A grocery store is taking shape in Old City — not in a massive warehouse with loading docks to accommodate tractor trailers but in a century-old former forge shop tucked into a narrow back alley paved with ankle-twisting, tire-jarring Belgian blocks.
It’s just the way Vincent Finazzo, who fancies himself an old-fashioned grocer, wants it.
Finazzo is deep into construction for the offshoot of Riverwards, the specialty grocery that he opened on a Fishtown corner in 2017. The new Riverwards, at 146 N. Bread St. (between Second and Third Streets, south of Race), is expected to open this spring.
At about 3,000 square feet, the new store will be nearly double the size of the original — still about one-fifteenth the size of the average U.S. supermarket — and will maintain the wooden skylit ceiling, allowing plenty of light. Builders Michael and Lena Parcell worked closely with the Philadelphia Historical Commission to restore the facade. Much of the building uses recycled materials, including the terrazzo floor.
Riverwards will join a Center City grocery scene that is only recently catching up to residential growth. Giant’s Heirloom Market recently opened at Eighth and Market Streets, following two others across town.
Aside from traditional items like pantry staples and produce, the new store will have a juice bar that Finazzo calls “an homage to the ‘70s granola-health-food-store-culture of yesteryear,” 100 bins of bulk foods, grab-and-go convenience items, organic/plant-based flavors of the moment (how about some unsweetened pistachio milk?), a freezer case “packed with as many local ice creams as we can grab” as well as a line of frozen foods. Seemingly every Philadelphia-area food producer has products on the shelves: Mycopolitan Mushrooms, Helen’s Pure Foods, Perrystead Dairy, Valley Milkhouse, Milk Jawn, Fiore, Poi Dog, Fishtown Pickle Project.
“I want people to cook,” Finazzo said during a tour of the Fishtown store last week. He passes a sign forhedgehog mushrooms, priced at $35.99 a pound. They are loose in a bin, not far from the bin of black trumpet mushrooms, priced at $45.99 a pound.
“If you’re trying to steal hedgehog mushrooms,” Finazzo said, “I’m probably OK with it because you’re going to cook something awesome with it.”
Riverwards’ growth comes with some hiccups.
Just before the city declared an emergency in March 2020, Riverwards was among the first grocery stores to implement social distancing and reduce capacity. Sales plummeted. Finazzo said he was forced to lay off 21 employees. “We just didn’t have enough money to pay the bills, so we had to just adjust everything and labor was one of them,” Finazzo said. He said it took about six months to get back on track. “It was a really hard time for small businesses,” he said. “Grocery was cool to be in, but it was so difficult.” (The former employees unified behind a GoFundMe that raised over $13,000.)
In a lightly-edited conversation with Finazzo, we talk about his path to becoming a grocer and why e-commerce is not for him.
What are you going for?
I’m really into the experience of shopping in a grocery store. You go into any big-box store and it sucks. People are bumping into you and making you feel rushed and uncomfortable. My goal is to play into the experience of nostalgia, of getting disconnected and coming into a space that feels beautiful, that feels timeless, it makes you feel transported.
One of my biggest inspirations for the store is Bi-Rite in San Francisco. It is like an absolute idol of a grocery store for me. It’s small. They do it right. I’m trying to bring back those old-format grocery stores that are about the community and really celebrate that.
Tell me your back story.
I grew up surrounded by agriculture in Michigan. But my family weren’t farmers. I would say they were just extreme gardeners. I went to art school in Chicago. I went to work in New York at a couple of art galleries, and then I came to Philly [and then meeting his now-wife, Sarah Connors, an interior designer] because it was cheaper than New York. I kept trying to get a [curator’s] job at the Museum of Art. [Meanwhile] I kept walking by the Whole Foods. I started there as a janitor, probably 11 years ago. I kept talking my way up, and I got into produce. And then they were like, ‘You’re pretty good at this.’ I worked my way up through Whole Foods as a boss.
I got high up enough that I was asking questions. I was getting sat down and they were saying, ‘Hey, you’re smart. Don’t be too smart. You’re going to get yourself into trouble.’
Then a produce brokerage company that I had worked with offered me a job. I’d fly down to Florida, check out green bean crops, and I’d sell a whole tractor trailer of green beans to an Acme or giant warehouse distribution center in the middle of nowhere.
I had a bunch of friends that were starting to open restaurants in Philly, and they knew me as this produce dude. They kept asking me where it came from, so I bought a truck and started delivering to restaurants. I was just moving it around.
I understand that you were known as the Pumpkin Man.
Standard Tap used to do this pumpkin beer festival where you could drink out of a pumpkin. And [in 2016], they asked me, ‘Can you get us 300 pumpkins?’ When you’re starting a business, you just say, ‘Yes.’ It doesn’t matter. Then literally the same week Morgan’s Pier said, ‘We want a whole bunch of pumpkins to put everywhere.’ So I had to buy all of these pumpkins and I had nowhere to put them. My friend Emily had this small garage. She said, ‘If you clean it out, you can use it.’ I cleaned it out, and I was loading pumpkins into it, and all the neighbors are like, ‘What are you doing? Can I buy a pumpkin?’ And then that’s how it started.
The pop-up went really well, and then a Realtor friend brought me around the corner to look at this space [at Norris and Sepviva Streets]. I was like, ‘This is way too big.’ Now it’s too small.
You really knew very little. How did you grow the business?
The neighborhood was the fuel. They were the response. They were like, ‘Oh, my God. This is so cool. Can you open more days? When we opened Riverwards, I opened it bare-bones. There were two cases, two refrigerators in it, and some piles of produce.
You’re planning other locations. Do you think of going into underserved neighborhoods?
I think about that all the time. We participate in a ton of mutual-aid programs. We fill fridges, we donate produce boxes every week that get distributed to families in the neighborhood that are hungry. And we work with all kinds of people. That is built into the ethos of Riverwards. So as we grow, the ability to expand upon those projects is always part of the plan. I would love to open a grocery store in a lot of different places.
Many grocers are hitting e-commerce and delivery hard, not opening new locations.
I will say that e-commerce is not something that I’m interested in pursuing. There are heavy hitters with endless supplies of cash chasing that dream just in Philly alone. You got Gopuff. We all know how much money Gopuff has. And you have DoorDash with DashMart. You have Uber trying to compete with Instacart. You have Amazon doing Amazon Prime and Amazon Fresh. Just those five companies alone fighting for market share.
That is a fine model, but I’m about celebrating the experience of going into a location and feeling something. That’s what I’m after. I want to bring people into a space that doesn’t have some fulfillment worker bouncing around them. And I want to curate a store that’s beautiful, that helps people forget about everything except maybe the food they want to put in their body.
And this is the next step. This is just the beginning. It’s not just two. It’ll keep going.