Pulse: City Life: Feel Free to Squeeze the Melons

At the produce terminal in South Philly, they still do business the old-fashioned way

Thump that watermelon all you want; you’ll never know whether it’s ripe until you bring it home. Unless you buy from Mark Levin, a vendor at the Philadelphia Regional Produce Terminal. Levin believes in his melons. He will halve one before your eyes, hand you the knife, and invite you to have a taste. If you fumble with the knife, Levin will admonish you:

“I said to try it, not massacre it.”

Like all produce, watermelons vary by crate and by season. This is why discerning customers look before they buy, and why Philadelphia has always maintained a wholesale produce market — though last year, the city nearly lost it to Jersey.

At the old Dock Street market, goods were laid out on the sidewalk and would get splashed with mud on rainy days. The current market was built in 1959, near the entrance to the Walt Whitman Bridge. The sales day begins at 4 a.m., when pickups and cargo vans pull in beside long Thermo-King trailers at the docks. You might see Georges Perrier rummaging through a box of leeks, or Steve Cousins of Cousin’s, the North Philadelphia supermarkets, snapping up specialty peppers.

There is the daily market newspaper, four pages of agate tracking prices and volume. There are the two diners that will deliver a pack of cigarettes with your breakfast. There are offices upstairs with wood wainscoting and stuffed marlins, where you are allowed to smoke the cigarettes.

The market’s vendors, guys like Jimmy Storey of Quaker City Produce, know how to knock a dollar off a crate of endive with a pause and narrowing of the eyes. Their talk mixes the locker room and the huddle, stuff like “Make sure that asshole got his honeydews” and “one-80-Idaho and two-­colossal-Spanish” — an order for potatoes and onions, respectively. Despite supermarkets like Acme shipping produce directly from the packing plant, and wholesalers like Sysco swallowing competitors and driving down prices, the market’s vendors have survived. In an age where keystrokes command warehouses thousands of miles away, the market is one of the last places where buyer, seller and product still look each other in the eye.

But like many a beloved Philadelphia institution, the market is falling apart. The gates of its stores are ragged with splinters; steel plates patch the fissures in its weary concrete platforms. In a few years, the federal government will likely require that produce be kept cold from the field to the shopping cart, outlawing open-air markets like Philadelphia’s altogether.

Enter general manager Sonny Di Crecchio, who began the search for a new site by surveying each vendor’s total sales. The total was stunning — $1.1 billion in annual revenue. “Until then,” he says, “we’d never realized how important we were.”

Armed with Di Crecchio’s findings, the market entertained a $98 million offer from New Jersey before committing to stay in Philadelphia. By 2007, Di Crecchio hopes to move into a new site a few blocks away, at Oregon Avenue and Columbus Boulevard, that will more than double the current market’s cold storage space. The $160 million project will be the world’s first to be completely enclosed and refrigerated. But despite the addition of technology like a rail link and thumbprint scanners, Di Crecchio promises, the market will retain its traditions. “It’s a big family down here,” he says, “and the crisper will keep on feeding an even bigger one.”