Fruits — and vegetables — of their labor keep Reading Market produce shop bustling

Alex Veal, 28, stacks some pears at Iovine Brothers produce store in Reading Terminal Market.

Alex Veal, 28, stacks some pears at Iovine Brothers produce store in Reading Terminal Market. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Old-school hip-hop provides a beat at 4:30 a.m. while the workers at Iovine Brothers build up colorful arrangements of fruits and vegetables at the produce shop at the southeast corner of Reading Terminal Market.

Every morning, the produce is brought up from the basement walk-in refrigerators, which can hold up to five tractor-trailer loads. Building and food preparation continue through the morning, even as customers start their shopping at exactly 8 a.m., when Reading Terminal opens.

But for Jimmy Iovine, the day starts much earlier. Three days a week, he’s up at 3:30 a.m. and placing orders on his computer. By 5:30 a.m., he arrives at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Center, and that’s when his day really begins.

For the next three and a half hours, he will make his way through the long refrigerated warehouse in Southwest Philadelphia. The orders he needs to make live on a Google document on his iPad, which he updates as he makes his way through the warehouse so his brother Vinny can follow along.

“Knowing where your food comes from and who you’re dealing with is the most important” part of picking the produce, Jimmy says. “If I find something the customer likes, I’ll stick with that brand.”

At the warehouse, he makes a point to taste different products that are just coming into season or going out.

“This is the fun part, poor Vinny does the office work.”

“It was all a learning curve, and the learning is ongoing,” Jimmy says as he remembers the beginnings of the store he now runs with his brother Vinny, 51.

It was Vinny who first began working at the produce store in Reading Terminal Market in 1989 back when it was Ro and Son’s. “I love produce, it wasn’t my plan, I got lucky,” said Jimmy recounting his beginnings as a hot dog vendor.

Vinny bought the store in 1994. He changed the name to Iovine Brothers in 1995 when Jimmy joined him. With Jimmy’s background in food distribution and Vinny’s business background, the store has flourished.

The customers have become like family to the Iovines and their loyal workers, and the feeling is mutual. Donna Shovlin of Villanova enters the store and hugs Jimmy. She has been coming the market for decades.

“It’s so economical to shop here. They care about what they put out,” Shovlin said. “I come every week, or whenever I’m in town, to say hello. They’re like family, they look after us.”

Marian Byers of Blackwood, New Jersey, shops here every Saturday with her son Sherman. “I love the produce …  if they don’t have what you want, you can tell the boss, and he’ll find it for you.”

“It’s just good fresh produce,” her son adds as they choose containers of freshly cut watermelon.

For Joseph Domingo of Rittenhouse, Iovine Brothers is a place to educate his 20-month-old twins.

“It’s a good experience for the kids, the colors and the different types of veggies, it’s a learning experience for them.” he says. “I’m from Spain. We have these [markets], you can touch and learn. It was a family experience for me as a kid going to the market, so I’m bringing that to my kids as well.”

The buzz continues steadily throughout the day until 6 p.m. when the Iovine workers begin to break down their shop and bring the products back downstairs into the walk-ins. In the morning, they will begin all over again.

“It’s not like we wouldn’t be able to succeed somewhere else [as a produce market], but I don’t want to.” said Jimmy of the Reading Terminal Market location. “I fell in love with this place the first time I stepped foot in it.”

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