It’s been said that change is the only constant in life. The Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association certainly has navigated many industry and policy changes over its 70-year history. Yet it also boasts years of steady leadership, growth and service.
“In recent years, the PFMA family has grown to include many representatives of the candy, tobacco and beverage industries; gaming companies; and specialty food distributors,” said Dave McCorkle, past PFMA president. “The growth has made PFMA’s message to policy makers even stronger.”
McCorkle had his first brush with PFMA in 1982. At the time, President Al Vicks requested a presentation on a new statewide crime prevention initiative developed by Gov. Dick Thornburgh. McCorkle presented with Philadelphia’s then-District Attorney Ed Rendell on behalf of the organization.
“Ed’s presentation was particularly effective, and PFMA became a major supporter of the statewide crime prevention initiative,” McCorkle said. “Several months later, I accepted a position in PFMA’s Harrisburg office, and in 1986 became president upon Al’s retirement.”
In McCorkle’s 34 years as president, the association continued to prioritize public safety, crime prevention, loss prevention and organized retail crime prosecution. “PFMA has led efforts over the decades to increase penalties for passing bad checks and dealing with organized crime,” he said.
“Never having worked in a grocery store or a convenience store, I learned a great deal about the operations of our members’ stores and how the state and federal governments could impact how our members run their stores,
Several PFMA staff served the association for decades under McCorkle’s tenure. Autumn Thomas (right) joined PFMA in 1988, taking an entry-level position with Pennsylvania Coupon Redemption Services (PCRS). She moved onto several roles and projects at the association and currently serves as president of PCRS.
The creation of PCRS and MEMO were two major developments for PFMA, she said. “These for-profit subsidiaries provided association members, particularly independent food retailers, with important business services. It provided the association with millions of dollars in revenue over the years to support government relations and membership programs.”
Thomas said the Scanning Certification Program and Responsible Tobacco Sale Certification Program also were significant wins for PFMA. She worked to research, analyze and collect data on scanner accuracy and compliance with tobacco sales to learn what worked and what didn’t. Thanks to this evidence-based approach and the support of various PFMA stakeholders, Thomas said both programs earned national recognition.
“Both of these were innovative programs that improved members’ policies and operations,” said Randy St. John (right), who helped to create the programs with Thomas. St. John joined PFMA in 1989 as vice president of membership development, then oversaw membership and government relations as senior vice president.
“Never having worked in a grocery store or a convenience store, I learned a great deal about the operations of our members’ stores and how the state and federal governments could impact how our members run their stores,” he said. PFMA’s work was particularly important because its members were so impacted by government regulations and laws, he added.
While St. John was lobbying, he helped lay the groundwork for the reform of beer and wine sales in food retail locations. Elizabeth Peroni (left), past director of communications, said that was a large undertaking by PFMA staff. “That was a big issue that we worked on for years and years,” Peroni said.
In her 24 years with PFMA, Peroni was impressed by how hard members worked. “They were very passionate about the industry. It was always a joy to talk to our members, and we had many multigenerational families who started by sweeping floors when they were kids.”
There were challenges, of course, but overall, everyone worked well together. And Peroni noted how nice it was to have a consistent, core group involved on the PFMA board for so many years.
Thomas experienced plenty of change in operations. When she first started, PCRS had close to 20 employees and did much of the work manually. Fax machines were the latest technology, and the internet wasn’t yet available. “Back in the mid-90s, PCRS had employees working from 4 a.m. to midnight to keep up with producing the various client payments and support documents, all of which were paper,” she said. “We currently have two employees in the PFMA office as we’ve been able to automate many of the functions previously handled by staff.”
After all their hard work, staff also found time to socialize. Thomas recalled costumed Halloween parties, summer picnics and staff appreciation days where upper management washed employees’ cars. “We were there to do a job, but there was recognition of us putting in the hours. A good effort was made to create an employee-first culture and have some fun.”
She also appreciates the support, autonomy and flexibility developed at PFMA. “The life/work balance has always been good and has only gotten better.”
McCorkle is proud of the work he’s witnessed and said PFMA is set up for success in the future.
“Everyone should be pleased that PFMA directors and staff have accomplished impressive management and program objectives, and that members fully support the annual Ridge Scholarship,” he said. “PFMA’s Board of Directors and elected leaders have provided extraordinary volunteer service to the association, resulting in a solid foundation for addressing emerging issues.”
Preparing for a threat anywhere, anytime
It’s been nearly four months since a shooting at a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, N.Y., became the latest high-profile, gun-related incident in a grocery store, killing 10 people and injuring others.
