Michael Levin started the company after emigrating from Lithuania in 1906. “We are the only family down here from day one since Dock Street—same family, same owners,” said his grandson Mark Levin, chief executive officer of M. Levin & Co.
"I grew up at the market. I remember pushing carts for my father.”
The family camaraderie among the Philadelphia Wholesalde Produce Market's vendors is evident walking along the market’s concourse. Forklifts zip by with flats of produce. The market “sells any product that grows under the sun” including Jersey produce and international fruits.
Levin describes being in the banana business as his store's hallmark. According to Levin, bananas are the number one selling fruit in the United States and mangos are number one in the world. M. Levin & Co. sells 30,000 boxes of bananas per week.
The one-of-a-kind banana ripening room enables the vendor to create the “perfect” banana by controlling the color, either more yellow or green, according to a customer's request. The room temperature is controlled room between 55-65 degrees and can accommodate six tractor-trailers full of bananas.
M. Levin & Co. and two dozen other produce vendors can be found under one roof at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. Last year, the market moved into its new state-of-the-art home at 6700 Essington Avenue.
The original Philadelphia produce market was located on Dock Street. Immigrant farmers and their families sold their produce directly off the piers. In 1959, the market moved to Packer and Galloway Streets near the stadiums. The current facility is known as the 'world’s largest refrigerator'—550,000 square feet fully refridgerated year-round.
The produce from Philadelphia’s ‘food hub’ ends up in retail stores within a 500-mile radius, such as Giant, Acme, ShopRite and Produce Junction.
“It shocks me every day. There’s nothing like it in the world. When I look down the concourse, it puts it all into perspective just how phenomenal it is,” said President and CEO Sonny DiCrecchio. “It took 10 years to build. It’s the largest terminal market of its kind in the world.”
Each day, produce prices vary. On the day of NBC10’s visit, 25 lbs. of tomatoes cost $15 and 40-48 ears of white corn cost $18 at Vassallo, Inc. Apples from Washington State were $32 for 88 count at TM Kovacevich.
The market is open to the public. To enter, cars pay $1 and SUVs pay $3. The general shopping hours are 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day weekday. On Sunday, it's open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday. However, arrangements with individual vendors can be made to make purchases at any time.
Michael Watson, a buyer at TM Kovacevich, said community groups or large families buy and split up the produce with relatives and neighbors.
The market’s produce (on average) is 30 percent cheaper than a retail grocery store. Manager Dan Kane explained the pricing changes daily and is driven by supply and demand. If there is a freeze on tomatoes than the cost will go up.
The market is the “largest impact on the food system in the region,” according to Kane. New York City’s market is Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx. It is the largest in the country but is not enclosed, which makes Philadelphia's competitive and desirable among buyers. Kane said there’s synergy between Hunts Point and the Philadelphia market. Oftentimes wholesalers buy produce from each market and sell.
“This is a true commodity market—the stock market of the world,” said Tom Curtis of Tom Curtis Brokerage. He is a buyer and has an office inside the Philadelphia` market. He compares the quality and price of each vendor’s produce. “If you find someone is buried in squash with 100 boxes, you can get a better price. It’s a fickle business.”
DiCrecchio is most proud of the market’s community presence, one such partnership is with the Stenton Family Manor. It was six years ago that DiCrecchio teammed up with Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb to arrange enough produce and fruit donations to feed 300 people each day. The partnership continues today. The market works cooperatively to teach the manor’s chefs how to select produce and use it throughout the daily diet.
Another successful partnership is with The Food Trust—350 refrigerators or coolers can be found in bodegas and corner stores throughout the region. The corner store initiative has reach. “We teach the store owners how to purchase produce. We are working to address food deserts in the area,” said DiCrecchio.
"Despite all the bad news in Camden, we do give them (the residents) fresh fruits and vegetables and plenty of it. Everything comes from here," said buyer Art Diamond.
The market is also a major contributor to Philabundance. Others who rely on the market product are chefs, restaurants and catering companies.
The size of the market is ginormous—it sits on 48 acres and is 700,000 square feet. It takes 680 tractor-trailer loads to fill and offers local famers a consistent customer base in a top-notch facility, which may compliment a local farm stand.
Fruits and specialty items are available for purchase. A café sits directly in the middle of the long concourse.
The USDA will be doing a study at the market starting this May for one year to quantify the local impact on the food supply in a 400 mile radius.
Every major city has a produce market. Philly’s is cutting edge and state of the art with fully enclosed loading docks. The new market was constructed to meet the pending USDA safety regulations facing the produce industry. Eighty-five percent of the waste generated is recycled right inside the market. According to Kane, the market may consider integretating solar into future green initiatives.
The Philadelphia market stands apart. "Other cities are trying to build such a market," said DiCrecchio.