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Tucked into a narrow, cobblestone street just west of Elfreth’s Alley is a surprisingly expansive building. Currently empty, it’ll soon be overflowing with food, drink, and other local goods.
Amid the construction, it’s not easy to picture the space at 146 N. Bread St. as a bustling grocery store. Vaulted ceilings bring a lofty energy to the large interior, and giant skylights flood the room, with natural light reflecting off brick walls brightened by a fresh coat of white paint. But Riverwards Produce owner Vincent Finazzo has a vision.
“I’ve been looking for a second location for years now,” Finazzo, whose Fishtown spot opened a half-decade ago, told Billy Penn. “When I walked into this space, it just felt like it needed to be a market.”
Starting in 2016 as a pop-up selling fresh produce out of a garage, Riverwards met with early success. Finazzo decided to make it permanent, and took over an old fire house at 2200 E. Norris St. It has since become a staple for the community, offering everything from grocery store essentials to unique specialty items that showcase local makers.
Customers know they can stop in to grab a classic Granny Smith apple or experience the custard-like sweetness of a cherimoya. Pick up a pack of American slices for an old school sandwich or build a cheese board with an assortment of fancy artisan options. Swing by for fresh New Jersey oysters at a Sweet Amalia’s pop-up or snag a bouquet of fresh cut flowers.
Now Finazzo wants to bring that to Old City, with plans to open the new market this spring. At 3,000 square feet, his sophomore venture is about double the size of the original, and some new additions are planned.
“We’re going to be expanding our grab and go options,” Finazzo said. “We offer sandwiches and salads and sides right now, so we’re going to be building on that.”
He hinted at tentative plans to add a juice bar, which would not only offer made-to-order drinks but also dovetail with his overall strategy to reduce food waste.
With six years of experience, the neighborhood retailer says he’s bringing lessons hard won in Fishtown. Number one is to take the time for an extraordinary amount of research and planning.
“Every single refrigerator door, open case, and shelf is all meticulously planned in spreadsheets,” said Finazzo.
When he opened the first Riverwards, he was more cavalier, mostly guessing what he thought people would like. Now he believes listening to customers and being responsive to their needs is key to Riverwards’ success.
The neighborhood he’ll move into does not have a major supermarket nearby, with the closest being the new Giant Heirloom at the Fashion District. There are a handful of other, smaller retailers in the area, including Mulberry Market and Sassafras Market.
When it came to choosing a second location, Finazzo said he paid most attention to architecture: “I’ve been obsessed with how grocery stores look and feel for a long part of my life.”
He didn’t want a new construction building, but instead the chance to breathe new life into something historic. He found the Bread Street warehouse, built in 1913 between 2nd and 3rd, Arch and Race streets, and has been working on renovations for nearly a year.
The final transformation will be a big lift, but Finazzo is confident he and his team can step up to the challenge — with a lot of new help.
Riverwards is seeking 65 new staffers for the new outpost.
“We’re looking for people who first and foremost love food and love talking to people about food,” said Finazzo.
Before stocking a new product, he said, employees often test it out and discuss whether or not it’s something that will add value. This level of involvement empowers staff to speak with authority when customers come in with questions about what ingredients can be swapped out in a certain recipe, or which pickles will pair nicely on their charcuterie boards.
They’re also looking to hire folks who can adapt to the unpredictable nature of running a grocery store. “There’s a lot of inconsistencies that we deal with on a daily basis,” said Finazzo, “but our job is to make it consistent for the customer.”
To attract good people, Riverwards is offering a starting wage of $16 per hour, along with paid time off — vacation time, sick time, bereavement time, and family leave. There’s also a health care package, with wellness and mental health support via Healthy Pour and Fishtown Wellness Center.
“Grocery workers got put on a pedestal during the pandemic,” said Finazzo. “We’re really trying to follow through.”