There’s room for locavores and more in
South Philly’s gigantic walk-in crisper
BY JENN LADD
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEAL SANTOS
Asingle car sits in a strip club’s parking lot at 10am on a weekday when I pull a U-turn there, having missed my left. The Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market’s lot just around the corner, by comparison, resembles a busy airport terminal where people have been replaced by tractor-trailers, sedans, flatbed trucks and vans.
Once the car is parked, I walk to what could be the customer entrance, though no signs say as much. Up a short flight of stairs, down a corridor, there’s a map posted on the wall, outlining where the market’s 24 merchants fall along its floor, which stretches the length of 14 football fields. A final set of double doors opens onto not a sprawling produce mall, as you might expect, but a more or less standard warehouse. There’s a pallet of wan-looking tomatoes and a handful of hoodied men zipping around on forklifts laden with boxes of vegetables. No arrows indicate how to proceed.
You would think this vast market would have more welcome signs— it serves as a way station for the majority of the fruits and vegetables Philadelphians buy, whether we’re at a restaurant, supermarket or bodega. Most of the produce here has traveled thousands of miles. But some products have, like me, made a comparatively short trek to the market.
I’ve been here before, thankfully. I know the diagonally striped walkway ensures I won’t be flattened by a forklift (as long as I look both ways when crossing intersections). My ears adjust to the sustained roar of air conditioning. I’m glad I wore my jacket.
As I round the corner, the facility—the most advanced of its kind, second in size only to New York City’s wholesale produce market— shows me once again that it’s the most fascinating food-shopping venue around.
Deep in South Philly, amid car dealerships and gentlemen’s clubs, is a 550,000-square-foot refrigerator, staffed by 750 employees, that provides produce to food suppliers, restaurants and corner stores throughout not only Philadelphia but also the entire mid-Atlantic region.
Each year the market sells about $1 billion worth of perishables sourced from all over the world. Keeping this massive fruit and vegetable drawer fully stocked (it has 68 floor-to-ceiling coolers) requires roughly 400 tractor-trailers that deliver inventory daily. The proprietors here constantly receive updates on weather the world over, transportation routes, the growing seasons and conditions of myriad crops, sales orders, and consumer trends.
“In a lot of ways the wholesalers here, they’re almost arbitrage traders,” market general manager Dan Kane says, outlining the close tabs wholesalers keep on the prices of the products they buy and sell; like Wall Street types reading the stock market, they can spot when a lime shortage, for instance, will drive up the fruit’s worth.
About 600 customers visit the produce mall each day. Clients range in size from corporate food suppliers like Sysco and US Foods, to Acme outlets and international grocery stores, down to small-business owners running stalls in the Italian Market or fruit salad trucks in North Philly.
“We sell to anybody who wants to buy produce,” Kane says. “The only requirement is you have to buy a case. You can’t just buy a pound of bananas, you have to buy a box.”
The scale of the Essington Avenue operation can be dizzying, but its value to regular shoppers is often overlooked. The market is open to the public. Its tenants carry arguably the most comprehensive array of produce imaginable; their wares are stored in ideal conditions. And because the market is at least one rung above the supermarket in the food supply chain, items cost less. Here, then, one can buy produce that’s cheaper, fresher and more diverse in its selection than what’s available at the grocery store.
And while the market lacks the charm of a roadside farm stand or a boutique grocer—it’s a warehouse, after all—it handles truckloads of local produce, too. But shopping here presents unusual consumer challenges. Those hurdles, and the market’s role in supplying a multitude of area food outlets, raise complicated issues about its place in the local-food movement.
In the market’s
showrooms, one can find
Jersey corn, tomatoes,
and cantaloupes in the
summer, along with fresh
parsley, cilantro, dill and
Arrayed under a towering skylit ceiling and rainbow-colored banners, the produce market’s 24 tenants (each signs a 40-year lease) line either side of the facility. In their showrooms—most of which are minimally decorated—the sacks, crates and plastic containers full of beets, onions, potatoes, peppers and microgreens seem humdrum compared to more exotic offerings: technicolored parsnips, Cotton Candy grapes, Japanese yams, Champagne mangos, even cornstalks.
I notice the apples in TMK Produce first. Each piece of fruit in the 40 display crates is cradled in a foam contour so it won’t be bruised. There are no prices on the apples. Instead, pieces of paper attached to the boxes list varying double digits, the type of apple and a cryptic code: “80 AMBROSIA WAXF.” Eighty represents the count (or the number of apples in a 40-pound crate) and the letter jumble indicates the grade, in this case Washington Extra Fancy.
