While it’s successfully managed to stay relevant for more than a century — save for a few hiccups along the way — General Manager Anuj Gupta says the Reading Terminal Market needs to be on its toes if it wants to continue attracting the throngs for years to come.
That’s why Gupta, who was hired by the market's board of directors to replace former general manager Paul Steinke in 2015, has been working to make a number of changes at the market that further amplify one of its biggest draws: Its experience.
The Reading Terminal Market, the nation’s oldest continuously operating farmers’ market, has long been unique in its ability to attract both locals and tourists alike with its rich cultural experience and wide selection of local-yet-worldly fares from around the world, all packed into the historic 78,000-square-foot location at 51 N. 12th St. It is one of the most visited sites in the city, having attracted 6.5 million people last year, and currently boasts 78 merchants.
Next year, it turns 125 years old.
But it’s facing some competition, Gupta says.
“Twenty-five years ago, there were fewer grocery options and Philly hadn’t yet earned its status as a dining destination. That’s changed quite a bit,” Gupta said.
Whole Foods and Target recently opened locations nearby that offer a robust selection of groceries. And when it opens in 2018, the 730,000-square-foot, Center City-based Fashion Outlets of Philadelphia is expected to boast “artisanal dining experiences,” which could also compete for some of the Reading Terminal Market’s crowd.
Gupta, however, is confident in the market’s ability to stand out amid this competition.
“We know from our data that we win on experience, so we’re trying to elevate that by giving customers choices they aren’t going to find anywhere else,” Gupta said.
Among the newer choices added within the past seven months is Condiment, a shop co-founded by Jason Wagner, Elizabeth Halen and Ari Saxe to add some oomph to the food products people bought at the market.
“We wanted to fill a gap in the market for sauces, marinades and condiments, in general,” Wagner said.
Condiment makes customizable, preservation-free condiments fresh each day to complement the food shoppers purchase from other purveyors at the market, Wagner said, including ketchups, tartar and barbecue sauces, salad dressings, and freshly churned butter with the customer’s choice of add-ins.
If a customer wants a steak marinated, but still has some shopping to do, Condiment will keep it in the fridge for pick-up on the way out. The shop also recycles “waste” from other merchants, like bones or day-old bread, to make products like stock or croutons.
Fox & Son Fancy Corn Dogs is another new and unique vendor Gupta says customers are unlikely to find anywhere else.
“Before now, I don’t think I’d had a corn dog since first or second grade...and the reason was that they didn’t taste that good,” Gupta laughed. “But Fox & Son has totally transformed the taste of the corn dog for me.”
Rebecca Foxman, one of the vendor’s three owners, said they wanted to put a spin on nostalgia by dressing up county fair-style food — something they hadn’t seen done anywhere else. In addition to corn dogs, Fox & Son makes poutine, cheese curds, dressed baked potatoes, funnel cakes, and more, all of which are locally-sourced.
“We wanted to do something that was unique and simple enough where we could make large quantities of it at a high quality,” Foxman said. “Everything is made by us in-house, by hand.”
Gupta’s been pushing to make sure that even more food and beverage merchants get the opportunity to operate in some capacity in the space.
While the market has for years been using the Reading Railroad’s old day carts for pop-up vending opportunities, Gupta said, they weren’t entirely conducive to the sale of food.
“You can’t cook on them, so they’re limited in that respect, but I’m trying to push the envelope as much as possible with food uses on these carts,” Gupta said.
Eight Oaks Distillery is taking advantage of this push, alongside Pennsylvania’s new liquor law that allows craft distillers to sell their products at farmers markets. The distillery sells spirits distilled from its own farm’s grains atop a cart at the market three days a week.
Beyond vendors, Gupta said that enhancing shoppers’ experiences at the market has also involved the installation of a WiFi system last summer, and a Shoppers’ Concierge desk where people can store their grocery bags while they shop for more. The market will launch an app later this year.
The market has also partnered with Temple University’s School of Tourism and Hospitality Management last fall to design a program where trained representatives could help shoppers better navigate the market. The program commenced just before the Philadelphia Flower Show in March.
Robert Ambrose, an instructor of hospitality management at Drexel University, believes the market is right to focus on improving its experience.
“The market is about the experience. It is a self-defining brand, and this platform of providing a unique experience for its customers is the right one for the market place,” Ambrose said.
But he isn’t so sure the market needs to worry about Whole Foods, Target or others like them. The market is a destination where people go, in part, to get a taste of the city’s flavor. If anything, the additional traffic brought into the area by new entrants should benefit the market.
Anything the market does to improve its already-unique experience, Ambrose believes, will keep the market going strong for “centuries to come.”