July 24, 2019
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of the Produce Business Magazine
When asked to describe what your company does, what do you say? I used to say, "We sell fresh fruits and vegetables, wholesale." Located in the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, John Vena Inc. is commonly perceived to be a "Terminal Market Wholesaler" - an industry term indicating a clear, preconceived role in the supply chain, the last links supplying end users such as restaurants and independent retailers.
Yet, if I said to most people in the Philadelphia area that I worked in the produce terminal market, they would guess I meant the Reading Terminal Market, a large retail space built below the train station that served Center City Philadelphia. The train station is long gone, but the retail market still flourishes.
So, we choose not to be defined by "Terminal." It's easy to say, "We sell fresh fruits and vegetables, wholesale," but harder to describe how we do it. I prefer not to have too narrow a definition for my company. Lately, I'm using an even shorter phrase to describe what we do: "We sell fresh produce." If my listener finds that intriguing, and some do, I then launch into my short pitch explaining our product lines. If they haven't moved away after that, I'll continue with a listing of the things we do with fresh produce that provide value to our customers.
In some cases, these activities are so new to our industry we haven't gotten a term or a buzzword to apply as a label. For example, we packed for an online meal kit subscription customer for more than a year before we learned to use the term "kitting."
You may pigeonhole your company if you apply too narrow a definition of how it makes its revenues. It's no surprise the food industry is changing at an incredible rate. Our segment of the industry must adapt to new technologies for data collection and processing, automation, marketing, packaging, and innovations in delivery options across the food industry. We must be flexible enough to see these things, and consider what we have to do to sell more produce. We have found our role may change with each of our trading partners.
Here are three questions to ask before deciding on any labels for your company:
#1. Are we wholesalers or re-packers?
Customers have rewritten and will continue to rewrite our company job description. Our product line, sourcing procedures, services offered, even our food safety protocols are under constant scrutiny to ensure they meet a customer's requirements. Their needs are changing, and we have the chance to fulfill them. In a effort to cut waste, both foodservice operators and retailers asked us to make smaller packages of some products. This led to a fully staffed and equipped repacking facility, not something I would have predicted in 1985.
#2. Are we wholesalers or logistic service providers?
Our facilities presented challenges and opportunities. Planning the move to our current space in the new Market forced us to consider what new kinds of services we could offer by employing one design feature or another. Ripening services, cross-docking, forward distribution, and custom packing have become everyday activities and allowed us to see a future defined only by our willingness to continue to do new things.
#3. Are we wholesalers or importers?
Some suppliers have frequently asked us to step into roles we hadn't tried. Working with smaller, overseas growers led us to become direct importers since they often lack the resources required to support exporting to the United States. Larger suppliers often ask us to provide supply chain services for them, adding to the volume of cross-docking and distribution work.
Asking these questions about your customer's needs, your facility requirements, and extra services you could offer is critical if you want to remain relevant in the industry. Be assured your competitors and customers are asking them in their own planning sessions. Here's the downside: if you're not careful, you can develop a bad case of "mission drift." We have not been immune to it. Distracted by some new shiny task, we have wasted time and resources on a project only to realize it won't help us sell more produce. Not every request from a customer or supplier can be managed if it's too far from your core abilities. My cabinet is full of files for failed or almost-failed projects. Yet, standing at the threshold of our 100th year we are still looking for new ideas to "just sell more produce." It's energizing.