Historic Philadelphia Market Learns to Survive the COVID-19 Crisis

02 March 2021

The Reading Terminal Market, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is 128 years old.

It is a historic place with almost 150 different vendors who run small shops and restaurants inside an old railroad station. Some of the vendors sell flowers, baked goods, cheese and sandwiches. Others sell meat, fish and things to use in your home like cloth and cooking tools.

When the coronavirus health crisis started one year ago, many of the people who have businesses in the market were worried about the future.

The market is close to Philadelphia's City Hall and the city's convention center where businesses and organizations hold meetings for thousands of people. But the market lost a lot of customers when people who worked nearby started working from home and people stopped visiting the city.

There was about one-third the usual number of people coming to the market during most of 2020. Some businesses decided to close for a short time. But the market building stayed open. Some of the businesses that sold necessary products like eggs and flour were able to survive. But many of them had to reduce the number of people they employed or reduce their hours.

Annie Allman manages the Reading Terminal Market. She said businesses were severely hurt. "We were wiped out," she said.

Vanesa Peredo, owner of A Taste of Spain, serves customers at Reading Terminal Market that has seen reduced foot traffic due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., February 20, 2021. (REUTERS/Hannah Beier)
Vanesa Peredo, owner of A Taste of Spain, serves customers at Reading Terminal Market that has seen reduced foot traffic due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., February 20, 2021. (REUTERS/Hannah Beier)

Stories of business survival

The market is normally a popular stop for visitors to Philadelphia and a place for workers in nearby offices to buy lunch. But numbers from research company Econsult Solutions, Inc. show about 40 percent fewer people than usual visited Philadelphia in 2020.

Other business owners around the U.S. are facing the same kinds of problems. Restaurants, shops and other service businesses are seeing slow recoveries in many parts of the country. But people continue to be worried about traveling or spending time with people other than family.

Athens Voulgaridis runs a store that sells Greek food and sandwiches inside the market. The store opened in 1984. "All our customer base has just disappeared," he said.

Philadelphia permitted people to eat at restaurants indoors only recently. The situation is getting better. But Voulgaridis said sales are down by about 65 percent compared to most years. He used to have six employees. Now he only has three.

Joe Nicolosi owns a sandwich shop in the market called DiNic's. It opened in 1980. Before the pandemic, he would sell about 1,000 sandwiches on a busy Saturday. During the last year, even on busy days, he has only sold about 100.

That has meant fewer jobs. He used to have over 20 employees. During the coronavirus health crisis, he only needed five.

"Twenty-five percent staff size, and we were still overstaffed," he said.

Allman, who supervises the Reading Terminal Market, said many of the stores are still working because of government aid money. In addition, the market raised over $520,000 in donations through the website GoFundMe.com to help cover operating costs.

Nicolosi closed DiNic's for three months in 2020. Then he tried a service that sends popular foods to customers across the country as a way to keep his business going. He said the service, called Goldbelly, helped his business make money starting in the later part of 2020.

While some businesses were better prepared than others for the coronavirus restrictions, all of them have taken some losses. Nicolosi said he has spoken with other shop owners at the market. He thinks people will feel as if things are getting back to normal when they hear that Philadelphia is planning big events again.

One of those events is the city's auto show, which is now planned for June. It used to be one of the market's busiest weeks.

Nicolosi is hopeful.

"Knowing that's going to happen, like all right, and that week happening, and it is very busy, then it's like ‘OK we're headed towards a place where we're going to get back to something like where we were at before.'"

Nicolosi said he prepares about six hams each day to make sandwiches. When he starts having to cook more ham, he will know business is getting better.

Right now, more people in Philadelphia are getting vaccinated against the coronavirus. One of the places where people are receiving the vaccine is the Pennsylvania Convention Center next to the market. It also is where the auto show will be held.

One recent day, people came into the market after getting their vaccine. As a result, the vendors at the market are starting to feel good that business will pick up again.

When it comes back, Nicolosi said he thinks people will be excited to go out to their favorite places and spend money again.

"Whether it's three months, six months or two years, that there's a chance that we're going to come out of this...and people are going to be out more than ever and there's going to be a pent-up urge to eat out and to travel and to you know, do things that kind of people have missed doing even more so than before."

I'm Dan Friedell.

Jonnelle Marte wrote this story for the Reuters news agency. Dan Friedell adapted it for Learning English with original interviews. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

\vendor - n. a business that sells a particular type of product

sandwich - n. two pieces of bread with something (such as meat, peanut butter, etc.) between them

customer - n. someone who buys goods or services from a business

wiped out –adj. the way of describing the state of having no money

staff - n. a group of people who work for an organization or business

ham - n. meat from the leg of a pig that is often prepared by smoking or salting

pent-up - adj. held or kept inside; not released