What are your top three legislative priorities in 2022? My priority is properly funding our public schools. For decades, Pennsylvania has failed to provide schools the funding they need for success, which leads to gross inequities between districts and communities that can afford to fill the void through local taxes and those who cannot.
We just passed a budget that invests a record $1.1 billion in K-12 schools, including $850 million for basic and special education and $200 million for school safety, school-based counseling and other mental health services. When the commonwealth works to meet its obligation to adequately fund schools at the state level, it not only helps our students and educators succeed—further supporting our growing economy—but it also saves homeowners from the burden of skyrocketing local property taxes.
Next, I have long stood up for the best interests of hardworking Pennsylvanians and their families, so many of whom have struggled with job instability and soaring prices in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m proud to say the budget we just passed provides vital funding for families in several areas including significant childcare investments to help providers hire and retain great teachers and to help families afford the high cost of childcare through a new state tax credit.
We also leveraged our remaining American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars to make targeted investments to address the housing crisis, assist with utility bills and property taxes and afford the high cost of a college degree.
Finally, I am committed to protecting our communities and our school children from the uniquely American gun violence epidemic. The recently passed budget invests significantly in local law enforcement grants, community violence protection initiatives, mental health services and school security.
Additionally, I will continue fighting for common sense and reasonable gun safety measures, most importantly universal background checks, in the upcoming legislative session.
What is the biggest concern you hear from your constituents? I recently hosted a series of constituent breakfasts in my district and one of the biggest concerns I hear about are high property taxes, especially for seniors on fixed incomes.
For too many years to count, Pennsylvania has not been living up to its obligation to fully fund public education at the state level, and this inevitably leads to higher property taxes for families and seniors in districts at the local level. Thankfully, the historic funding we secured in this year’s state budget will help to some degree to stabilize costs for districts, and in some cases, even allow them to lower local taxes.
Additionally, we are using a portion of our remaining ARPA dollars to provide one-time bonus payments for those eligible for the state’s Property Tax/Rent Rebate program. I will continue advocating for increasing the income threshold for this program so that more homeowners can become eligible.
Where do you shop locally for food? Talluto’s in East Norriton for authentic Italian, Merrymead Farm in Worcester for delicious local milk and ice cream and of course, Collegeville Bakery for baked goods and a variety of prepared foods including pizza, pasta, hoagies and wings.
It’s been amazing to see how these stores—both small, locally owned shops to regional and national chains—have adapted to the demands of their shoppers and worked around the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is your favorite vacation destination? My family and I are headed out soon on a trip to Cape May. I will also never turn down a trip to Clearwater to see the Phillies Spring Training with my baseball obsessed family!
What are the biggest challenges for grocers in your district? The pandemic certainly laid bare the challenges of keeping food on the table. From supply chain issues to rising prices to maintaining a strong frontline workforce, our grocers have certainly had more than their fair share of challenges over the last couple of years.
It’s been amazing to see how these stores—both small, locally owned shops to regional and national chains—have adapted to the demands of their shoppers and worked around the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, online ordering and curbside pickup is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity to stay competitive in this market.
Getting this infrastructure up and running takes a significant up-front investment in technology, but it also requires a long-term investment in the workforce to keep shelves stocked while serving customers in a variety of new ways.
What I see in my district is likely no different than what is happening in stores across the commonwealth—a complete commitment to innovation and the workforce to carry it out, all with the goal of ensuring everyone has the food they need to keep their families fed and healthy.
What are your biggest challenges and successes as a legislator? Divided government is an important part of our democracy, but it certainly doesn’t make things easy in Harrisburg! Being in the minority, it is frustrating to come up with great ideas for helping people and investing in our future but facing huge challenges in getting that legislation to the finish line because the majority party controls the bill calendar. Unfortunately, Pennsylvanians are often held hostage when meaningful legislation is gridlocked. That’s my biggest frustration.
Successes include several important initiatives that we have been fighting for years, and were able to achieve in the budget we just passed. These includes historic state funding for education, support for workers and families through initiatives like the new childcare tax credit and tax relief as part of a long-term vision for economic growth across the commonwealth.
What is your favorite food or meal to cook? Anything on the grill, especially steak.
What do you like to do for fun? I am diehard fan of all Philly sports! The Phillies, Eagles, Flyers and of course, my alma mater, Villanova Basketball.
But more than anything I like to spend time with my family. Most weekends are spent cheering on my four kids in their many activities and shuttling them to practices and games—watching them play sports they love is my happy place.
Liz Kemmery, director of communications