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In Philadelphia, frustration mounts as temperatures drop

by Tad Thompson | January 26, 2011
Key among Philadelphia's reasons for building what is expected to be the world’s most modern produce market is working from a facility that is totally temperature controlled. The construction is behind schedule, and Mother Nature is the only force controlling temperatures around the old market. The original plan was for the new market to open in moderate weather last October.

The Produce News visited the old 1959-vintage market on a frigid morning Jan. 24, when temperatures hovered in the single digits and produce distributors were airing frustrations about the construction delays.

Mark Levin, president of M. Levin & Co. Inc., stood at his market sales desk warmed by a portable space heater that was working overtime to try to keep up with the biting cold in the office. The company’s doors were open for the passing of pallet jacks and customers. Because of the weather and typically slow end-of-month movement, Mr. Levin said he was thankful for any sales that morning.

He said that he was also thankful that his firm sells mostly fruit, adding that customers pushing leafy vegetables around the open market for an hour before loading would likely face so many black leaves by the following day. Levin & Co. is building its own banana-ripening rooms at the new market, but Mr. Levin said his customized construction had yet to begin.

Chip Wiechec, owner of Hunter Bros. Inc., was a picture of exasperation as he sat at his chilly mezzanine-level desk. He said that business is down on the old facility and he was anxious to move to a modern operation.

Up the south walk of the market, Ted Kean Jr., owner of E.W. Kean Co. Inc., was fully bundled in winter garb as he worked his sales floor. He, too, shook his head in frustration at the scene, wondering aloud what might have been if the market had opened on time.

The entire sales staff at Quaker City Produce Co. Inc. was bundled and spoke among themselves on a quiet Monday morning. Pete Storey, who is running the operation while his father and company owner Jimmy Storey is taking a leave of absence, said business is slow.

Among the construction issues the wholesalers discussed were the market’s new floor being too slippery for forklift traction and the massive new central refrigeration units being so loud that they make it difficult to hold a normal conversation.

Tom Stefanopoulos will eventually be operating a large, modern restaurant inside the new market. This will replace his two Norm & Lou’s diners, which are on the old facility’s two docks. Mr. Stefanopoulos said that he will need six to eight weeks in the building to prepare to move into his new restaurant. He said that he is not allowed on to the new site even to measure walls. He said that when criticism arose of progress at the construction site, the builder ended new-operator access.

At the old market, Mr. Stefanopoulos said that Norm & Lou’s rooftop refrigeration system has been in need of repairs since last summer. But because he expected to leave in October, the repairs were not initiated. Now he faces regular expenses to keep his refrigeration functioning.

"If I had known it would be this long, I would have saved money to make the improvements last year," he said.

Mr. Stefanopoulos has been told that the new market may not be ready to be occupied until mid-April.

“It is a complicated project, and it is coming along, but we’re not in position to say anything” about a move-in date. “We just don’t know at this time,” John Vena, president of John Vena Inc. and chairman of the new market’s marketing committee and a member of the board of directors of the Philadelphia Fresh Food Terminal Corp., told The Produce News Jan. 26. “We are stuck here with this market and conditions. This building is what it is, and that is why we want to move.”

He added that the preliminary work to build a new market took a decade, and he said the market operators were ready to move even back then.

Last year, Mr. Vena said, “I added staff in preparation for that new market. That is a hardship because we still are here. We have extra people but we are not able to flex our muscles and do the job we prepared for so many months. Many of us [on the market] added to staff or did modifications of our business. I, for one, started an import deal that, when the fruit starts to arrive, I’m not sure where I’ll put it.”

He continued, “On many fronts — the facility, staffing space, business and opportunities — we as a group want to get into that new building. Everybody I talked to said, 'We have to do what we have to do. The building has to be ready. A few more days won’t make that much difference.’ Our leadership has taken that to heart. Everyone has been doing what we can. It is a complicated deal. It is difficult.”

He concluded, “People are really anxious to go for a lot of reasons, especially this year with the weather. Many of us planned to be there. We have business activities and we want to get moving.”