Thursday, March 05, 2020

RTM Chief Winds Up Tenure with Burst of Activity

 Competition's ad at RTM bus stop, Market Street
Anuj Gupta won't be coasting as he completes his five-year gig this spring as manager of the Reading Terminal Market. His check list includes leasing the few remaining vendor spaces, overseeing some expansion and repositioning by existing vendors, moving day stalls to a new location, and the awarding of contracts for reconstruction of Harry Ochs Way (Filbert Street) into a more welcoming public space. Gupta is leaving to become Philadelphia-based chief of staff for Congressman Dwight Evans, effective April 27.

When this blog first profiled Gupta in the autumn of 2016 more than a year into his tenure, his self-proclaimed challenge was to "recenter the market into Philadelphia's culinary world and put it on top again".

Soon after he took over management reins Whole Foods opened its huge outpost in Fairmount. Since then Mom's Organic entered the fray just a couple blocks away in a new Market East development and last year Trader Joe's added a store two blocks west on Arch Street. Couple the new competitors with the growth of on-line shopping and delivery services (think Amazon, which acquired Whole Food) and the business challenge is clear.

Asked recently what he regarded as his singular achievement, Gupta told me it was all the efforts to preserve the economic viability of the fresh food purveyors -- the butchers, fishmongers, and greengrocers of the market -- in the face of the onslaught from the corporate competitors, both brick-and-mortar and virtual. Under Gupta's leadership the market has fought back by partnering with Mercato for on-line shopping and delivery service and establishing a customer service center for grocery bag storage and, on weekends, curbside pickup. Jimmy Iovine of Iovine Brothers Produce told me he has regular customers who take advantage of on-line ordering; it's also a small but growing source of customers for Godshall's Poultry and L. Halteman Family Country Foods as well.

But these are defensive moves. Gupta knows it is the merchants, their offerings, and the personal connections they offer shoppers which set the Reading Terminal Market apart from the powerful competitors muscling into its territory.

Gupta has also sought to bring in a wider array of vendors, particularly broadening the ethnic food offerings while providing an incubator for novice entrepreneurs. Expanded use of the day stalls has been an important mechanism he's used to encourage those with little capital but keen entrepreneurial spirit to expand the market's offerings. When the market did not renew the third fishmonger's lease, Gupta converted the vacant space to expanded day stalls.

That approach is no better exemplified than in Amina Aliako, a Syrian refuge hired by the market as a janitor who now sells the foods (mostly sweets) she grew up with from her day stall. Another day stall vendor who had been selling tapas from a day stall did well enough to move on to a full-fledged store along center court, A Taste of Spain, purveying a limited but enticing range of foods, including the fabled and dearly-priced Iberico ham from pigs fed on acorns.

(In a few months the day stalls will move to the light-filled space along 12th Street now serving as a seating area, a space which in the past had been occupied, in whole or part, by the now-departed Ricks Steaks, Fair Food and La Divisa Meats.)

Retail merchants always grumble about business, but there have been few serious complaints from vendors about Gupta's management. Part of the reason was that the most upsetting change for merchants in recent years was the restructuring of vendor leases undertaken at the direction of the board by his predecessor, Paul Steinke, in an effort to more fairly apportion rents to encourage the economic survival of produce, meat and fish purveyors; without that under-pining, the market would become little more than a shopping mall food court. Gupta's tenure has benefitted from the groundwork laid by Steinke who now leads the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

The market has undertaken significant physical improvements since this writer began shopping there in 1982, starting with the construction of the convention center and Center City Rail Tunnel which entailed eliminating water leaks and other physical disabilities caused by nearly a century of commuter trains rumbling overhead. Other improvements have been made over the years both unseen to the shopping public (including better ventilation systems and improved basement food prep and storage areas) and highly visible (the new demonstration kitchen and Rick Nichols Room).

Most of the physical improvements under Gupta have been behind the scenes, but his biggest visible achievement won't be in place until after his departure: the $1 million transformation of Harry Ochs Way (the section of Filbert Street under the convention center bridge) into a space more suitable for public use. Work on that project is expected to be undertaken and completed this summer.

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