The Reading Terminal Market turned 125 this year, and by some standards, this local food paradise and essential crossroads for Philadelphians is as vital as ever, with 7.2 million visitors spending $64 million in 2017, making it the market’s busiest year to date. And yet its challenges remain greater than ever, with the incursion of new retail markets nearby, increased online shopping, and a sudden surge in upscale food courts this year threatening the market’s bustling lunch business.
Piloting the market through this 21st-century storm is Anuj Gupta, 44, a former lawyer who worked for the Nutter administration before coming to the general manager’s job three years ago with open eyes and a plan. We talked to him about how he got here, the state of the market today, and what’s planned for the Reading Terminal’s future. Here’s our conversation, condensed and edited.
What’s your background? What prepared you to run the Reading Terminal Market?
I grew up in the Philadelphia area, went to law school, and ended up with a master’s degree from Penn [in government administration], and started practicing law here before I moved to Baltimore for several years. I came back when Mayor [Michael] Nutter was elected and worked in his administration for his first term. I then ran Mt. Airy USA, a nonprofit community development corporation, for five years before I came to the market in 2015.
I also grew up in the family food business. My parents were pioneers in prepared shelf-stable Indian foods. Their Jyoti brand is produced right outside the city in Sharon Hill. I also opened my own restaurant in Mount Airy five years ago, called Jyoti Indian Bistro, based on my mother’s recipes.
The Reading Terminal is not your ordinary retail space. It’s much more than that — it’s a public entity, a civic asset. So my role in government and economic development coupled with my background in the family food business were very relevant to the job here. On top of that, I was a regular shopper for years.
The terminal is unique so in so many ways, not the least of which is its historic space. What are some quirks about the building that intrigue you most?
- It had the same footprint in 1893 as what people see today. But there were many more stalls. If you look at the marquee in many stalls, you’ll see numbers on the woodwork. They represented each individual merchant, and at one point in the 1930s, or earlier, there were close to a thousand different merchants.
- Did you notice how the floor of the Rick Nichols room in back is slanted? That’s where they used to wash the fish, and it was slanted so the water could run into a drain.
- If you go downstairs into the basement, you’ll see massive stone columns with steel beams inside. They were built to withstand not just the weight of the businesses upstairs, but the steam locomotives, too, that once passed through here.
- People may forget that Bassetts is not only the oldest continuing ice cream manufacturer in the world, but it’s been in the same place since 1893. That marble counter top is the original. (By the way: Get the Guatemalan Ripple.)
The history is special, but the modern-day challenges are real. Where do you see the biggest threats to the Reading Terminal’s longevity?
When I came, we were anticipating the forthcoming change in the competitive landscape. And it has arrived with so many choices that even in 2015 didn’t exist, from Whole Foods’ Mid-Atlantic flagship store to Target’s urban express models, which have grocery options; many farmers’ markets going year-round; and all the mail-order services. But the pace at which we are seeing the environment change is happening much faster than I anticipated. No one would have thought Amazon would buy Whole Foods — and we don’t know the full implications of that yet. 2016 was also the first year [nationwide] that the sales of prepared foods exceeded the sales of fresh foods. … It also helps explain the rise of the meal kits and meal-delivery services, because people don’t have the time or inclination to make a full meal from scratch.
But my No. 1 job is to make sure that the market remains a market. It would be very easy for the market to just become an array for prepared food options. But we’re trying to make shopping at the market as easy as possible. … We have carts now, as well as a Shopper Services concierge desk where, on weekends, if you want to walk around the market, we will hold your bags in refrigeration or dry storage for free. … You can get your car, call the concierge, and we will run them out to you on Arch Street.
What about the sudden surge in fancy new food halls? Are they taking a bite out of the Reading Terminal’s lunch crowd?
We keep that stuff on our radar. We’re aware of the coming food court at the Bourse and Penn’s high-end food hall. … I wish them all well. But we’re less focused on what they’re doing, and we are going to play to our strengths. So long as we continue to bring innovative concepts to the market, we’ll maintain our vibrancy. We are committed to owner-operator businesses, so that the person behind the counter who sold you the sausage possibly made that sausage, and their knowledge will far exceed what a franchise or a chain of restaurants can provide. It’s hard to beat the kind of customer interaction that our businesses have on a daily basis.
What are some of the new vendors coming to the market you’re most excited about?
I’m proud to have taken steps to diversify our merchant mix, and I’m excited, for example, about Loco Lucho, a Puerto Rican concept with an amazing menu from two guys who started their business doing tailgates at Eagles games. It should be open within the next few weeks. LUHV Vegan Deli is coming from the Luccis, an Argentinean family which has run Cafe Con Leche in Newtown for many years. They developed all their own vegan recipes and have been one of the most popular operators of our day carts for several months. They’ll be opening a permanent stall [around late August]. You’re also going to see a space for local distillers, with six new kiosks where different producers will be giving samples and sell their products. I’m not quite ready to announce some other forthcoming folks … but we were working on some more fresh-food options with a local production emphasis even before the Fair Food Farmstand announced they were shutting down.
Are there any other innovations coming that will help the market stay relevant to today’s shoppers?
We piloted an e-commerce site for the first time this Thanksgiving. People were able to order online, skip the line at Godshall’s, and we just brought the turkey out to them. We believe that because of this competitive environment, there needs to be an e-commerce space. So we’ve hired a developer to build a full e-commerce site for the market that will include pickup options and, ultimately, will also include delivery.
So people will soon be able to shop the Reading Terminal Market, but never actually go there?
Yes. … We close at 6 p.m., which is a topic of much debate and a constant struggle, because people often don’t leave work before then. We have to figure out how to make ourselves more accessible — and e-commerce is one of these steps.
But doesn’t that ultimately defeat the irreplaceable value of the Reading Terminal Market as a special place to be and shop?
We definitely need to maintain the vitality and vibrancy of the fresh market. If locals don’t use the market on a day-to-day basis, then the authenticity of this place will continue to diminish. … When the decision was made to save the market in the early ’90s, city leaders knew they had a historic asset on their hands, and also very progressively knew they had a place where, irrespective of your background, race or income, people could come together in an incredibly diverse public space … a place where food has the ability to cut across boundaries and serve as a common denominator to bring people together in a way we really do not see in other public spaces as much. My favorite day of the year is the day before Thanksgiving, when folks from across the entire city and the region have made it their family tradition to come here and get their turkey and all their side dish ingredients for the Thanksgiving meal. We open the doors in the morning and my staff serves the customers coffee and doughnuts when they first come in and gives them a shopping bag. Everyone is in such a good mood. That day represents to me the best of the market.
I agree: My family is always there the day before Thanksgiving, too!
We have challenges and current trends we are working within. But I don’t think I’d change any of the fundamentals about this place and the unique traits that have made the Reading Terminal Market a beloved institution. And if we do that well in the long run, we’re going to be here for another 125 years and beyond.