In normal years, about 30% of the Reading Terminal Market’s customers are tourists. The 128-year-old institution is one of Philadelphia’s biggest draws for out-of-towners.
With scores of conventions and events canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those visitors have disappeared. Also, the lucrative evening events that the market once hosted have all been postponed into next year.
The dire business climate sparked the nonprofit organization that runs the market to appeal for donations. Two weeks ago, it launched a GoFundMe effort online to “keep the lights on and power the building, keep the ventilation systems working, support the frequent cleaning and disinfecting.”
Despite a respectable number of donors, the Reading Terminal Market collected only half of the requested $250,000.
On Thursday afternoon, Penn National Gaming, the operator of casinos and racetracks, stepped in to say it would help raise the difference.
“We are proud to support this historic institution, one of America’s largest and oldest public markets,” Jay Snowden, president and CEO of Penn National Gaming, said in a statement. “When Dave Portnoy first suggested the idea, we jumped at the chance to work together to help save this beloved icon in the heart of Philadelphia.”
Portnoy is the founder of the blog Barstool Sports, in which Penn National owns a 36% share. Portnoy’s company recently launched Barstool Sportsbook, an online betting app.
“For those making a first-time deposit of $100-plus into an account on the recently launched Barstool Sportsbook app, Penn National will match the deposit with a $100 donation to the Reading Terminal Market until it hits its GoFundMe goal of $250K,” according to a Penn National statement. The company expected to collect most of the money by the end of the Eagles-Giants game Thursday night.
Foot traffic at the Reading Terminal Market has plummeted about 50% since the start of the pandemic, said general manager Conor Murphy. “Traditionally, on a Saturday with conventions and tourists, we’d have up to 45,000 people come through. Currently, we’re seeing between 13,000 and 15,000.”
It’s not just the absence of tourists that is impacting the market.
“We used to do a lot of events after the regular business closed down every day at 6 p.m.,” Murphy said. “We did a lot of weddings, bar mitzvahs, family parties, and corporate events. All those have been pushed out until 2021.”
The GoFundMe campaign was deployed to replace some of that lost revenue.
Lunch counters at the market have been hit hardest.
“Business is way, way off,” said Stephen Safern, owner of Hershel’s East Side Deli. “Our counter is shut down. Everything we do now is takeout or delivery. But as our profit margins have grown tighter, dealing with the delivery services has become rough. When they take 15% of the check, in some cases you’re losing money.”
Butchers and grocers are “holding steady,” Murphy said.
At Martin’s Quality Meats and Sausage, a short line of five people waited to order chops, links, and steaks.
“Anyone making lunches is really taking a really big hit,” said Wayne Baranek, general manager at Martin’s. “As fresh food purveyors, we’re not blowing it out of the water. But Martin’s is surviving because, though people aren’t eating out as much, they’re still making dinner at home.”
The Terminal is host to about 70 family-owned businesses, many of which have operated there for generations, Baranek said. His neighbor at the market, one of the city’s most acclaimed lunch stands, is suffering.
“DiNic’s Roast Pork is one of the best sandwiches in the place — one of the best in the country, really — and they’re down to buying a third of what they used to buy from us. They’re amazing. But there’s one person in line there now at the peak of lunch hour.”
Three Reading Terminal Market stands have shut down since the beginning of the pandemic: Condiment, a niche purveyor of freshly churned butter and bespoke mayonnaise; Tootsie’s Salad Express; and the Tubby Olive, which sold an exotic array of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on tap.
Murphy said he was “surprised” at the outpouring of donations generated by the GoFundMe appeal.
“The public has been incredible with their support,” Murphy said. “About 3,500 have already contributed, and we’re super thankful for everyone who has helped so far.”
On Wednesday, a representative from Penn National reached out and asked how the company could help.
“They’re based in Wyomissing, they’re a Pennsylvania company, so they’re doing what they can to support us,” Murphy said. “I’m super grateful.”
The Reading Terminal Corp., a nonprofit, mainly operates from the leases with merchants. It also receives support from the Knight and Penn Foundations. The Pennsylvania Convention Center owns the building.
Rents depend on the category of lease. “Effectively, we have three different ranges: purveyor, food counter, and accessory or merchandise,” Murphy said.
Though many merchants applied for and received Paycheck Protection Program loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Reading Terminal Corp. has granted several lease deferments. “Who exactly, I don’t know,” said Murphy. “But the businesses are trying the best they can.”
“Our strategy is to remain open seven days a week to serve the city and to support the small family businesses in the building,” Murphy said. “We’re looking at new opportunities in e-commerce, in curbside pickup.”
It’s nearly impossible to foresee what the New Year will bring, Murphy said.
“One of the reasons we’re doing the GoFundMe fund-raiser is because it is so hard to predict,” Murphy said.