Update, Apr. 14: RTM’s Mercato delivery system is on hold until Apr. 20 to address quality concerns. You can still visit the market in person.
About a dozen customers, many in face masks, perused the colorful aisles of Iovine Brothers Produce in Reading Terminal Market on Thursday morning.
Nearly 50 of the 80-plus grocery shops, restaurants, food stands and specialty stores are still open for business at the market.
Besides the vegetable shoppers, there were a few clusters at butcher and seafood counters, plus a smattering of take-out diners picking up an early lunch. Otherwise, the 75,000 square-foot floor, often packed shoulder-to-shoulder, was clear of patrons. In contrast, the aisles were full of goods.
That makes the 125-year-old market an easy alternative to traditional grocery stores, where scores of people have been lining up to grab cleaning supplies off nearly-empty shelves.
“Understandably, the foot traffic in the Terminal has fallen to a trickle,” market general manager Anuj Gupta told Billy Penn. However, he added, “there’s kind of two simultaneous stories happening.”
Online and phone delivery orders at RTM have skyrocketed — by nearly 8,000%.
The Terminal uses its own delivery service, powered by Mercato. Launched at the end of 2018, Gupta said it was seeing an average of 50 orders a day. That number has swollen to about 4,000 daily orders as the pandemic rages on.
“We had to adapt on the fly [and] ramp up what I call now our fulfillment operation,” Gupta said.
Mercato gives options for delivery and curbside pick-up, and the Terminal offers a delivery-on-demand service that lets buyers shop in person but have the products delivered to their homes. You can get no-cost delivery up to 16 miles away with the code RTMFREE.
All that new business has led to some hirings: the market has added about 15 additional staff members to handle packing and delivery.
The Terminal leadership made an effort to hire employees from market businesses closed during the pandemic, Gupta said, a bittersweet bright spot as coronavirus shutdowns have put record millions out of work around the country.
Small business bonus: they’re nimble
As residents flock to traditional supermarkets, causing crowded aisles, long lines and food shortages, Reading Terminal has more space — and in some cases, more consistent product.
Vincent Iovine of Iovine Brothers Produce said his small business has a supply advantage that larger chains lack.
“I think what it is, is a small business is able to react faster,” Iovine said. “My brother’s down the food center buying so we can react on a dime, run down, go grab more. Like today, we were out of garlic. Well, guess what? He jumped in his truck, he ran down and grabbed more garlic… I think a grocery store doesn’t have that luxury.”
At Giunta’s Prime Shop, a butchery, owner Robert Passio said his business has remained stocked even during coronavirus panic-buying. Shoppers have taken notice, Passio said.
“Once people find out that we have product, they’re coming here,” he said. “I’ve seen repeat people who normally wouldn’t shop here,” Passio said. “We helped them feed their family, so I guess they felt appreciative.”
In other aisles, What-a-Crock sells frozen but fully prepared crockpot meals, convenient now that so many Philadelphians are cooking much more at home in quarantine. Meanwhile, Sweet As Fudge is stocked up on Easter-themed chocolates.
Things aren’t all net positive, shop owners said.
The grocery businesses that have remained open still aren’t selling as much as they would traditionally. Or, like in Iovine’s case, those sales are being offset by increased labor costs involved with delivery.
Many of the Terminal’s restaurants and non-food shops have closed or moved all operations online. The hot food stands that remain open are taking a hit.
Vincent Iovine also runs Molly Malloy’s, a pub-style restaurant within the market. While delivery and curbside orders have exploded from 10 a day to about 200 for the produce shop, “Molly Malloys is the complete opposite,” Iovine said.
“We may have five customers in a day, but we’re just trying to keep everybody employed.”
Ultimately, Gupta said, “our hope is that every merchant that is in this building gets through this crisis and comes out on the other end on their two feet.”