Friday, October 28, 2016

Gupta reflects on 16 months leading the market

Anuj Gupta in chefs whites at recent Harvest Festival
A lot of the small stuff – but very important stuff – has been changing at the Reading Terminal Market. Things like adding a bolstered schedule of events at the market's kitchen, recipe cards using ingredients from market merchants, a wider social media presence, and more frequent evening programs and events. And then there's the stuff that never changes – the myriad details to keep the market operating smoothly, working with the market's board in selecting new vendors when the rare vacancy occurs, and managing the market's landlord-tenant relationships with its 80 vendors.

All this and more are on the plate of Anuj Gupta, who took over as general manager of the market 16 months ago. As Gupta sees it, his job is to build on the solid foundations left behind by his predecessor, Paul Steinke, who now runs the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

Gupta's overriding goal is to "recenter the market into Philadelphia’s culinary world and put it on top again."

That's a challenge, especially with the opening of the new, enlarged Whole Foods off the Parkway which, through its design, tries to mimic the Reading Terminal Market with shop-like areas for meat, fish and cheese, a food hall-like eating area, and stalls operated by local restauranteurs. Other competitors nipping at the market's heels include MOMs Organic Market, which is slated for the new East Market Street development at 11th street, just around the corner, and the ever-expanding Snap Kitchen prepared food chain.

To compete Gupta believes the market must make the customer experience as good as it can be.

One step in that direction is a service half-heartedly tried with little success about a dozen years ago at Iovine's Produce Market: bag storage. Gupta is bringing it back, under the "Shopper's Concierge" moniker, but thinks with additional promotion and services it can succeed where it's predecessor failed. 

"I've shopped here for many years as a regular Saturday morning customer, and I stopped when I couldn't carry anymore," he said. "I would have bought more if it was easier to get around."

The weekend-only (for now) concierge service, located behind the Head Nut near the Shoe Doctor and rest rooms, will store your purchases as you shop, including those that must be refrigerated, and, on Saturdays, bring them out to your car when you're done.

Gupta acknowledges there's no guarantee the new service won't fail like the earlier one, but "we’re going to keep doing it. I’ve realized how long it can take for things to adapt here, to merchant or customer behavior. Maybe in the long run it doesn’t work, and if it doesn’t we’ll get rid of it. But it’s impossible to try something for even three months and come to any conclusion."

Communicating the market's offerings is an important part of the effort, and the market has upped its game in the social media arena. Christen Rhoadarmer, a graphic designer Gupta added to the market's small management staff is also charged with generating social media contents and works with Gupta to produce the market's live video feeds, usually interviews with vendors, on Facebook.

Key among the benefits Gupta inherited from his predecessor is the market's solid financial footing.

Before taking on his new post Gupta led the Mount Airy USA community development corporation where, like many non-profits, "I could not fundamentally change the dynamic of every two weeks trying to make payroll, which bills I could pay, which bills I couldn't." Although proud he left the organization in better financial shape than when he arrived there, he's thankful for the strong financial condition of the Reading Terminal Market. "While we raise money here, we do it for special capital projects, it’s not for our survival," he said. "And that’s huge relief. I’m able to spend my time on my job, that’s a tremendous benefit to any non-profit organization."

One capital project recently completed is "invisible to customers but has great impact top market’s operation." That's a closed-water loop which functions as a heat removal system for the basement, a non-ventilated, non-air conditioned space where temperatures could become unbearable with the heat thrown off by all the refrigeration units supporting the main floor vendors.

Work to capture that heat started under Steinke and followed through under Gupta's leadership. With the completion of the project this past July, "everyone who has refrigeration equipment has to link into it, taking the hot air previously dumped onto the floor into the water discharge. It’s already had an impact." With the excess heat now helping to heat the market's hot water system, it "opens up a lot of additional possibilities of using space downstairs, and there’s still a vast amount of space that we don’t use because it’s been so unbearable."

On the customer front, the market is working with the hospitality school at Temple University to develop an "ambassador" program. When implemented, Temple students will wander the floor of the market helping visitors find merchants and directing them to services.

Gupta is also working with Drexel University to develop a better way to convey the market's past.

"The market's history is rich in so many ways: architectural, operational, the legacy of family owned businesses, the diversity of our customer base," he said. "You don’t get any sense of that in a formal way when you come here."

(In his conversation with me, Gupta overlooked illustrated history of the market on the wall of the Rick Nichols Room at the rear of the market by Molly Molloy's and Center Court. But few folks take the time to read the history, which the retired Philadelphia Inquirer journalist wrote.)

Still, Gupta laments that "most people don’t even know it was an operating train shed. When out-of-towners come and I give them a tour I tell them when you bought the Reading Railroad in playing Monopoly, you also bought this building. They’re quite surprised." 

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