If the 123-year-old Reading Terminal Market (RTM) were a boxer, it would have been knocked out in the 1970s.

By 1979, eight years after the Reading Company declared bankruptcy, the once-proud market was stumbling badly. The building was a mess. It was only 20% occupied. And the future looked bleak.

For Bassetts Ice Cream, today’s only remaining original vendor, sales barely totaled $25 some days.

Fortunately – during the 1970s – Philadelphia preservationists staved off efforts by Market East developers to demolish the building. In 1980, after emerging from bankruptcy, the Reading Company began investing in the market again.

Slowly RTM gained strength, especially with the addition of Amish farmers. By 1983, it was 60% occupied.

In 1990, the Pennsylvania Convention Center bought the market and the non-profit Reading Terminal Market Corporation was appointed to manage it. Then the old fighter began winning again.

Competition and sales are both way up

Today Reading Terminal Market is 100% occupied, says Paul Steinke, general manager of the market from 2001. (Days after our interview, Steinke resigned effective Dec. 31, 2014, reportedly to run for a City Council seat.)

Despite great competition from Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and a slew of outdoor neighborhood markets, sales are 20-30% higher than ten years ago, Steinke says.

Big numbers: 6 million people visit the market’s 77 full-time and 12 part-time vendors annually – spending $50 million in the process.

Steinke credits much of the turnaround to Millennials, children of Baby Boomers who are roughly 18 to 33 years of age. They love cities, he says, are interested in local and unique foods and business. “Many cities have no local entrepreneurial class. We do.”

Steinke is most surprised that RTM is here at all, noting that Philadelphia is one of very few major U.S. cities to still have a central market. RTM is also one of the oldest and largest.

“We descended from Philadelphia’s first market,” he says. “No one has what we have here.”

Today, RTM attracts 118,000 people weekly, or almost enough to fill up Lincoln Financial Field twice. The biggest complaint Steinke hears: “We’re not open late enough. We close at 6 p.m.” The market is open 7 days a week. Amish merchants are there Tuesday thru Saturday.

Philbert the Pig, the Market’s bronze mascot.
Philbert the Pig, the Market’s bronze mascot.

Interesting Oddities:

• By written charter, the market does not want or permit “national chains” inside its doors, Steinke says. RTM leases to local food entrepreneurs only, and gets about 140 requests a year to fill two or three openings.

• Children love to put money into the mouth of Philbert the Pig, the market’s 225-lb., cast-bronze mascot located near the central seating area. Funds go to the Food Trust, which began in 1992 at RTM as the Reading Terminal Farmers’ Market Trust.

• Opened in 1892, RTM was first named “One of 10 Great Public Spaces in America” for 2014 by the American Planning Association.

RTM employs modern technology to keep the momentum going and growing. It networks through Facebook and Instagram, provides free Wi-Fi, and recently announced a partnership with Instacart for same-day delivery to area residents from 32 market vendors.

No wonder even New York Times food journalist and blogger Mark Bittman looks lovingly 80 miles south toward Reading Terminal Market, “the grandest market ‘we’ have.”

Bemoaning the lack of a Big Apple central market, he says, “… we can find groovy retail just about anywhere, but to find a really fantastic indoor food market, we have to go to Philly.”

Not bad praise for a venerable institution that almost went out of business some 30 to 35 years ago, and is still fighting the good fight today.

FAST FACTS

Name: Reading Terminal Market
Address: 51 N. 12th St., Phila., PA 19107
Year Opened: 1892
Retail Space: 78,000 square feet
Parking Discounts Issued: 6,000 to 7,000 per month
Films Shot Here: Blow Out, Twelve Monkeys and National Treasure
Hours: Mon.–Sat., 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pennsylvania Dutch Vendors: Tuesday to Saturday, with somewhat shorter hours.
Phone: (215) 922-2317
Website: readingterminalmarket.org

This article was published in the Jan./Feb 2015 issue of the Society Hill Reporter. It has been reprinted with permission.