Reading Terminal Market has fed generations of Philadelphians, wowed countless tourists and conventioneers, and set the gold standard for public markets across the country.
But the market's growing profile and increasing sales, swelled by the expanded Convention Center, have created a need for more space - a good problem to have if the market weren't landlocked.
"We are maxed out on space," said longtime general manager Paul Steinke.
After Labor Day, several tenants are moving to larger spaces within the market as part of a $3.5 million revitalization. To come: A demonstration kitchen - La Cucina at the Market - and a multipurpose room, called the Rick Nichols Room (in honor of the former Inquirer food writer), that will feature a wall exhibit of the market's history dating to 1892.
Reading Terminal Market Corp. - the tax-exempt, nonprofit group that manages, promotes, and leases the market - began working with city-based Friday Architects Inc. on a master plan more than a year ago to make better use of its existing space.
Storage areas along "Avenue D," the aisle closest to 11th Street, will move to the basement to make room for up to five new retailers, which have yet to be named. Veteran tenants - the Spice Terminal, L. Halteman Family Country Foods, Flying Monkey Bakery, Spataro's, and DiNic's - will move to new spaces.
DiNic's owner, Tommy Nicolosi, said he was approached about a month and a half ago to move into the space formerly occupied by Harry G. Ochs Meats, which closed in May. Business is thriving for DiNic's, thanks to TV shows such as Man v. Food, on the Travel Channel, which featured it.
"This space is too small," Nicolosi said. "The Harry Ochs space is twice the size."
Before construction begins, new refrigerators will be installed in the basement to accommodate vendors on the main floor whose refrigeration is being displaced.
The bathrooms, which date to the early 1990s, will be enlarged and will have heating and air-conditioning added to them. The market intends to remain open throughout the renovation, which Steinke hopes to complete by mid-February.
The market has 76 full-time merchants and eight part-time at present. All are locally owned and operated. It is one of the largest redeemers of food stamps in the city, with 17 merchants accepting stamps.
Vendors who sell fresh produce and meat are charged a lower rent than those who sell prepared meals to ensure a healthy mix. Steinke said this sets the market apart from others, including Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which has no fresh produce or butchers and is strictly a tourist destination.
"Our mantra is, if we take care of the locals, the tourists will come," Steinke said.
Vacationers Melanie Galloway, 27, and Eric Dendy, 25, of Atlanta, visited the market last week.
"This is amazing. Everything's so fresh," said Dendy, as he bit into a broccoli rabe pork sandwich from DiNic's. "I wish I had one anywhere near Atlanta."
The Reading Market is often mentioned with Seattle's Pike Place Market and Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, British Columbia, as one of the three best public markets in North America. Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Detroit modeled their markets after it. Denver, Indianapolis, and Atlanta have sent representatives here, and a group from Tampa, Fla., is to arrive in August to check it out.
"It's a fantastic example of how to maintain a mission and adapt to any changes that are necessary, from whatever the customer base wants and deserves, to the changing food scene," said Paul Schwartz, operations and communications manager for the Milwaukee Public Market, which opened in 2005.
But the Reading Market is hemmed in, a problem given the growing crowds from the larger convention groups. It's bordered on the north by Arch Street, on the south by Filbert Street, on the west by 12th Street, and on the east by a loading alley that separates it from the Gallery Mall parking garage and the Hilton Garden Inn.
It is 78,000 square feet, with about 40,000 square feet as leasable space. About 90 percent of its $3.5 million annual operating budget comes from tenant leases. The rest is from grants, sponsorships, and fund-raisers. It gets no state or city subsidies.
"We run it to break even and to preserve it as an asset to the city," said Eugene Lefevre, chairman of the Reading Terminal Market Corp.'s building committee and a board member.
Merchants agree the March 4 debut of the Convention Center expansion has boosted business.
"Convention people come in here, and they want to buy everything," said Amish farmer Benuel Kauffman, 60, who has been selling his vegetables, fruits, and homemade jams and jellies at the market since 1979.
But Center City's 27 percent increase in population since 1990, better promotion, and people's growing fascination with food also contributed to eight straight years of visitor growth.
"The Reading Terminal Market is Philly and the countryside under one roof," said Meryl Levitz, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., which promotes the market heavily. "It is a destination definer and a very big draw."
Added Paul Levy, head of the Center City District: "With a dramatically growing Center City population, the market is not just for food, but a great place to socialize and see people you know, especially during weekends." Since October 2006, the market has been open Sundays.
It enjoys prime location - close to an increasingly residential downtown, next to the Convention Center, six blocks from the historic district, two blocks from the financial district, and at the hub of the city's mass-transit system.
Paul Steinke talks about changes coming to Reading Terminal Market at www.philly.com/market
Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or email@example.com.