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How Reading Terminal Market plans to compete with Amazon's Whole Foods

The iconic market is launching a set of 21st century innovations, driven by competition from a new wave of grocers.

City Representative Sheila Hess (left) stands by as Anuj Gupta,  general manager of Reading Terminal Market, announces plans for the market’s  125th birthday celebration at a news conference on Friday.
City Representative Sheila Hess (left) stands by as Anuj Gupta, general manager of Reading Terminal Market, announces plans for the market’s 125th birthday celebration at a news conference on Friday.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

As they mark 125 years of history, Reading Terminal Market executives have big plans to set up distillery kiosks, encourage farm-to-table entrepreneurs, develop the area outside the market, and eventually deliver food to customers' homes.

To start with, the gastronomic bazaar, one of the city's great public spaces, plans to raise $2 million to complete the restoration of its façade, a project that had been left unfinished since the 1990s.

The iconic market is also launching a set of 21st-century innovations, driven by competition with a new wave of grocers that include Whole Foods, Amazon, and MOM's Organic.

Following a news conference Friday to kick off a yearlong celebration of the market's 125th anniversary, general manager Anuj Gupta described his vision that will reinvent the terminal while staying true to its culinary roots.

"We want to stay one step ahead of the competition, and we don't want to be Chicago, Seattle, or Austin," said Gupta, referring to the home cities with some of the new food giants. "We want to be Philadelphia," he said "And we're going to be constantly giving our customers reasons to come back."

On the immediate horizon:

• An incubator for farm-to-table entrepreneurs. Start-up vendors will be able to take short-term leases on smaller spaces to experiment with new products. Farmers with seasonal produce can also take advantage of adjustable stands and temporary leases. "In the past, a 300-square-foot space and a five-year lease was a major obstacle" to new artisanal food merchants, Gupta said. "This allows everyone to become a little more nimble and take on less risk. The intention is to create more space for new ventures."

• A set of distillery kiosks. The region is undergoing an explosion in the number of distillers of whiskies, bourbons, gins, and vodkas, Gupta said. The market will offer them a rare showcase outside the state store system. Under state law, vendors' new 50-square-foot stands will be entitled to offer small samples of spirits.

• A new app. Available for Android and iOS, the app will allow customers to order groceries and arrange for curbside pickup. It's set to be launched before the holiday season. Eventually, the market hopes to provide home delivery.

•New vendors of traditional market foods. Gupta mentioned that starting this weekend, a Barnagat Bay fisherman, Jim Laprete, will set up shop to sell seafood bought and sold on his dock, from Jersey-caught flounder and mahi mahi to scallops. "Whatever is seasonal and local," Gupta said.

Long-term, the market is looking to expand to "transform Filbert Street" under the Reading Terminal shed roof. Gupta mentioned the Eastern Market in Washington as a possible model. That market, in the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood, predates Philadelphia's by a decade. The District of Columbia institution has "20 times the number of merchants" outside the market than inside, he said, and features an array of artists, crafters, and performers. Reading Terminal officials say they are still sifting through such possibilities.

As the environment changes, Reading Terminal Market will remain focused on family-owned businesses, Gupta said. As a nonprofit corporation, it receives donations and sponsorships from city institutions and companies such as Brandywine Realty Trust. The support effectively subsidizes the mom-and-pops.

"If the full cost of the real estate was borne by the rent structure, most couldn't afford to be here," Gupta said.

Preserving the market's character gives it a competitive edge, said Ferdinand Wirth, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University.

The unparalleled diversity of products is a draw in itself, Wirth said. "But it's also the feeling that you're dealing with regular people — local vendors as opposed to big corporate chains. It's authentically part of the 'Buy Local' phenomenon, and that's one of the biggest movements in food right now."

The market's official anniversary, dubbed "1893 Day," is scheduled for Feb. 22, 2018. A yearlong celebration will follow featuring "Taste of Market" cooking demonstrations, a public speaker series, and street festivities with entertainers and well-known chefs.

"Why is 125 years important?" Gupta asked rhetorically before assembled TV cameras and reporters. "Because in an environment where most food businesses fail within their first year, any milestone is important.

"We're doing what we can do to ensure someone will be standing here 125 years from now."