For the casual visitor, any given lunchtime might lead to dizzy spells from the crush of bodies and labyrinth of merchants at Reading Terminal Market. With Thanksgiving still a week away on this particular afternoon, however, Cheron Henson takes the bustle in stride.
“Can you see the floor?” Henson asked, gesturing at her feet. “If you can see the floor, it’s not crowded in here.”
For Henson, Reading Terminal’s executive ambassador, it seems like there’s no such thing as too many people. Wandering the aisles with unflappable good cheer, Henson rarely passes a merchant without receiving a smile and a wave, and can hardly round a corner without greeting a regular customer with a warm hug.
“I like to make people feel comfortable and welcome,” Henson said. “And this is a welcoming place.”
Launched in March 2017 after a study found that navigation and service were two aspects that the market could improve upon, the Reading Terminal Market Ambassador Program staffs the historic market with a cadre of volunteers who help guide confused visitors to their destinations or point out unexpected delights hidden among the lunch counters and display cases. While it’s been a major help for tourists who wander in and can’t find their way back to the street, it’s also helped spread word of new initiatives — like online shopping and special events — to locals.
“We’ve seen our regular customers find new ways to interact with the market,” said Layla El Tannir, special projects director at Reading Terminal. “I think we’ve also found new customers who had never thought of the market other than as a place to grab a cheesesteak or to bring a friend from out of town. They’ve discovered Reading Terminal as a place to utilize as a public space, to grocery shop, or to meet with friends on a regular basis.”
The program currently boasts between 15 and 20 volunteers across a range of ages, concentrated between retirees and students working for class credit. Each volunteer generally works a single three-hour shift per week and is rewarded monthly with a $35 market gift card.
“I’m trying to build a program that’s reflective" of the site’s diversity, El Tannir said. “In our market you’ll find all ages, all stages of life, all cultures and backgrounds, and I wanted ambassadors who represented all of that. I like to say that neighborhoods all over Philadelphia, to major cities around the world, are represented.”
Sol Volen, 93 and retired, spent 22 years as a bar owner on Spring Garden Street before starting a vending machine business. He now greets visitors to Reading Terminal with a business card simply imprinted with the words, “You Matter.” Ambassador Donna Martorano has worked at the market since 2002 at the Welcome Center desk, the predecessor of the ambassador program, and occasionally surprises Italian-speaking guests with her smattering of the language.
“You get to meet people from all over the country and all over the world,” Martorano said. “So you not only give them information about the market, but you’re an ambassador for the city.”
Nancy Vonada was a regular shopper at the Center City institution for more than four decades before she retired from a career in fund-raising and event planning. “I think there’s a lot of treasures here,” Vonada said. “That’s why the Reading Terminal is such an integral part of the community. It’s not just about food; it’s about family and helping people.”
The ambassadors roam the site seven days a week, sporting T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “Ask me anything about the market.” More often than not they approach customers before being approached, recognizing the telltale blank stare or head-scratching gaze at a map. Frequent questions are the obvious ones: Where are the bathrooms? Or where can I find the best cheesesteak?
They also run into more unusual requests: Vonada gave a tour of the market to a young blind woman whose family insisted she simply had to visit, while Henson once ran to Tootsie’s Buffet to grab an orange for a man who was suffering a diabetic reaction.
Henson is the sole full-time employee among Reading Terminal’s ambassadors. She was essentially doing the job before it even existed: She was hired four years ago as part of the housekeeping staff, though her mop bucket was frequently left unattended while she guided a lost customer to Beiler’s doughnuts or to Jefferson Station.
“I recognized that Cheron had an intrinsic connection with the customers in the market that went way above fulfilling her duties and calling it a day,” said El Tannir. “Her natural instinct is to go the extra mile for people, and I realized that I could really use someone like that in this role.”
Bob and Sarah Mazzarelli have become regular visitors to the market since the birth last November of their daughter, Ava. Upon spotting the baby shortly before Halloween, Henson approached the young family from the Northeast and suggested some upcoming family-oriented events. “Cheron’s such a loving person,” Sarah said. “We visit her whenever we’re here, and now she’s like one of our family.”
For Henson, being an ambassador is the perfect job; watching her work, it almost seems as if “evangelist” might be a better title. But in any case, her affinity for talking has turned from a curse to a gift.
“When I was a kid I used to get in trouble for talking so much,” she laughed. “When they offered me the position, I called my mom and was screaming and hollering, ‘Mom, all them whuppings I got? Look, I got a job where I can talk and I won’t get in trouble anymore!’ People can be mean, they can have an attitude, and I change them all the way around. Babies come in crying and I get them to start smiling. That makes me feel good.”