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Rambutan and dragon fruit — how Produce Junction feeds Philly’s melting pot

The regional grocery chain has expanded its specialty produce, following requests from immigrant customers.

Oriental squash are pictured at Produce Junction in Glenside, Pa., on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. The grocery store chain stocks a variety of specialty produce in response to demand from immigrant communities in the region.
Oriental squash are pictured at Produce Junction in Glenside, Pa., on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. The grocery store chain stocks a variety of specialty produce in response to demand from immigrant communities in the region.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Benicie Jeantel will tell you how she likes her soup. She doesn't have a special name for the chicken and vegetable stews she makes for lunch, that she shares with relatives, young and old. She uses carrots, celery, onions, and she loves garlic, but often she'll throw in maybe one white potato — not too many — to give the broth a hit of something more.

"I like to put a little sweet in my soup," Jeantel explained, standing over her cart in the Produce Junction in Glenside.

White sweet potatoes aren't consistently available in area supermarkets. But Produce Junction, the regional grocery chain that focuses on fruits, vegetables, and flowers, has been honing its specialty selection over the last several years to serve customers like Jeantel, a Haitian immigrant seeking familiar ingredients that can be harder to find beyond ethnic markets.

This November, the chain's Glenside market has been stocking Thai eggplants, cactus pears, rambutan, dragon fruit, kabocha squash, chayotes, and Indian bitter melons, to name just a few of the newer items. This diversity is thanks to demographic change.

Immigrants moving to Philadelphia have been a major force behind the city's population growth. According to Census estimates, the immigrant population in the Philadelphia region grew by 20 percent between 2009 and 2016. In 2016, immigrants accounted for an estimated 10 percent of residents, or roughly 622,000 people, in the metropolitan area.

According to a Pew report in June on foreign-born residents in the area during 2016, about two immigrants lived outside the city for every one living in the city.

Produce Junction has a location in West Philadelphia, but 10 others  in Pennsylvania and six in New Jersey are in the suburbs. Staffers noticed more special orders from immigrant customers, and the company began to expand its efforts from there roughly five years ago. (There are also one store each in Allentown and in Dover.)

"We're doing it because there's a demand for it," said Produce Junction owner Albert Gentile.

Jeantel, 70, first moved to the United States in 1974. At first, pulling together a plate that could taste like food back in Saint-Marc, Haiti, was difficult, but mostly because she didn't know where to go. She realized that Trinidadian- and Jamaican-owned stores might stock the malangas and batatas, root vegetables she grew up eating. Before she found them at Produce Junction, she would drive from her home in Mount Airy to a Korean-owned market in the Northeast.  She buys them for taste, but getting the right sweet potato, she said, also helps with presentation.

"If you're cooking for older people, they want it to look good," she explained. "The look makes you want to have some."

Frank Gentile, Albert's son and regional manager, said the company sorts specialty items according to demand. When potato leaves arrive, Produce Junction will send them to the Wynnefield store, which has a base of customers from West Africa. The Egg Harbor store sees more Latino customers, so more cactus leaves and Thai hot peppers go there. Glenside has become popular for Caribbean shoppers, so staffers have learned that fresh callaloo sells well there. Root vegetables, the Gentiles have learned, as Jeantel did, draw a wide swath of nationalities.

Frank Gentile said customers are inspired by what they see on Pinterest and TV shows, and then come to the store with requests. John Stanton, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph's University, said there was an industry shift toward broadening a store's global mix, to entice both immigrants and U.S.-born customers, hoping to tackle a foodie recipe or revisit tastes they encountered while abroad.

That a shopper can come across dosekai, a type of cucumber popular in India, in a market aisle in the suburbs, is thanks to several trends at work. According to the Produce News, a trade publication, ports along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and South Jersey have been welcoming a more varied range of fruits and vegetables.

This coincides with improved logistics, said Stanton.

Philadelphia, long a key port for Chilean produce, isn't just getting more types of fruit —  the cargo is arriving faster and in better condition. Logistics firms have refined cold-chain processes, their systems for moving fruits and veggies while controlling for temperature. These advances have helped with the spread of now-ubiquitous avocados, but they also facilitate bringing pepino melons, an ingredient that fits in one's palm and tastes like a faintly sweet cucumber, to a dock in Philly before spoiling.

Frank Gentile said he could stock some items more consistently if he wasn't so focused on quality control.

"We don't want to give a bad representation of a fruit that's actually delicious  but just hasn't traveled properly to America or wasn't harvested at the right time," he said. "So that can create a little bit of complications."

The sourcing process remains tricky, he noted, but he also spoke optimistically.

"As the demands grow for items, farmers start to lengthen their seasons," he continued. "So it has gotten easier as the stuff gets more popular."

Stanton said investing in specialty produce is a tactic for attracting a "basket-size profit."

"You don't need to make money on every one of them; you need to get that person into the store," he said. "Even if they lose money on passion fruit … that customer becomes profitable, not necessarily the particular fruit."

Martha Castro, 28, an Ecuadorian from the city of Cuenca, makes the drive to Glenside from South Philly with family, more for the prices than the specialty stock.  She was planning to fix arroz con pollo with salad. Area merchants have offerings that fit Mexican cooking more than Ecuadorian, she said, adding that she hasn't come across the beans sold in Cuenca.

Maureen Gordon, 55, also frequents Produce Junction  — not so much for the specialty items, but for vegetables in general. Still, when the Mount Airy woman wants to make ackee and saltfish, the traditional dish of her native Jamaica, she likes to serve it with roasted breadfruit, a starchy ingredient that tastes like a sweet, soft roll. She used to buy it on trips to New York.

"I was surprised when I saw it here," Gordon explained, taking a break from examining the Scotch bonnet peppers, speaking not just of the store but of the region, "because I haven't seen it here before, you know?"