Courtesy of R. Kennedy for VISIT PHILADELPHIA

How the Reading Terminal Market, which is still chain-free, is older and cooler than just about any other market in the country.

Regan Stephens
March 09, 2018

On a Tuesday morning in early March, the Reading Terminal Market is already bustling. The Philadelphia Flower Show—America’s largest—just kicked off its fourth day at the Pennsylvania Convention Center across the street, and the market is gearing up for what has historically been its busiest week of the year. The smells from some of the nearby merchants—corned beef from Hershel’s Deli, roast pork at DiNic’s, baking discs of chocolate cake that will eventually sandwich cream cheese icing to become Flying Monkey’s beloved whoopie pies—all mingle together to form a surprisingly enticing aroma.

While sleek new food halls housing chef-driven restaurant concepts are springing up around the country, (including in Philly, which will welcome two soon), one of America’s oldest markets is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Over a century in, the Reading Terminal Market is better than ever.

First opened in 1893, the Market gets its name from the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, which bought the 1100 block of Market Street to house its new terminal. Prior to the purchase, open-air markets operated in a line from the Delaware River toward what eventually became City Hall, and as part of the deal with the city, the Reading Railroad had to make space for an indoor market to replace the ones displaced by their terminal. Its location next to the terminal made it easy to receive and ship goods, and provide services that resemble a turn-of-the-century version of Amazon Pantry. A housewife living on the Main Line, Philadelphia’s tony northwest suburbs, could arrange for groceries from the Market to be placed in a basket and sent via train to her town’s station, where it could be held until she arrived to collect it. 

Today, services like Uber Eats and Instacart can deliver some of Reading Terminal’s famous foods with a few taps of the screen. And while there’s obviously value in having freshly-filled cannolis from Termini Bros Bakery or a Meltkraft grilled cheese, made using Valley Shepherd Creamery artisanal cheeses, brought straight to your door, tasting them is only a small piece of the experience. To understand the magic of the Market, you have to immerse yourself in it. Walk the worn floors, designed in the same original grid system inspired by city founder William Penn’s street layout, get stuck behind ambling tourists, wait in winding lines and, perhaps most importantly, talk to its merchants.

Presently, Reading Terminal is home to eighty independent owner-operator merchants, including one of the market’s original vendors: Bassetts Ice Cream. The sixth-generation family business also happens to be the oldest ice cream brand in the United States. Michael Strange, Bassetts’ President, who took over from his grandfather and his mother, Ann Bassett, has witnessed both the evolution of the market—including its structural and operational struggles in the early 1970s—and its constants, like his customers.

“I will have customers come up to me and say, ‘I remember when my grandparents brought me in here when I was a little girl, seven years old,’ and this woman is in here with her own grandchildren. And that’s not a one-off, it happens very frequently,” says Strange. He can spot his long-term customers when they ask for a “dish” while sitting at the stall’s original marble counter, and mean they want their scoop served in an old-fashioned porcelain bowl.

He credits the market with flavor inspiration and help with R&D, too, recounting how he was working on developing a green tea flavor for their Asia market (Bassetts ships to China and Korea) and couldn’t quite get it right. After disappointing batches made using flavor systems procured from ingredient suppliers, Strange had an aha moment.

“It had artificial color in it, the flavor wasn't coming from green tea, and it just wasn't anywhere close to what I wanted. So finally, I went to Lynnette at Tea Leaf, which is a couple stalls down from my stall. I said, 'Lynnette, I am having the worst time developing this flavor here. I want to do a green tea, can you give me some guidance? She pulled out this bag of matcha powder, and said, ‘Why don't you try this?’”

He mixed in the powder to some softened vanilla ice cream and voilà—the perfect soft green color and, after some recipe development to perfect the flavor—Bassetts new matcha ice cream. “I figured if anyone knows anything about tea, it’s going to be Lynnette. Why was I going to these ice cream ingredient supply houses getting these flavor systems that had everything but matcha in them, when I could get the real stuff here?”

Courtesy of R. Kennedy for VISIT PHILADELPHIA

Newer merchants echo Strange’s deep appreciation for his being a part of the community here. “I talk to the other guys who have meat shops; we do things drastically different, but it’s hard work, dealing with customers and retailers, whether it’s Dietz & Watson bologna, or high-end standing rib roast, it’s the same,” says Nick Macri, owner of charcuterie and butcher shop La Divisa Meats, which opened in 2015. “You’re not necessarily looking for an answer, but sometimes you get it. If I had a stand alone shop, next to a shoe store and a barber shop, what are we really gonna talk about?”

