Icons: A Volatile Market

When Rick Olivieri was kicked out of Reading Terminal Market after a quarter-century selling cheesesteaks, it looked like old-school Philly politics. But a different sort of culture clash is threatening the country’s best big-city public market

IN THE EARLY ’80S, Ric Dunston, who was then assistant manager of the Gallery, walked over to the Market with his boss, Jim Rouse — an uncle of Philadelphia’s Willard Rouse. “When we went in,” says Dunston, “Mr. Rouse said, ‘We could never do this. This is … organic.’”

Those words stayed with Dunston. But when he walked into the Market again as board chairman, in 2002, he looked around with eyes honed by years in corporate retail management and started dragging garbage cans and dollies out of the aisles. To him, they looked less like the natural outgrowth of an indoor food bazaar and more like a series of potential slip-and-fall lawsuits. To Market merchants, Ric Dunston just looked uptight.

A merchant like Olivieri is like a ­modern-day pirate. Not a Bluebeard-type pirate, who murders and steals and maims, but a Johnny Depp pirate — the kind we love, who makes his own rules and his living at the crest of a wave. Some Market merchants — the Olivieri type — revel in the camaraderie of the place, the honor of being one of the roughly 75 businesses housed here. As if in celebration, a small group of them sometimes gathers to down shots of whiskey before the rush of lunchtime customers begins. One pours me a 10 a.m. scotch from a flask he keeps behind his stand. “Don’t worry,” he says, “no one will tell.”

It’s an ethos you can feel in the way the Market crowd presses together like drinkers in a bar, funneling through aisles crammed with the raw and the cooked. A heavyset woman behind a black-and-white countertop hollers “Chocolate chip cookies!,” her voice trailing off in the dull roar of the place. Men lean over the counter at Pearl’s Oyster Bar, heads bowed as if they’re ducking under waves of noise.

At the Greek stand, the lady just says “What?” Customers figure out the rest. She snatches the money from their hands. At Delilah’s, eager eaters crowd around tables, mouths steady over plates loaded up with fried chicken and heaps of greens. They drink rivers of sweet tea.

And at Rick’s Steaks, Olivieri serves 120 sandwiches in an hour, manning the grill himself, tossing onions skyward and letting them fall back down like flecks of snow. Olivieri is the direct descendant of Pat Olivieri, who in 1933 invented the steak sandwich: Grandpa fried thin slices of beef with onions, stuck the result in a bun, and sold it. As a result, Rick is third-generation Philly Cheesesteak Royalty. Family legacies like these are endemic to the Market. Over at Harry Ochs, they carve — knives slicing sinew from bone, fat from flesh — as they have for a century. Harry has worked in the Market for 61 years. He shows up most every morning and leaves early in the afternoon.

Only a handful of cities, like Cleveland, with its West Side Market, and Seattle, with Pike Place, boast markets with histories as rich as that of Reading Terminal. Boston, New York, Chicago — none of them has a year-round public market. The Times, in fact, published a long article last January bemoaning this lack. Reading Terminal is a rare chance for Philadelphia to stick its Whiz-coated fingers in New York’s eyes. It is a place, like so many in Philadelphia, forged in tradition.

DUNSTON AND OLIVIERI FIRST clashed publicly in July 2005. The staff and board of Reading Terminal Market had gathered in a conference room at the Loews Hotel with their merchant tenants to kick off new lease negotiations. The meeting marked the beginning of the end for Olivieri, who attended in two capacities — president of the Reading Terminal Market Merchants Association, and shop-­owner. He didn’t like what he heard that day.

To ensure Reading Terminal’s future as a public market, management proposed to lower rents for meat, fish, poultry and produce vendors, whose profit margins are traditionally tight. To offset that loss, rents for those who sold prepared foods, like Olivieri, would be increased. When a microphone was passed around the room for comments, Olivieri challenged Dunston.

In most important respects, Olivieri is Dunston’s opposite. Forty years old at the time, he had spent more than half his life in the Market’s ramshackle bazaar. At that point, Dunston had chaired the Market’s board for three years. This was his first lease negotiation with the tenants; his professional background was based entirely in corporate retail, in decades spent managing bright, staid, fluorescent-lit environments like Liberty Place and the Gallery.  

“Ric,” Olivieri said, “we aren’t McDonald’s here. We aren’t buying a million pounds of beef and getting a break on costs. If you force these rent increases on the lunch merchants, we’re going to raise our prices. Nobody wants a seven-dollar- and-75-cent cheesesteak! Some of us might have to close down.”

Dunston’s response boiled down to: You’ll find the money. And with that, he pushed the microphone back at the smaller, stocky Olivieri.

The pirate stared at the Corporate Suit. Dunston, roughly six-foot-three and broad as a box store, stared back.

“The room got so tense, it felt like anything could happen,” remembers current Merchants Association president Michael Holahan. “It was like one of those movie scenes where if a car backfires outside, the next thing you know, everyone will pull out guns and start shooting.”

In the ensuing days, the confrontation between Olivieri and Dunston was the talk of the Market. Olivieri — on behalf of a small group of merchants — never did stop fighting about those leases. And the argument that started that day ended three years later in court.