For more than 40 years, the Maryland Food Center Authority (MFCA) has served as a vital hub to approximately 30 produce and seafood distributors that serve retail and foodservice customers in Maryland and adjacent Mid-Atlantic states.
The idea of opening a consolidated, centralized distribution center, midway between the Baltimore and Washington markets, to serve perishables wholesalers, the nearly 400-acre site was first conceived in the late 1960s. However, it took until 1976 for the produce market to open; eight years later, the MFCA attracted enough seafood distributors to open dedicated facilities for those purveyors.
Don Darnall has served as the executive director of the quasi-state agency since 1984 and has seen the industry evolve significantly over the past 35 years.
“Technology has played a crucial role in what retailers and end users demand from their suppliers and distributors. We needed to address issues like food safety and shifting supply chain,” said Darnall. “It is our job to provide a platform for our tenants to create more efficiency for their customers.”
And that brings us to some ambitious expansion and remodeling plans that the MFCA has in its sights.
The first phase of new development will include a total renovation of its seafood market. Darnall believes that a combination of industry consolidation and the aging of its seafood facility have made it more challenging to keep existing seafood tenants, let alone also attracting new seafood distributors.
Beginning next month, the revitalization of the seafood market will begin. The MFCA is prepared to spend up $4.5 million to essentially rebuild the area which will encompass 105,000 square feet when it is slated to be completed in the fourth quarter of 2019. The new stalls will be modern and efficient and are designed to attract medium and smaller-sized distributors.
Darnall and his team recognize the need for flexibility as well. In 2014, when large seafood distributor NAFCO/Congressional Seafood outgrew its stall space in the old facility, Darnall worked with CEO Stanley Pearlman to develop a freestanding distribution center on an empty parcel of land within the confines of MFCA property.
The new 88,000 square foot state-of-the-art DC opened in 2015 and currently serves customers in the Mid-Atlantic and Metro New York markets.
Also on the horizon for the MFCA is something totally new – Phase III – which will offer such diverse functions as a hybrid high-cube warehouse for both dry grocery and perishables; a commercial shared-use kitchen; and office space which will serve as a headquarters for fledgling firms that believe in their ideas but need greater infrastructure in order to execute their business models. Operating a retail farmers’ market is even conceivable with this bold new concept.
Darnall, who serves as honorary chairman of the World Union of Wholesale Markets, has seen this multi-functional facility work successfully while visiting similar consolidated centers in the U.S., Europe and Asia. He hopes that MFCA can move into the development stage by next year.
“We’re still in the initial planning phase for a project of this scale,” Darnall asserted. “However, the potential is enormous – we have an opportunity to serve as a magnet for new businesses which would not only be a boon to the Food Center, but also to the entire industry. Entrepreneurialism in the food sector has never been more important. We hope to offer an outlet that helps some of these ideas flourish.”