For Elizabeth Halen, the first female president of the Merchants’ Association and owner of Flying Monkey Bakery, the idea for her second concept was born out of getting to know the market. Condiment sells freshly churned compound butters, sauces, stocks and more, all made fresh daily in small batches. “The idea was to tie the fresh meat, seafood and vegetables that you can already procure here, and pair it with something equally as fresh,” she says.

Halen, too, gets inspiration from the community, in this case, her customers. “I have a regular customer named Walt, and he likes to cook scallops that he gets from John Yi [Fish Market] in butter, but he was looking for something a little different and he likes mushrooms, so we made this special garlic mushroom butter.” It’s now one of Condiment’s top selling compound butters. Another customer asked Halen to replicate a random arugula dip he tasted at a party. She did, and not only made the customer happy, but popular local cheesemonger DiBruno Bros. now carries her version.

At the stall, customers can sample marinades like Cilantro Mojo, Memphis Barbecue and Bourbon Glaze, and Halen offers a free marinating service. Buy the condiment from her, and the meat from anywhere in the market, and she’ll add it to the ziplock bag to make it even easier to cook at home. (A local fire house takes advantage of the service when cooking dinners for the crew.) Similarly, at Bassetts, non-local customers who want a few handpacked pints or quarts to go can ask for dry ice. At La Divisa, Macri and his team field both in-person and emailed questions from their customers, and since they process the meat on site, he can customize cuts.

This level of service from expert merchants, some who have been in business for decades, is unique to the Reading Terminal Market, says its general manager, Anuj Gupta. While it attracts a daily influx of tourists lured by the promise of a scoop of America’s oldest ice cream or an apple fritter from Amish bakery Beiler's, the market exists to serve Philadelphians. Office workers on their lunch break wait for a bowl of red curry salmon and rice at Little Thai Market, Main Line parents come into the city to pick up a birthday cake at Flying Monkey, college students grab inexpensive fresh veggies at OK Produce, who knocks off ten percent when they show a student ID.

Hannah Eshleman

“The fact that we have very purposely tried not to just become a food hall, that we have maintained policies—for example, no chains or franchises are allowed in the building, we have a very heavy emphasis on the owner operator business model—those are all very intentional decisions to cater to locals,” he says.

Reading Terminal’s central location in the city also makes it easily accessible to Philadelphians. “We’re right smack in the middle of everything,” says Halen. “It’s so easy to get here. I think something like eighty percent of the bus and subway lines come within one block of where we are.” Its physical accessibility is coupled with its economic; the market is the largest redemption of SNAP benefits in the entire state of Pennsylvania. “That is a point of pride for us,” says Gupta. “We are filling an important need that many neighborhoods in our city still have, which is access to fresh food.”

In the three years he’s been overseeing operations, Gupta, who shares memories of his own Saturday mornings grocery shopping with his daughter at the market, is implementing some pivotal updates. “We haven't changed our fundamentals, I’m trying to build off our strengths. This place has enduring traits that, if I change those, we would ruin its heart and soul. So I’m trying to make improvements at the margin, which would allow us to become easier to utilize, more accessible, more innovative, more welcoming.”

These changes include a forthcoming ecommerce platform, new concepts that tap into the region’s unique offerings (like a fresh mushroom shop, a nod to Southeastern Pennsylvania’s status as America’s mushroom capital, and Fox & Son, which specializes in State Fair foods—corn dogs, funnel cake—elevated with locally sourced, gluten-free ingredients), kiosks for local distilleries and wineries, and a new collection of day stalls. The stalls, currently being housed in original luggage carts from the early days of the railroad, are offered to new merchants with flexible leasing terms to lower the barrier for new and innovative merchants to enter the market.

As Reading Terminal slowly eases into the modern era, everything that makes it great—its history, community, diversity and dedication to the city it’s called home for more than a century—remains firmly in place. And its merchants couldn’t imagine operating from anywhere else.

“I sell to hundreds and hundreds of outlets throughout the region,” says Strange. “I ship internationally to China and Korea, I sell through distributors in Florida and New York City, but I constantly hear, ‘Oh Bassetts, you have a place in the Reading Terminal Market.’ Our brand, at this point, is synonymous with this market.”