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John Vena: “There is no facility like this in the world”

Visit to the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market

On December 14, FreshPlaza participated in a tour of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market (PWPM). John Vena of John Vena, Inc., one of the facility’s merchants, talked to the group about the relatively new terminal market and the benefits this unique facility offers to the region. 

Today, 22 merchants are located in the PWPM and like other terminal markets in the country, the facility is characterized by family businesses. “All companies are owner-operated. There are no corporate entities here,” says John Vena. At least two of the companies in the market are over 100 years old and John Vena, Inc. is approaching its 100th Anniversary. The company was started in the early twentieth century by Vena’s grandfather, John Vena I. 

100-percent cold chain protection
The PWPM is located in a new building that was built in 2011. “This particular facility is a one-off and there is nothing like it in the world,” Vena said. “There are a few totally enclosed markets in some of the major European cities, but none of this size and none that have the ability to have trucks back up to a dock door. This allows us to protect the cold chain 100 percent.” The 700,000 sq. ft. facility is fully refrigerated and has 224 dock doors all around the building. “The market was designed to be a market place, a lively place where people feel comfortable coming in to buy. It is a place of trading, collaboration and meeting with customers face to face,” Vena added. 

Owned by the state
The 22 merchants are organized as a cooperative and pay monthly rent to their landlord, PhilaPort. “The city used to be our landlord, but like most major cities in the country, they had difficulty coming up with funding. Our project was taken over by the state through the port authority and we are now part of PhilaPort,” shared Vena. It has been a positive change for PWPM’s merchants. “Being a tenant of the state offers a lot of advantages, there are some tax benefits and we now feel we have an ear in Harrisburg, the state capital.” The market’s relationship with and proximity to PhilaPort is another strategic advantage for the facility’s vendors and customers. “The Port of Philadelphia is one of the leading points of entry for fresh fruits from Chile and other South American countries such as Peru,” Vena said. 

Difficult years
Although the terminal market is doing well and runs at 100 percent capacity, it hasn’t been all roses over the past six years and even before. Until 2011, the Terminal Market was located in the Philadelphia Food Distribution Center, a centralized area containing several major food operations including the wholesale seafood market. It was a difficult facility to operate, with inadequate refrigeration and a lack of dock space. With new food safety rules coming along, the merchants felt they could become irrelevant if they did not upgrade or replace their facility. As a result, the merchants started working on a relocation plan and, according to John Vena, it was an instant success. “It only took us 11 years to design and build today’s facility. We started in 2000 and moved here in 2011.”

The first few years at the new location were a bit of a struggle. All merchants were trying to make the transition to modern operational standards and the move came with significant expenses. “John Vena, Inc. had seen regular annual growth, but we remained flat for the first few years in the new facility. We also had some vacancies at the start, which meant that the total rent had to be split between fewer merchants for a period of time. It was a lot to deal with, but we fought our way through. Today, we are 22 merchants. That is seven less than before we moved in 2011, however, it includes two new merchants and we are now 100 percent occupied. We are in a much better position than we were three years ago.”

Versatile customer base
The terminal market is open six days per week with Sunday being an abbreviated day where the market doesn’t open to customers until 10 am. “From a helicopter view, our customer base is pretty much everybody who wants to buy fresh produce and has an end-user in mind,” said Vena.

Generally, PWPM’s regular customers can be broken down into 40 to 60 percent food retail, 30 to 40 percent foodservice distributors and the balance is a range of operators that includes wholesalers and importers in the area that need something that they don’t currently have in stock. John Vena, Inc. services a very active group of foodservice customers within a 200-300-mile radius from the market. “We sell to a small independent guy who runs a van with lettuce and onions, but also to the larger national and regional broadliners. They all buy produce here. Some customers come once a week and others we see every day. Some only visit us once a year, but communicate with us in other ways.” 

Some of the Market’s customers are distribution operations that don’t have their own warehouses. “We have half a dozen or more customers that deliver to mid-size restaurants in the region and use the PWPM facility as their warehouse,” says John Vena. “The ambient temperature is kept at 50 degrees and customers can leave the purchased product on the dock, sort out their orders, load their trucks and deliver to all their customers. At the end of the day they go home and come back the next day.” Still other customers include national retail banners, independent supermarkets, seasonal farmers markets and individual restaurant or catering operators. “It’s exciting for us to be able to serve such a wide range of customers, and the diversity will serve the market well in the long term.”

Emily Kohlhas
John Vena, Inc.
Tel: 215-336-0766

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