From John's Desk: A Tale of Evolution

January 28, 2019


This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of the Produce Business Magazine


"You can't expect to meet the challenges of today with yesterday's tools and expect to be in business tomorrow." - Anonymous


Evolving channels of distribution and consolidation of buyers and sellers across the industry make this particularly poignant advice for those of us in the produce terminal market business. Careful planning is essential and it almost always requires more than throwing dollars at the ever-evolving challenges we face. For instance, hiring new sales personnel, in and of itself, isn't enough. It doesn't do to just plan on adding to the sales team in order to meet revenue goals if we don't include the rooms, coolers, docks, and desks we will need to "service what we sell."


Growing up in a small family wholesale business operated from a single unit on the old Philadelphia Market, we developed some tricks to make more space. We became adept at hand-stacking baskets of local tomatoes, peppers, peaches, apples, etc. in a pyramid configuration as high up the wall of our store as we could reach without squashing or dropping any fruit. Now, I know, that was a good tactic, but not a strategy.


As our product line evolved toward specialty and greenhouse produce, I began to visit facilities in Israel and the Netherlands. Our overseas trading partners were playing on a global field and had invested in their facilities as a strategy to achieve their goals. Their farms, warehouses, and distribution centers were planned to optimize productivity and facilitate growth. I began to see how the puzzle of strategic planning and improved facilities came together. 


As a charter tenant in the newly constructed Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market on Essington Avenue, we had the opportunity to make our strategic plans the driver in the facility-design process. As a result, our new units have led to profound growth in our company in many significant ways, not just in additional revenue. 


The old Philadelphia Regional Produce Market on Galloway street was as modern a terminal market as you could find in the Northeast, but that Market had been built in the 1950s with technology from the 1930s. We had a "single stream" solution to trash and recyclable materials - the street in front of our loading dock. Our "cold chain" was missing a few links, and driving a forklift across the platform would loosen your teeth. Just backing a truck into the dock to load or unload became a debate, or worse, over who had the right to use that spot. A lot of energy was wasted just getting through the day. 


From the first month in our new building, our staff and customers quickly adapted to new procedures and practices. We had plenty of dock doors and a well-planned trash and recycle system. Much of the physical stress associated with getting product unloaded, serving customers, and cleaning up at the end of the day vanished. 


In moving our operation from Galloway Street to the new site on Essington Avenue, the "packing station" we had in a corner became a full-store unit dedicated to packing our customer specifications. We went from ripening avocados in one of our trucks to using high-pressure rooms capable of pre-conditioning many kinds of fruit. On Galloway Street we had to choose to either unload product or to load customer's trucks; now we are able to do both simultaneously around the clock. We never invited prospective customers to Galloway Street. Now, we are willing to send a car or bus to bring visitors, and the Market runs tours every month for schools, trade visitors, and groups of all kinds.


The most compelling aspect of moving into a modern facility was the change in mindset that spread throughout our company. It fostered willingness across all departments to consider new projects and methods that we had never tried. We learned to say yes to customers when they asked us to pack or ripen products we hadn't before because we had the right facilities to try it. Some of those initiatives led to small failures, a few to near disasters, but all led to learning and innovation that we would use on future projects. 


Our new facility has opened up advancement opportunities for staff and created new positions filled by talented, skilled people that might not have been comfortable in our old site. And as industry buyers become more concerned about the sources of their products, we have the ability to remain relevant and meet their concerns. We can demonstrate that our facilities and our team are in sync with food safety protocols, cold chain preservation, productivity, and efficiency. And yes, revenue is growing. But more importantly, we are a better company than ever before, and we see more opportunity than ever before. 

Posted by:
John Vena

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