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In Philadelphia, Marketing Time

By Roger Piantadosi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 1999; Page E02

Some travelers prefer stopping to eat in a place whose "entertainment value" is the reliable result of years of marketing science. But some of us are reliably drawn in the opposite direction: to where entertainment is a naturally occurring byproduct of marketing--as in grazing, shopping, meeting, greeting and eating. As in Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market.

The city's corporate boosters are excited these days because the building that has housed downtown's Reading Market for the last century now also has a new Hard Rock Cafe. Fine. Until the city's fiscal and physical makeovers started getting noticed by visitors in the mid-1990s, it probably wasn't the easiest century to be a Philadelphia booster--and getting the chain to open one of its restaurant/sports bar/theme parks in Center City before next year's Republican convention was mostly a matter of civic pride in the newly booming, tourist-friendly town. But don't let the publicity machine misdirect you.

The bigger, better deal--for a fresh, cheap lunch or just a quick infusion of color, aroma and the affable thrum of hand-to-hand commerce--is still the Reading Terminal Market. Unlike a Hard Rock or a Planet Hollywood, the cavernous, 80-vendor indoor market doesn't have to go out and pick up its cachet by the truckload at estate sales. When you've been open more or less continuously for 106 years, cachet pretty much comes with every order. You want to get to know Philadelphians? Or Amish farmers (whose entry to the market in 1981 began its recovery from the run-down condition associated with the demise of the Reading Railroad in 1971)? Buy something from them--preferably something they made, or grew, themselves.

As in any decent indoor market from Paris to Buenos Aires, your eyes, ears and nose will be instantly engaged on entry here. Depending on which of the 16 doors along Arch, Filbert and 12th streets you use, you'll immediately detect the presence of fish, French loaves, coffee roasting, pretzels baking, chickens frying, one of a band of volunteer regulars playing and singing at the piano in the rear of the central seating area, and everywhere that distinctive Philly-inflected sound of vendors who know their business--like prime-meats butcher Harry Ochs, for one, who freely dispenses recipes with every purchase.

"Harry grew up on the market floor," says market general manager Marcy Rogovin, "with his father and grandfather. You buy your meats at his counter--but when you buy, part of the process with Harry is you get detailed cooking instructions."

Meanwhile, there are cheesesteaks (of course) at Rick's; hoagies and overstuffed, New York-style sandwiches at the Sandwich Stand; world-renowned cones at Bassett's Ice Cream, where they still favor paddles over scoops; a rainbow coalition of legumes at Iovine Brothers Produce; morel mushrooms and unfamiliar packaged grains at O.K. Lee's oriental grocery stand; truffles to die for at Braverman's Bakery; Thai groceries, vegetarian foods and South American crafts; Amish bakers (including the white-hatted women who shape and dress those soft pretzels while you watch) and meat, egg and dairy dealers; three coffee shops and four flower shops; a woman selling lace cloth who rolls her eyes when people ask where the ATM is (it's right behind her); and 27 restaurants all told, including transplanted Virginian Jack McDavid's Down Home Diner (the only place that stays open after the market closes at 6 p.m., and surely the only diner in Philadelphia that makes its own ketchup and sweet potato fries).

People--the other part of the entertainment here, besides the food--have been carrying their shopping bags to this neighborhood since Colonial days, when open-air markets sprung up along the Delaware. As the carts multiplied, they spread up High Street--now Market Street--and by the mid-1880s, were causing such congestion that the city put them indoors, in two large buildings at 12th and Market. When the Reading Railroad decided to build its terminal on the site, it incorporated the market into the basement of its train shed. Back then, every vendor sold fresh foods or produce; now such vendors account for about half the market's offerings.

The train shed is now Philadelphia's new Convention Center, opened in 1994, whose revolving hordes of conferees have direct access to the market--along with whoever walks in through those 16 doors. It makes for an interesting mix of locals, outlanders and . . . relatively happy faces on the cash-register side of the counter. The market estimates at least 80,000 people come by every week, Rogovin says, because that's what a study conducted about five years ago estimated.

"But there's 16 doors," she laughs, "so how do you count? Plus, Monday's not as busy as Wednesday [the Amish bring their week's baked goods and other fresh stuff every Wednesday through Friday], and Wednesday's not as busy as Friday, and Saturday's . . . well. We lie. We say 80,000 to 100,000 a week. It's close enough."

The Reading Terminal Market is about 2 1/2 hours from the Beltway. Almost close enough.

The Reading Terminal Market (12th and Arch streets, Philadelphia; 215-922-2317) is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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