I approach a grizzled salesman in TMK. “How do you know how much something costs?”
“You don’t,” he says, grinning. He waits a beat before continuing. You can have a weekly price list mailed out, he says, or check with the USDA. In-house agents compile and list daily average prices for items at the market on paper and the USDA website. Or you can ask a showroom salesperson—which is your best bet, since prices at the market change daily, sometimes even throughout the day.
“And if I were to buy something, what happens then?” I follow up.
He would write the item down on a ticket, he says, then I’d go to the main sales window, pay cash, leave the showroom we’re in and pick up the box of, say, whole walnuts the next door down. I would need a dolly to transport this, and at the market, it’s BYO hand truck.
I meander down the main drag. Behind the showrooms, there are cavernous coolers, banana-ripening rooms, and a doohickey that measures the pressure in a mango—a metric that helps determine ripeness. In the center lane, forklift drivers, careening by as if they were on skateboards, glance at me; one shouts hello. In this male-dominated atmosphere, I’m as out of place as a vegetarian in a steakhouse.
I pass another showroom, Kaleck Brothers. A bag of carrots the size of a small child catches my eye. I step inside to speculate on the price of this behemoth.
“Just sightseeing?” a friendly salesman pipes up. I ask him if Kaleck sources from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware farms, and he nods enthusiastically. “A lot during the summertime.” If I want to know where items come from, all I have to do is ask.
And what about pricing? For that, he directs me to another man behind us, who tells me the 50-pound sack of carrots (Canadian in origin) is going for $15. Carrot prices range throughout the year, he says, from $10 to $20 for a bag this big. It’s the same every year. The prices rise when it gets colder, and in the summer months they drop.
Wholesale produce markets like this one aren’t quite a dime a dozen; the USDA tracks daily produce prices at just 13 such terminals on its Agricultural Marketing Service website. The creation of these privatized markets was precipitated by the rise of refrigerated rail transport after the Civil War. Though American cities had well-established public markets to handle day-to- day food trade, they weren’t equipped to deal with fresh produce in large quantities.
Thus, produce districts sprang up as supplements to public markets. Philly’s original produce district took root on Dock Street in Society Hill. The Philadelphia Bulletin wrote of the area, “It was loud. It was profane. It was quarrelsome and brawling and everywhere it gambled … as businessmen gamble who have to play the weather, the crops, and the whims of housewives going to market.”
In 1959 the city’s produce merchants relocated to a facility off Packer Avenue, east of the stadiums. At the time, the building was state-of-the-art. But, like an overripe banana, it passed its prime as the decades wore on.
Today, Philadelphia’s newly constructed wholesale produce market, started in 2008 and completed in 2011, boasts modern solutions, if fewer housewives. The colossal warehouse is chilled to 55° or less year-round; 224 loading dock doors seal in cold, crisp air. Groups routinely tour the market, hailing from other US cities as well as places like South Africa, Israel and China, according to Kane. “It sets a standard in the industry,” he says.
The new market completed the cold chain, an industry term referring to the near-constant refrigeration of produce during its journey from field to supermarket shelf. At many markets, crates of produce leave refrigerated trucks and sit on open docks. Kane explains, “Then they get rained on, snowed on, heated up, cooled down—all of which invites foodborne illnesses [and spoilage]. It decreases the quality of the produce.”
The market’s superior technology has helped business bloom. Customers who used to patronize New York City’s Hunts Point Produce Market or the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market near Baltimore and Washington, D.C., have defected to Philly’s market, says Tom Kovacevich III, general manager of TMK Produce.
“Because this market is so modern and nice and easy to shop at, their alternatives in New York and Baltimore are very challenging.”
Kovacevich has been in the produce business in Philadelphia since 1986. Like many of the merchants here, he’s from a long line of produce wholesalers, so he’s witnessed the increasing globalization of produce firsthand.
“Forty years ago my father spent the winter playing darts in the office because there was nothing to sell in the winter,” Kovacevich says. “Now we’re as busy in December as we are in July, which is really nice for being able to operate a business.”
TMK stocks 550 items in its cooler at the market, only 200 of which are on display in its showroom. The apple list alone includes more than 100 varieties. To maintain this diversity—especially at this scale—TMK sources internationally. “We have trucks arriving from California and Washington State and Texas and Arizona,” Kovacevich says. “But we’re also flying stuff in from New Zealand and boats of stuff from Italy or Spain. It’s a very small world today.”
