Nina Bryan considered selling her banana pudding at Reading Terminal Market years ago, but while she tried to figure out the logistics and financing involved with setting up an outpost of her company, a better-prepared vendor swooped in and won the coveted spot.
This time, when Reading Terminal general manager Anuj Gupta approached her with a pitch to operate a day cart, all Bryan needed was the pudding, some plastic spoons, and a tablecloth. Since she opened Sweet Nina's Banana Pudding across from the Down Home Diner about three months ago, Bryan has sold at least 100 cups of pudding per day.
"An entrepreneur like myself wouldn't have been able to get in here before," she said. "I know, I tried. For me, it's the opportunity of a lifetime."
Bryan is one of the notable successes of a recent effort by Reading Terminal management to give small businesses a foothold in a venue that has been historically difficult to break into. With low turnover and stores that haven't moved for decades, Reading Terminal can be intimidating for new merchants, Gupta said. So when Wan's Seafood moved out last fall, vacating a 900-square-foot spot in the market's center, Gupta decided against finding a vendor to take up the entire area. Instead, the market for the first time started leasing carts to merchants like Bryan for $50 a day, and moved them into the empty space.
"We found ourselves in this incredibly competitive environment where you want to test new concepts and give customers something new," Gupta said. "We needed a way to bring in some of these hyper-local entrepreneurs, these small-batch products that you can find at farmers' markets. And the way to do that was to lower the barriers to entry."
The wheeled carts, left over from the market's days as a train station, already were being leased to a few businesses that needed no refrigeration — like Lansdale's Boardroom Spirits and newcomer Birdie's Biscuits — for use as pop-up stands in the center of the building. The feedback from customers and owners was good, Gupta said, so last fall he and members of his team started working with the Health Department on turning the former Wan's Seafood into a flexible space for multiple kiosks. The space has no built-in cooking station, but other than sinks, refrigeration, and the proper permits and licenses, it turned out little was needed for businesses to start selling ready-made food.
Gupta and others approached vendors to fill gaps at the market, like LUHV, a Hatboro family business that now sells grab-and-go vegan food like salads, soups, and award-winning veggie burgers at Reading Terminal three days a week.
"We always wanted to come here," said Facundo Lucci, whose Argentine immigrant parents have owned restaurants in the Philadelphia suburbs for more than 20 years. "We just thought it was something you couldn't even dream of achieving."
Founded by Lucci and his parents Daniel and Silvia in 2016, LUHV has a bistro in Hatboro and sells its products in grocery stores in Pennsylvania and four other states. Since opening at Reading Terminal in November, Facundo Lucci said, business has been brisk, with the vegan tuna salad, made from garbanzo beans, turning out to be a best seller. Eventually, Lucci hopes to operate a full kitchen and serve more made-to-order food.
"This is our foot in the door," he said. "A lot of our customers eat meat, but they're open to this."
Bryan, a longtime caterer who makes six flavors of pudding with fresh bananas, custard, and vanilla cookies based on her mother's recipe, makes pudding off-site, but aspires to expand her footprint in Reading Terminal and someday prepare it in-house. She has more flavors coming, including one made with La Colombe coffee, as well as quiches she'd like to sell.
For Patricia Shea, who sells all-natural, low-calorie mixers for use with spirits, seltzer, or juices, Reading Terminal has offered an opportunity to teach customers about her company, Bieza Exceptional Mixers.
"It was originally about people who don't drink, and how there's often nothing for them on a menu," said Shea, who is at the market three days a week. "Over time, it has started to fit with people's interest in nutrition. It's about drinking less sugar, whether you're drinking or not."
Shea sells the mixers — in pomegranate tea and citrus ginger flavors — mostly online, and offers recipes for using them in both cocktails and nonalcoholic drinks.
"I'm really honored to be here," she said. "It wasn't something I ever thought was possible."
Gupta said he wants to create permanent homes for some vendors, perhaps through three- or six-month leases. Traditional leases at Reading Terminal are for five years or more, he said, due to the size of many of the spots and the capital involved in customizing a kitchen.
"This has essentially given us a farm team that we can someday move into these bigger spaces," he said.