Reading Terminal Market is about to approach its 125th year of continuous operation, and in its old age, it’s only getting better. The Terminal’s up to 80 merchants now and 6.5 million visitors annually, and General Manager Anuj Gupta, who stepped into the role in 2015, keeps the space on top of what’s fresh and wholesome in food. This year the Knight Foundation awarded Gupta a grant to launch “Breaking Bread, Breaking Borders,” a program that brings people together from different cultures to share a food experience. On the last day of Passover, Philly’s Muslim and Jewish communities discussed the Holy Land over a meal and next month, members of Philly’s Mummer and Chinese communities will dine. Gupta hasn’t always been in the food space. He’s got a law degree from Penn and a background in community organizing and revitalization — experience that Gupta brings to the job everyday, he says. In this interview Gupta lets us in on the hidden gems of Reading Terminal Market and what’s new since he’s been in charge. He gives us a look at the Terminal’s Saturday morning regulars and shares what he cooks up in his kitchen at home.
I grew up in … Chester County in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.
Something I miss about my childhood is … falling asleep on summer nights with Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn’s voices in my ears from my nightstand radio.
My schooling experience … has given me a lot of opportunity. I got to go to public school in a really strong public school system. At that time it wasn’t a particularly diverse place so it was a little challenging for a person of color to grow up. But I cannot say anything less about the quality of education that I had.
I’m really afraid of … not doing something right in raising my kids. I’m a dad of a four-year-old and a seven-year-old. I think every parent has that fear.
I don’t let my kids eat … cotton candy in large part because I don’t want to pay the consequences of the extreme sugar high. We do tend to not buy things with high fructose corn syrup. We have sweets in the house but we look at ingredients lists for that.
For someone who’s never visited Reading Terminal Market I’d pitch it as … an authentic Philadelphia experience and one that can’t be missed. It really represents some of the best that our city has to offer, not just in food but also in people. It’s one of the most diverse pubic spaces in America, and it’s a place where everybody, irrespective of where they come from, can and should feel welcome.
A merchant at the Terminal with a nontraditional story is … Elizabeth Halen who owns two stores — Flying Monkey Bakery and Condiment. She was an academic working towards a Ph.D. in statistics. I think she always had a subconscious passion for baking and good food. She worked a job as a part-time baker and did some crazy night hours for the prior owner of the Flying Monkey to pay her way through graduate school. But during that time she discovered that academia wasn’t for her. She ended up buying the business from the prior owner and has turned it into a bakery that’s gotten a lot of national attention. And then she launched a second concept here — Condiment. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anything else like it in the city in terms of its creativity and innovation.
A natural talent of mine is … public speaking. It’s something I enjoy doing, and I discovered it as a high school senior. I was selected as the high school graduation speaker. Just before the graduation, I totaled my car but was still able to deliver the speech with some measure of success. I got a sense of my confidence right before I entered the auditorium.
My first job was … caddy. We had a country club right near our house in Chester County. You could make anywhere from 25 to 50 a round, all cash. And you got free golf once a week at the golf course. I’d ride my bike there on weekends and spend the mornings caddying and it was great money for a 12-year-old.
Reading Terminal picks new merchants by … first looking to see if we can find a purveyor of fresh foods, whether it’s meats or produce. And we look for purveyors we don’t already have, which is getting increasingly hard to do. But we look at what voids in the market we have on the prepared foods side and we try to be in front of trends in the food industry and in line with our social mission to make sure Philadelphians have access to affordable, fresh nutritious foods.
Some cuisines Reading Terminal currently doesn’t have are … several East Asian cuisines like Korean or Vietnamese. We don’t have Caribbean cuisine. We also don’t have African, West or East African, which are quite different. And if you look at our mission statement, one of the points is that the space celebrates the diversity of the city and our customer base. And so as the city is increasingly diversifying, we need to be representative of that.
A new addition to the Terminal is … a mushroom farmer who sells exotic mushrooms.
Two that most people don’t know about the Terminal are … we are one of Pennsylvania’s largest redemption sites for EBT recipients. And we are approaching our 125th year of continuous operation as one of the nation’s largest and oldest public markets.
A big difference between the Nutter and Kenney administrations is … well, the world financial system isn’t collapsing first thing under the Kenney administration. But one difference I credit Kenney for is an unwavering support for immigrant communities starting on day one of the administration. I’m appreciative of that.
I use my law degree … everyday. I was a real estate lawyer so I use my background for negotiating and enforcing leases here, drafting contract language, understanding how to think through the potential hypotheticals that lawyers are trained to think through, whether it’s in negotiating an agreement with a merchant here or thinking about potential liability issues on any number of projects. I use it quite a bit.
I splurge on … basically three things. One is when The Boss comes to Philly. I buy tickets to see him. Two is baseball stadiums. I’m trying to see every baseball stadium in the country, and I’m down to nine. And three (although my wife wouldn’t really call it splurging because we buy the most discounted tickets we can find), is making sure our kids get to see the world. We just went to Colombia over spring break two weeks ago. Up next is Spain at the end of the summer before school starts.
