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Olivieri's last try to stay at market

The steak shop owner's hopes of continuing at Reading Terminal rest on a trial starting today.

Rick Olivieri has operated his sandwich shop at Reading Terminal Market without a lease since July 31. (Jonathan Wilson/Inquirer)
Rick Olivieri has operated his sandwich shop at Reading Terminal Market without a lease since July 31. (Jonathan Wilson/Inquirer)Read more

The grill will be sizzling as usual today as the lunch line grows at Rick's Original Philly Steaks in Reading Terminal Market.

But owner Rick Olivieri's mind will be focused on a different order - one he hopes to get from Common Pleas Court Judge Mark I. Bernstein, his last hope of remaining in the market where his family business has been since 1982.

Barring some last-minute development, Bernstein will begin hearing testimony today in the nonjury trial of combined lawsuits that Olivieri filed against market management and that management filed to evict Olivieri.

"It's been a long time since they started this," said Olivieri, 43, a third-generation member of the South Philadelphia family that claims to have invented the steak sandwich. "It's been tough on my wife and kids, and especially me."

Market spokesman Kevin Feeley said he did not want to comment because of today's scheduled start of trial.

Olivieri has operated his sandwich shop without a lease since July 31. He says officials at Reading Terminal Market Corp., the nonprofit that operates the historic farmers market below the old train shed, retaliated against him after years of tough negotiations on a new general lease for the market's 70-plus retailers. Olivieri was then president of the market merchants association.

Market officials have said that retaliation had nothing to do with it and that Olivieri was now a squatter. They have said they assumed that he was not interested in a new lease because he objected to some terms.

The protracted backstage dispute became public early in July when market management announced that Olivieri would be replaced by Tony Luke, a South Philadelphia restaurateur who built his name and a national reputation on roast pork sandwiches.

The initial uproar was loud and Luke quickly bowed out until the fight was settled. Lawsuits were filed and since then an uneasy stalemate has settled over the market floor as both sides waited for trial.

Olivieri has had the support of a majority of the merchants group, including its Amish vendors, who last year canceled their annual festival in protest. More than 3,000 people signed petitions supporting him.

"The market's whole campaign is 'Make it Your Market,' " Olivieri said. "If management really listens to the public, they'll hear what the public has already stated."

It's an open question whether Olivieri's public success will translate into success in the courtroom.

So far, it's been a rough path to today's trial.

In February, Judge Bernstein cleared the way for trial on Olivieri's complaint after pruning away all but one of its 11 counts. The ruling left alive a count under which Olivieri could recover money damages for renovation expenses he incurred based on what he said was an oral promise of a new lease from management.

The judge also ruled that Olivieri may not seek punitive damages at trial, a decision that could sharply limit any monetary recovery if he prevails.

Then, on May 12, Bernstein granted judgment to Reading Terminal Market Corp. on three counts of its ejectment action against Olivieri for overstaying his lease. That ruling could subject him to penalties of at least twice his base rent for the last year plus punitive damages.

Both rulings could sharply restrict the scope of the testimony and length of the trial.

Neither William A. Harvey, Olivieri's attorney, nor Lawrence R. Woehrle, attorney for Reading Terminal Market Corp., were available for comment.