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Here’s why Philadelphia’s market is one of a kind

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One of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market’s most unique advantages is that none of its premises is outside—it’s a completely indoor market.

There’s an outer rectangle with 224 sealed dock doors, an inner rectangle, and a grand concourse, all of which allow for the cold chain to remain intact from the loading dock to the warehouse. Indeed, the entire loading and sales areas are kept at a brisk 50°F all year.

“It’s the most modern market in the world,” says Mike Maxwell, president of longtime receiver and repacker Procacci Bros. Sales Corp. BB #:104174 “It protects the cold chain and lives up to all the safety regulations. People come from all over the place to check it out and use it as their model.”

Founded in 1948, Procacci Bros. has grown from a two-man operation to one of the biggest produce distributors in the country. This includes adding more space at the PWPM, which helps the company continue to offer not only its well-known tomatoes but also organic, tropical, ethnic, and specialty produce ranging from plantains and pineapple to berries and chestnuts.

Over the last 10 years, organics and ethnic products have enjoyed double-digit growth, a trend Maxwell sees continuing.

“We’re within a 10-hour (driving) radius of 60 million people,” he states, acknowledging that the market and its central location have certainly added to the company’s reach and success. “That puts us in a great position and makes us different than many of our competitors.”

What’s trending
This year’s ups and downs are always on merchants’ minds, as they often have to scramble for supply. From hurricanes to snowstorms to drought, there’s always a weather event somewhere with consequences near and far.

Maxwell had high hopes for the summer’s cherry deal, and though there were some dips in supply, it managed to turn out pretty good. He was similarly optimistic about stone fruit. “Last year, the South didn’t have a peach deal,” he says, based on weather extremes, but this year was a vast improvement.

Tropical and ethnic fare
For Mark Levin, CEO of M. Levin & Company, Inc., BB #:104129 the longest-standing tenant at the PWPM, tropicals have been booming, and the company is constantly adding new items as a result.

While the company’s core business is bananas, it recently debuted new offerings like dragon fruit, tamarillos, turmeric root, purple yams, and quenepas, or Spanish limes. And there are more to come, Levin promises, crediting the head of the company’s tropical division for closely monitoring trends in the industry and expanding this segment of the business.

“Our line of tropical produce continues to expand as demand for these items has grown with the changing demographics of our area,” Levin explains. “The ethnic landscape in our city is constantly changing: we have large Russian, Hispanic, Asian, and Indian populations, and we try to carry items they would be able to buy if they were in their home countries.”

Imports climb
Filindo Colace, vice president of operations at Ryeco, LLC, BB #:190496 agrees that exotic produce is in higher demand. The company, on the market since 1985, is now the second-largest tenant with eight leased units, and only began directly importing product at the beginning of 2018.

A full-service provider, Ryeco does a brisk business in squash, peppers, lettuce, pears, apples, and other more traditional produce. But, as Colace observes, a new wave of demand made him and others at the company stop and think, then consider taking the next step.

“We have such a diversified customer base that we have customers who want mangos all year, dragon fruit, loquats, even persimmons from Spain,” Colace says, noting that imports accounted for around 17 percent of sales in 2018. “Now, we’re bringing in and selling products from five different continents.”

Emily Kohlhas, director of marketing at John Vena, Inc., BB #:104221 agrees that ethnic and tropical commodities are among the hottest trends at the market. Not surprisingly, dragon fruit is moving farther into the spotlight, as are more niche products like mamey, tejocote (Mexican hawthorn), chayote espina, and sour oranges, to name a few.

“Consumer demand for ethnic foods and flavors keeps on growing, and we can definitely feel it in wholesale distribution,” points out Kohlhas. “This year we’ve been able to find a stronger market for some of the ‘nichier’ products available out of Mexico and the Caribbean.”

This is a multi-part spotlight feature on the Philadelphia produce market adapted from the October 2019 issue of Produce Blueprints.