My favorite time of year at the Terminal is … the day before Thanksgiving. Every holiday is somewhat centered on food, but there’s no other holiday when the food is absolutely front and center in bringing people together. People line up outside the market doors early in the morning. Some will be waiting outside beginning at 7:30, and we open the door and line up donuts, coffee and free shopping bags to hand out. And just the mood of the customers coming in — they’re happy to be here and we’re happy to see them. We are happy to help them get ready for what I think is a very important holiday. A lot of folks have made it a tradition that they’re going to come do their shopping here.
Some hidden gems at the Terminal are … the brunch at Pearl’s, the spice collection at Head Nut — you won’t find a more diverse collection of spices anywhere in the city — and the turkey and chicken cold cuts at Godshall’s. They have this amazing turkey, which I love to make sandwiches out of.
The 2017 foodie is … a person that has a diverse palette. This person is looking for freshness and quality of ingredients and is interested in sourcing ingredients and how the food was made.
The Reading Terminal regulars are … the heart and soul of the market. There’s a Saturday morning cadre of customers, and Saturday morning is my favorite regular period of time during the week. Peter and Donna, for example, have been coming for 50 years. They do their regular shopping, sit down for coffee and breakfast and read the paper. And when they sit they catch up with three or four others who have been coming for ten, 20, or 30 years. They sit at the same table each time, and it’s a wonderful sight. There are people who have become good friends just through their time there. Former DA Lynne Abraham is one of the regulars, too, and she’ll catch up with all of the others on Saturday mornings.
Instagram has changed the food game by … giving people an appropriate tool to present their businesses and reach people with immediacy. We use it quite a bit at the Terminal. It’s a photogenic shop so Instagram is our most powerful advertising mechanism, period.
A memory of the Terminal before I became GM is … that I’d come here almost every Saturday morning. I was one of the regulars. I’d bring my daughter in a stroller — she was just an infant at the time — and I’d put some books in my backpack. We’d eat breakfast and do all of our grocery shopping. My favorite part of the routine was loading up the bottom of the stroller with grocery bags. And I’d have grocery bags hanging from both handles and grocery bags stuffed in my backpack. I’d get to Mt. Airy on the Regional Rail and call my wife and tell her, “There’s no way we’re making it back home. Can you come pick us up?” [Laughs] It was almost like a Pavlov’s Dog Syndrome situation where I knew the circumstance I was going to end up in at the end of the trip, but I still did it anyway.
Some changes since I’ve been GM include … experimenting with programing on perimeter of the building. We’re trying to create more of a market district around the Terminal. Last year we had a monthly flower market on Saturday afternoons with PHS, and we brought the Franklin Flea once a month.
We’ve really started to bring in more pop-up food uses through our day cart program. In addition to the distillers, we have a young guy who makes these exceptional gourmet biscuits based on his grandmother’s recipes. We have another guy coming in with entirely vegan home consumption products like vegan scrapple, vegan bacon, and vegan breads.
We’re also using our city demonstration kitchen a lot. Every second and fourth Saturday you can sit down for an interactive cooking demo with one our chefs or owners here. On the first and third Saturdays, we offer free personalized chef-led tours of the market. Our chef Tess Connors will walk you through different stores depending on what your interests are, depending on what you want to cook that week.
The most pressure I’ve gotten on the job … was during my first three months. I started in the middle of June 2015 and had a little under three months to get the market ready for what we thought was going to be thousands and thousands of people coming through our doors during Papal Visit. I knew nothing about market’s operations so I had to really learn it and get a good handle on it in advance of it. Turned out it was all for not because we were dead that weekend though we well prepared.
A culinary expert I admire is … Chef Joseph Poon.
I respect … the extent to which [restaurateurs] have put Philly’s dining scene on the national map. It’s really amazing. We’re a premier dining city, and that’s happened in a relatively short period of time. They’ve carved out a nice niche in Philly that allows you to get a five star meal at a really good price. You can’t do that in New York or D.C. or Boston. There’s still a level of expense you’re going to incur at any restaurant, but there’s a level of accessibility to really creative, innovative cuisine that I don’t think you’re going to find in other cities. I respect what they’re doing for Philadelphia’s reputation across the country.
The city’s commercial corridors … are some of the best ways to get to know all of the wonderful things about Philly. Many of the corridors are populated with longtime family businesses that are representative of Philadelphia’s diversity.
I’d describe my diet as … really well balanced. But my wife would probably tell you it’s too meat heavy. I insist on a vegetable and a starch in every meal. And it’s multi-ethnic. I do all the cooking at home, and I’ll try to do two different cuisines every week at the very least.
In the kitchen I’ve taken a stab at … various Persian dishes, and that’s been a lot of fun. I started doing Vietnamese dishes over the past few years. I make a really good Pho stock.
Family mealtime now is … trying to get a four-year-old and a seven-year-old to eat in time to take showers and do nighttime reading and get to be on time. It’s also about doing whatever chores my wife and I need to do to get ready for the next day. It’s a little bit of a chaotic scene.
Family mealtime growing up was … a big production. My father insisted that we rarely eat leftovers. We only ate Indian food one night a week and every other night was another cuisine.
A strange request we get at the Terminal is … “Can we have a table for two?”
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