Rick's still going strong at Reading Market

Jack Mooney prepares cheesesteaks at Rick's Original Philly Steaks in the Reading Terminal Market. Two months after the market's management refused to renew Rick's lease and ordered its eviction, the cheesesteak grill is doing a brisk business. Meanwhile, both sides have lawsuits pending in Common Pleas Court.

It's shortly after 9 a.m. Friday, and Reading Terminal Market has been open for a little more than an hour.

A few early birds stroll along the lanes of stalls, morning coffee and pastry in hand, but the merchants, especially those who cater to the lunch crowd, are busy prepping for the noontime rush to come.

Including the crew at Rick's Original Philly Steaks.

Two months after a dispute between market management and Rick Olivieri ended with his lease not renewed and his eviction ordered, Olivieri is very much in business, and an uneasy stalemate has settled over the historical market, which has operated from 12th and Market Streets since 1892.

Olivieri's lawsuit against Reading Terminal Market Corp. and the nonprofit's countersuit against Olivieri are slowly ripening in Common Pleas Court, with no resolution imminent.

In the meantime, as the merchants there say, "Let's go make money."

And making it they are.

"We're still operating, and things are going very well," said Olivieri, 42, part of the third generation of the family that claims to have invented the steak sandwich about 75 years ago. "On any given day, I'll have 20 people walk up and say they're happy to see I'm still open."

As for the market, general manager Paul Steinke said it just posted a record number of monthly visitors - 556,000 - and in August, no less.

The market had always drawn the most visitors, including the previous record of 555,000, in March, when the Philadelphia Flower Show is held at the adjacent Convention Center, Steinke said.

He believes the market benefited from several strong conventions in August, he said.

It was also the first August the market was open Sundays, an experiment that began Oct. 15, 2006, the first Sunday openings in market history.

Though Sunday openings are voluntary, 47 merchants - almost 75 percent - participate, Steinke said. Sunday has become the fourth-busiest day for the market, and Steinke said he believed that reflected national trends showing most people shop for groceries on Sunday.

"Anecdotally, what we see is people from Center City coming in to do their shopping," he said.

Steinke and Ricardo Dunston, board chairman of the nonprofit that operates the market, have been pushing to reinforce the market's historical role as a farmers' market.

They say even a nonprofit farmers' market must serve an increasingly upscale Center City residential population that otherwise will go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, both of which have opened stores downtown.

But management's operating changes have not always gone over well with the 65 to 75 tenants, long known for strong-willed independence.

Those tensions found a new outlet in negotiations on new tenant leases, which began in 2003 and continue, in a form, until today - 20 months after the original deadline.

About 70 percent of the tenants have signed new leases, Steinke said. Among the holdouts are the Amish merchants, who have been the most resistant to standardized operating hours and sales reporting.

For most of that time, Olivieri represented his fellow merchants as president of the Reading Terminal Merchants' Association.

But in July, after a final dispute between Olivieri and management over lease talks, market officials announced that his space would be leased to a South Philadelphia competitor, Tony Luke's Old Philly Style Sandwiches.

The Amish canceled their annual festival in protest, more than 3,000 people signed petitions supporting Olivieri, and a majority of merchants passed a resolution supporting a new lease for Olivieri.

And that's where things stand as both sides wait for a judicial resolution that seems months away. Judge Mark Bernstein has set a "case management conference" on Oct. 10 for both lawsuits.

As for Tony Luke, the restaurateur who made his name on roast pork sandwiches has said he will not enter lease talks with the market until the Olivieri dispute is settled.

In the interim, Steinke and the board have plenty to keep them busy.

Once they get all leases signed, Steinke said, they will seek financing for an estimated $3 million in renovations and repairs to the market.

And then there is the Convention Center, whose visitors are a large part of the market's $30 million in annual sales.

The center's expansion to Broad Street will mean more and larger conventions. But Steinke said he worried that a new main entrance to the center on Broad would reduce foot traffic across from the market at 12th and Arch Streets, where the current main entrance is.

"We've really just begun to discuss the impact of the expansion of the Convention Center," Steinke added. "We need to sit down with the planners to see what the impact of the construction will be."

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.