“Groups routinely tour this market, hailing from
other US cities as well as places like South Africa,
Israel and China, according to Kane.
It sets a standard in the industry.”
But TMK still shops local. For example, Gibbstown, New Jersey, farmer John Banscher often personally delivers his harvest for the day, “which might be five boxes of Cubanelle peppers and eight boxes of some eggplant and 40 cases of tomatoes.” While 80% of the company’s inbound trailer loads come from big growers, produce from small farms makes up the remaining 20%, Kovacevich says.
“Most of the fairytale squash that we get in Pennsylvania is from an Amish guy in a barn in the middle of Lancaster,” he continues. “If we just happen to be making a delivery to a supermarket out in Reading, then we’ll swing down on the way back and pick up from this Amish guy. So that tells you it’s as small as it gets, right? He’ll spend all week accumulating six pallets of stuff.”
In the market’s showrooms, one can find Jersey corn, tomatoes, zucchini, peaches, blueberries, watermelon and cantaloupes in the summer, along with fresh parsley, cilantro, dill and other herbs. Local lettuces, squash and cabbage arrive in colder months, and mushrooms from Pennsylvania farms are available year-round. The market in its way, then, acts as a food hub, only with local products mixed in— unmarked—among globally sourced fruits and vegetables.
Sniffing out local produce here is more challenging than at a traditionally defined food hub like Common Market in North Philly. But ascertaining an item’s provenance, and its pricing, isn’t hard; you just need to be prepared to talk to people.
The biggest barrier to shopping here for the everyday consumer— let alone a locavore—is obvious. You must buy in bulk and therefore plan accordingly to use up, distribute or freeze a large quantity of perishables. It isn’t a shopping strategy that would work for everyone, but it does offer a huge value for home canners, fermentation enthusiasts and budding food entrepreneurs who start making sauces or pickles in their home kitchens.
But whether we go to the market or the market comes to us, it plays an important role in the area’s local-food economy. As the emphasis on local food grows, the necessity for volume—for scaling up not only harvests but sales, too—also grows. More than 163,000 US farmers sold roughly $6.1 billion in local foods in 2012, according to a February 2015 USDA Economic Research Service report. Farmers who sold to institutions (such as this market) that then resold the produce to consumers earned a larger cut of those sales.
And while the market’s showrooms blend local and global produce without distinction, the tenants have the advantage of financial stability. Contrast this with the unfortunate fate of the West Philadelphia Fresh Food Hub, which announced last May that funding constraints would prevent the mobile market from returning for a third year. TMK’s fairytale squash provider—the Amish guy in the barn—can count on Kovacevich’s business year after year. Ultimately, the market may present a more concrete answer to supplying Greater Philadelphia with local harvest.
I end my visit to the market at Norm and Lou’s Cafe, which has been feeding Philly’s produce teamsters since 1961. The eatery moved with the market in 2011, adding a build-your-own salad counter in the process. The greens and fixings come from the market.
But it’s 11:30am, and I’m still in the mood for breakfast. I opt for an egg, cheese and pepper sandwich. Merchants are starting to roll down their storefront gates—they’ll do business behind closed showroom doors for the rest of the day.
As I eat, I think about a friend who lives in a co-op in Ithaca, New York. Someone buys groceries for their 15-person house every week. The market’s sales format would suit a group like theirs, she says when I tell her about it, but they already belong to a CSA.
But what if a CSA is beyond a family’s means? The price of a box of produce at TMK averages out to about $18. Maybe $50 will get you three cases on average, Kovacevich says. And what if you really want avocados, globalization be damned? At
John Vena, Inc., they’re $26 for 48. Plus, they’re sold ready to eat or unripe, so you can store them for a while.
Shopping Philly’s produce mall with like-minded friends would seem to make its particular challenges entirely surmountable. And, as in the supermarket, it falls to the consumer to choose to buy local. Just remember to bring your own hand truck.
The Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market
6700 Essington Ave.
PHILADELPHIA WHOLESALE PRODUCE MARKET
BY THE NUMBERS:
14: Football field lengths along the selling floor
20: Percent of produce at the market sourced from local growers
40: Years on the lease merchants sign to be here
68: Floor-to-ceiling coolers chilling the wares
400: Tractor-trailers that make produce deliveries here daily
550: Different items stocked by one market vendor
600: Shoppers who come through the produce market each day
750: Employees who work at the market
1 billion: Dollars worth of produce purchased here each year