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

OLIVIERI’S COURT FINDINGS ARE interesting mostly for the course they chart into Philadelphia’s political waters. The key name belongs to Andrew Cosenza Jr., who first approached sandwich-maker Tony Luke in June 2007, asked if he was interested in opening a store in the Market, and discussed forming some kind of joint business arrangement. Cosenza runs numerous concessions at the airport. He owns the club Glam on 2nd Street. He knows retail. He is also, for the purposes of throwing a zillion ­Philadelphia-sized shadows on the wall, right out of central casting.

The 39-year-old businessman donated $79,500 to Vince Fumo’s Senate campaigns in the past eight years. He solicited contributions for the Senator’s criminal defense fund, having apparently decided that not even a 139-count federal indictment will come between him and Vince. He has vacationed with Fumo in Florida, where — according to his ­deposition — he “possibly” mentioned talking to Tony Luke about opening in the Market.

Cosenza is also a longtime friend of Ric Dunston, who has also contributed to the Senator. To Olivieri’s ill-fated conspiracy claim, the relationship between Dunston and Cosenza was everything. But in a legal sense, Olivieri’s case was always a non-starter. He had no contract to breach — he’d been operating on a month-to-month lease for roughly a year. After the case settled, Jill Porter wrote a column for the Daily News, targeting the Dunston-Cosenza angle. Councilman Bill Green promised hearings on the matter. Fellow councilman Frank DiCicco, a Fumo guy, accused Green of being rude and arrogant.

Green may have picked the wrong fight. For starters, he went to grade school with Rick Olivieri, which could undermine his appearance of righteous indignation. Also, there’s no pattern of misconduct at the Market. Rick Olivieri is the only merchant alleging he was wronged. Andrew Cosenza is the only friend of Dunston alleged to have gotten within sniffing distance of a deal, and that never even came to pass.

Though Cosenza’s political connections are intriguing, what his presence in this story best illustrates is the difference between the Jeans and the Suits. To Cosenza, who has managed a whole series of businesses, a spot in the Market would comprise only a tiny portion of his business interests. But for Olivieri, Rick’s Steaks is his livelihood. And in this, he best represents the Market’s traditional shopkeepers — merchants for whom the Market is everything.

THOUGH THE MARKET WAS established in 1892, its greatest challenges arose in the past three decades. In the late 1970s, infamous real estate speculator Sam Rappaport — who never met a property he couldn’t neglect­ — subleased the building and allowed it to fall into total disrepair. At one point, the number of merchants dropped to 23. Rat droppings piled in the corners. A deathwatch started. But in 1980, the Reading Company hired a new general manager, David K. O’Neil, who recruited a group of merchants passionate enough to endure a long-term rebuilding project.

Olivieri’s father joined in 1982, and Rick immediately took to working behind the counter. Without such basic amenities as air-conditioning or working heat, the Market was hot in summer and cold in winter, an indoor food bazaar with all the hazards of the great outdoors. When rain coursed through holes in the roof, merchants nailed blue tarps into the walls and ceiling, hoping to catch the water and drain it off into 55-gallon garbage cans. But the tarps failed. Customers shopped with open umbrellas. Water accumulated in troughs on the floor. “We tried to mop,” remembers Ochs. “But you can’t mop up that much water.”  

So they improvised. Where the water was deepest, they drilled holes in the floor. Water drained into the basement, but that was a problem for tomorrow. Then, in the summer of 1988, the construction of the Convention Center in the vast overhead train shed threatened to shut them down. Ochs was president of the Merchants Association at the time. He mounted a petition drive that forced city politicians to keep the Market open permanently. “The city, I think, was really considering letting us close,” says Ochs.

When the city purchased the Market that year, Ochs told the Inquirer that the merchants claimed primacy: “We don’t care, really, who owns it. We are the market. Without us, there is no market.”

In the end, Rick Olivieri seems to have received the boot for being a pain in the ass, just another milestone in the broader landlord/tenant conflict that has always typified Market life. In his court deposition, Dunston described Olivieri’s actions as president of the Merchants Association as an “impediment” to what he was trying to achieve with the new leases, because Olivieri urged other merchants not to sign. Olivieri denies this, but admits he was still trying to negotiate terms a year and a half after they were proposed.

What we have here is a classic case of Suits vs. Jeans, of a corporation confronting the pirates in its midst — and threatening tradition. “Individualism is what you’re seeking when you’re leasing space in the Market,” says former GM David O’Neil. “That’s what makes the Market click. Rick is colorful. He’s fun to watch behind the grill.” Chopping onions and frying steak, tossing food in the air and catching it in a waiting bun — it’s a show Olivieri lives. His license plate reads “CHZSTK.” His cell phone plays the Godfather theme. He grew up in the bustling heat of a Market that survived in spite of management. “And sometimes,” O’Neil adds, “with colorful personalities, you need to make allowances.”

For the past 20 years, the Market has operated as a nonprofit, with a 12-member unpaid-volunteer board and a paid general manager. Among them, only Dunston boasts retail experience.

The irony is that in the past several years, even new Merchants Association president Michael Holahan allows, the Market has seemed well-run. The new leases proposed in 2005 standardized and extended hours, so that all stalls are open Monday through Friday from at least 10 a.m. to six p.m. The Market is also finally open on Sundays.

It’s a new day, and Olivieri was caught off guard. As several merchants put it, “Rick never thought they’d do this to him.”

“It doesn’t seem right,” says Harry Ochs. “When I was president of the Merchants Association, during one negotiation in about 1980, I went around and told all the merchants, ‘Don’t sign your leases.’ Nobody punished me.”

Then again, in 1980, Ric Dunston wasn’t around.

 

 

 

DUNSTON SAYS HE HAS learned about the value of Market tradition. But not from Olivieri. “My philosophy is to let it be what it wants to be,” he says.  He is, for instance, no longer concerned about the legal implications of the clutter that lends the Market its character: “I’ve learned … maybe we don’t pull the garbage cans out of the aisles. Maybe we paint them yellow.”

The battle lines for another fight, however, are already drawn. Traditionally, Market management has engaged in lease negotiations with all the merchants at once, working up a kind of master lease. This time, management staggered the leases so it will negotiate with smaller groups of tenants in the future. Dunston admits that this reduces the merchants’ power. “My job is to ensure the existence of this market in perpetuity,” he says. “Leaving open the possibility of all the merchants walking out at once isn’t a good way of doing that.”

Michael Holahan, owner of the Pennsylvania General Store, is a lot more politic than Olivieri. But he’s still a Market merchant, and so Ric Dunston is put on notice. What happened to Olivieri lingers: “No matter how much they say ‘We’ve been vilified,’” says Holahan, “they brought this on.”

As for the staggered leases, Holahan says that if a bad contract is presented to any one merchant, the rest are likely to band together and fight on each other’s behalf. “It would be foolish of me to beat my chest and say we won’t allow an injustice to happen,” he says, “because the record of the past year shows that’s not the case. But no one should ever underestimate the merchants. We have a history of sticking our chins out when we need to.”

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  • Dee

    I sure hope someone is investigating . . .