It all started in a friend’s garage in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Vincent Finazzo was running a supply chain resource company connecting local restaurants to nearby food purveyors. He knew a number of farmers, understood where food was coming from, and wanted to give restaurants access to fresh, seasonal and local produce.
As his business grew so did his need for storage space. “My friend had a small garage and said that if I cleaned it out, I could store stuff there,” says Finazzo. But as Finazzo began loading up the garage with farm fresh produce and local goods, neighbors started asking if they could buy food from him as well. Finazzo quickly realized that restaurants weren’t the only ones in need of quality food – the community needed access to it as well. Many Fishtown residents didn’t have a place within walking distance where they could purchase groceries, so Finazzo came up with an idea. “I launched a pop-up market out of the garage and it was really successful,” says Finazzo. He moved his inventory around the corner into a historic firehouse, and on Earth Day in 2017 he opened Riverwards Produce Market.
It started out as one big room with a produce stall in the middle and a few stocked shelves along the walls. But now, four years later, Riverwards has grown into its modest 1,700 square foot space, brimming with multiple stalls of fresh produce and shelves full of local goods, specialty products and kitchen staples. It’s the kind of market where you can grab the essentials, like a couple of onions or some salad greens, but also get introduced to unique foods that are tricky to track down at conventional markets, like red dragon fruit or reishi mushrooms. Do you like mandarin oranges? Try satsumas, a different citrus variety that’s juicier and sweeter. Do you enjoy asparagus? Perhaps you’d like to try white asparagus, a variety with a short harvest during early spring.
But it’s not all about organic, local or specialty products, though, admittedly that is a big part of the business. Finazzo’s top priority is getting communities access to fresh food. “It’s important for the health of the community to have access to fresh food, and when you provide access to fresh food, you create the building blocks to a more sustainable lifestyle just in the essence of what everyone eats,” says Finazzo.
Food supply chains are a complex constellation of buying contracts, prices, the changing seasons, locality, and the shifting needs of the community, and connecting the dots between all of these moving parts can be challenging. Before opening Riverwards, Finazzo gained experience navigating these systems, working for a big box grocery store and in national produce brokerage and sales. His experience gave him a good understanding of the difficulties that traditional grocery stores face, and gave him an inside look at the ways in which today’s industrialized and systemized supply chains fall short of meeting the needs of some customers.
One of the biggest challenges, Finazzo says, are the buying contracts large grocery stores sign which prevent them from buying seasonally and appropriately. “They’re not able to take advantage of seasonal highs and lows,” says Finazzo, “so they aren’t able to bring those values and that freshness to the community.” These contracts also limit what produce grocery stores are able to stock, giving their customers less options and less variety.
Though Riverwards works with some large distributors, they are, for the most part, not held to these kinds of strict contracts. “We’re able to shop around,” says Finazzo. “We’re able to buy local and organic stuff in volumes that allow us to get good prices.” Their agile purchasing not only brings the community fresh produce at competitive prices, it also means customers have access to an ever-changing supply of unique ingredients from small farms and producers not just in the Philadelphia region, but from across the country. One week you might find Hidden Rose Apples just in from Oregon, and the week after you may find beet Campanelle pasta from Little Noodle Pasta, a producer operating in Philadelphia and Denver.
Access to food isn’t just about making it available and affordable. To Finazzo, access is also about creating a positive shopping experience where people feel welcome. “I think that good, fresh food has been put on a pedestal and held out of reach to a lot of members of our community,” says Finazzo.
Food is oftentimes lifestyle driven. What we buy, what we cook, and what we eat become subtle ways we communicate our identities to the world. But the trouble with curating a lifestyle is that lifestyle is an abstract idea built of expectations and aspirations. And though it is perfectly fine to reach toward that which is aspirational, the attitudes around certain lifestyles can be a form of gatekeeping, making others feel excluded. “We’ve put a lot of barriers between people and food,” says Finazzo, “and that’s what we’re trying to break down at Riverwards.”
That’s why, when it comes to stocking the shelves, organic foods are an option, but they’re not the only option. Riverwards is where bottles of small batch ponzu sauce made by a Philadelphia producer are on a shelf just above bottles of classic Heinz ketchup. It’s where someone shopping on a budget can grab the two potatoes they need without committing to a costly 5-pound bag. It’s where you can buy your average cremini mushrooms, but if you were feeling adventurous, you can try out the shitake and oyster mushrooms as well.
Riverwards is as much of a place to buy food as it is a resource to educate the community about food. When new products arrive, they post them on Instagram with interesting facts on where they come from, their historical significance, and what to expect when incorporating these ingredients in your home cooking. Not only do they have cookbooks on hand for people to reference, the Riverward staff is also available to lend their culinary expertise. “My goal isn’t a 100% local organic market, because I think that that pushes people away from cooking and from food,” says Finazzo. “My goal is to promote healthy cooking habits, so people feel good about what they’re making.”