history of produce items, stories about shoppers and suppliers, and vignettes about visitors who delight in experiencing a centuries-old business in an ultra-modern setting.

As times change, so, too, will the market.

“I believe the way for any city or business to stay healthy is to constantly evolve and change with the times,” says Rob Contando, in sales for Pinto Brothers. “For example, 20 years ago it was rare to find an avocado—now, they’re everywhere.”

This is an excerpt from the most recent Produce Blueprints quarterly journal. Click here to read the full article.


Christine Hofmann is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area.