For years, produce-picky residents of Fishtown and Kensington planned their shopping around weekend visits to Greensgrow Farms, the Kensington mainstay that has supplied fresh food to the area for two decades, or else they ventured to farmers’ markets or supermarkets.
But things have changed. As the population has boomed in those neighborhoods, so have sources for leafy greens. There’s Fishtown’s Riverwards Produce, which is open seven days a week. There are delivery services, including WeGardn, which operates out of a warehouse nearby in North Philadelphia. There’s Parsley & Sage on Girard Avenue, a weekly farmers’ market in Port Richmond, and a co-op opening soon in Kensington.
Vincent Finazzo opened the Riverwards Produce store on Norris Street in April after he staged a pop-up market to test the interest level in Fishtown. The response was stronger than he anticipated, leading him to believe there was demand for affordable fruits and vegetables.
A former produce buyer for Whole Foods, he began Riverwards in 2015 as a distributor serving local restaurants, including Pizza Brain, Helm, Root, and the Front Street Cafe. Now, as owner of a store that sells everything from lettuce to steaks to vegan ice cream, he said he can leverage his buying power as a wholesaler to set shelf prices lower than those of some competitors.
“I’m trying to match the needs of the neighborhood,” he said. “But my main goal is to be financially accessible. I want prices to be low enough to welcome the foundation of the community.”
Riverwards sells onions and local red potatoes for 99 cents a pound; the closest supermarket in Port Richmond prices each at $1.49 per pound. Lemons are 45 cents at Riverwards, instead of $1 each at the local Acme in Northern Liberties and the IGA in Port Richmond. Apples cost $1.25 per pound, less than the prices at both supermarkets.
The store sells seasonal organic produce from local farmers, as well as locally sourced dairy and meat, and a variety of products, such as nuts, dried fruit, vegan items, and fresh bread. There’s also a cookbook corner for shoppers to use. Finazzo said business has been strong so far, and he’s even starting to attract a few native Fishtowners along with newer transplants.
“I get this one older lady who comes once a week and buys four red potatoes,” he said. “I get some people who have white bread and deli cuts from the Fishtown Market and stop in to buy tomatoes. Seeing that makes me optimistic.”
With WeGardn, a delivery service that opened in a warehouse on North Fifth Street in the spring, CEO Katie DeLorenzo said the goal was to create an online farmers’ market with fair prices.
“I wanted to make it easier for people who didn’t want to choose between making an organic choice for themselves and saving their pennies,” said DeLorenzo, a former operations specialist at Goldman Sachs who moved to Philadelphia five years ago.
The company buys from farmers, artisans, and distributors, including Riverwards. For now, WeGardn delivers to zip codes from Port Richmond to Passyunk to University City. Eventually, the company would like to offer meal kits, similar to Blue Apron or HelloFresh. So far, the service has a high customer-retention rate, DeLorenzo said, including some who are homebound and benefit from door-to-door delivery.
WeGardn’s prices are similar to those of the area’s supermarkets: Potatoes cost 99 cents per pound, same as at the Acme Supermarket in Northern Liberties, slightly less than IGA in Port Richmond. Red leaf lettuce is $1.99, slightly more than the cost of Romaine lettuce in those two grocery stores. Shipping is $5.
DeLorenzo said she sees opportunity in both the newer populations in Kensington, Fishtown, and Northern Liberties, and in the more entrenched residents.
“But that’s the million-dollar question,” DeLorenzo said. “How do we get somebody to go from one of our competitors to us? In so many stores, it’s cheaper to buy chips than an apple — and you don’t see an improvement from one apple. But it improves your quality of life.”
Even at the IGA supermarket on Aramingo Avenue, the longtime neighborhood store in the Port Richmond shopping plaza, things are not as they used to be. In recent years, the market has shifted from what manager Don Petzak called a “basic meat-and-potatoes store” to one that offers more fresh fruit, vegetables, and natural foods. The store recently refurbished its produce department, adding cases that allow for more variety.
“We were a blue-collar neighborhood where people were feeding their families,” he said. “Now, we have more one- to two-person households. They don’t want processed foods. Everybody’s buying more produce.”
The changes have also been positive for the store’s longtime customers, who he said had benefited from the wider selection of fresh food.
“People don’t like change, but the response has been good,” he said. “We don’t want to become a Whole Foods. We want to be the neighborhood store for everybody.”
Fishtown may nearing the produce saturation point — a thought that would have been unthinkable just five years ago. Green Aisle grocery, a small branch of a chain with outposts in Passyunk and the Graduate Hospital area, closed its Girard Avenue store last week after two years, citing slow sales. The company is launching a delivery service for Fishtown and Northern Liberties customers.
“We loved the location, but we could not get it to where we wanted it to be,” co-owner Adam Erace said. “There’s certainly more competition since we opened.”
At Greensgrow, the nonprofit that has been on the forefront of the city’s urban farming movement since it was founded in 1997, executive director Ryan Kuck said the seasonal CSA farmshare program, which cost about $33 a week this summer, is growing and thriving. But he acknowledged that at times it feels like the farm is a victim of its own success. Sales at the farmstand, which offers produce and products from local growers, have lagged in recent years, for reasons he traces to competition from other markets and the proliferation of delivery services.
“Our job is not to compete with small businesses, because if our farmers have more outlets for their products, that’s a good thing,” he said. “But we do have to stay competitive. And you can never assume you don’t have anything to learn from what other businesses are doing.”
But Kuck also said Greensgrow offers things not easily replicated: a farm in the middle of Kensington, a pig resting in the yard, a duck strolling the grounds, and a team of people ready to talk about what’s good and fresh. It created subsidized CSAs for low-income families and developed mobile markets for underserved neighborhoods. The CSA boxes, which include fruits, vegetables, a protein, and a dairy product like eggs or butter, are Greensgrow’s early version of a meal kit service.
The organization’s goal, after all, is to connect urban dwellers with products from local farmers and help change how they eat. About $20,000 in sales per year comes from SNAP dollars, (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps) Kuck said, with about 80 SNAP families subscribing to Greensgrow for a weekly share of produce from a local farms. Greensgrow receives another $20-30,000 in fruit and vegetable voucher redemptions through the Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program from about 300 families that receive financial assistance for health and nutrition through WIC (Women, Infants and Children).
“So, yeah, to see these businesses doing this, it does keep me up at night,” Kuck said. “But it also shows we’ve been successful.”