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A midweek blizzard to add to complications in Middle Atlantic region

by Tad Thompson | February 08, 2010

The mid-Atlantic produce industry was whacked by one large storm Feb. 5-6 and is braced for another Feb. 9-10. As much as two feet of new snow was expected to hit Philadelphia, which was forecast to be in the bull's eye of the midweek, full-fledged blizzard.

According to a Feb. 8 report by The Weather Channel, among major mid- Atlantic landmarks, Dulles Airport received the greatest snowfall in the Feb. 5-6 storm, with 30 inches. Tony Vitrano, president of the Tony Vitrano Co., said that the Maryland Wholesale Produce Center in Jessup, MD, also received 30 inches.

Mr. Vitrano told The Produce News Feb. 8 that his customers in Washington, DC, received about 20 inches of snow "and they don't have the best system, either, for clearing the snow. Our customers there were closed today."

The weekend storm "impacted us pretty severely," Mr. Vitrano said. The Jessup market is normally open for a half-day on Saturdays but was totally shut down on Feb. 6. "We didn't open until midnight last night, and even then there were a lot of customers who couldn't get in because the local roads were congested."

The Jessup market is adjacent to a truck stop, and there were tractor-trailers blocking the roads to the market. "It took our employees two hours to get the last mile from the freeway to our offices," Mr. Vitrano said. "Customers couldn't get in, and they couldn't get out. It was like a nightmare." He noted that the [Maryland] Food Center Authority did a great job of clearing the snow" and that the parking lot and docks were cleared for business, "but the local roads in the area were very congested."

Lancaster Foods LLC operates its own sprawling warehouse adjacent to the Jessup wholesale market. John Gates, president and chief operating officer of Lancaster Foods, said of the February snow, "It really screwed us up. Everyone wants everything. We were shut down and open and will be shut down again. It is no less business and there is no more business. It is all condensed into short time frames. We are doing the best we can."

On the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market, John Vena, owner of John Vena Inc., said Feb. 8 that his market received 20-25 inches of snow Feb. 6. The market was operational by the morning of Feb. 7. "It is hard to separate the weather from post-Super Bowl activity," he said. The produce business "is usually a little slow" on the day after the climatic football game. But "I'm fairly certain" that the storm "is what hurt us because of a lack of activity over the weekend," he said. Truckers were late arriving because of the weather, and "we have customers in the DC and Baltimore area that were paralyzed," he said. "Our out-of-town business was affected more than the metropolitan business."

Mike Maxwell, president of Procacci Bros./Garden State Farms in Philadelphia, said that his company was fortunate in a couple respects. The majority of Procacci's retail customers happen to be north of the city. The Feb. 5-6 storm progressed only as far as 30 miles north of Philadelphia. Thus retailers in northern New Jersey received no significant snow, so there was less impact on Procacci's business than might have been generally expected. Furthermore, Mr. Maxwell said, "If you had to pick a day" for a bad storm to have the least impact on Procacci's operations "snowing from Friday into Saturday would be best for us."

Mr. Maxwell said that the forecast of the first storm created a consumer rush on retail stores but that Procacci was able to service its customers by Sunday.

Mr. Maxwell expected the Feb. 9-10 storm to have "a little different" impact - - and to be more disruptive because of the timing in midweek.

Also complicating February's produce business is heavy rain in California and Mexico atop January's freeze in Florida, Mr. Maxwell added.

Mr. Vitrano said that the forecast of additional snow for Feb. 9-10 "will be enough to paralyze us again," adding, "Normally a weekend storm is the best of the worst scenarios. But a storm from tomorrow night through Wednesday would be another day of lost business."

Mr. Vena said that orders were light on Feb. 8. "Valentine's Day is coming, and we hope that will perk things up. That depends on how well the city clears the streets" after the February 9-10 storm."

Mr. Maxwell noted, "We live around the weather. From growing to the selling side, we live around the weather day by day."