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'We were wiped out.' Merchants in historic Philadelphia market grapple with pandemic

(Reuters) - Athens Voulgaridis and his family have run their Greek gyro stand in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market since 1984, outlasting three recessions and a trademark battle with the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Vendors serve 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. Picture taken February 20, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah Beier

No crisis has hit the business as hard as the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a brief shutdown and slashed sales by as much as 80% at the lowest point.

Typically a bustling hub of restaurants, shops and food vendors, the indoor market, which celebrates its 128th anniversary on Monday, stayed open throughout the pandemic. But with conventions on pause, tourism down and much of the lunch crowd now working remotely, foot traffic at the market whittled down to roughly a third of its normal levels.

“We were wiped out,” said Annie Allman, who took over as chief executive and general manager of the Reading Terminal Market in late January.

Merchants selling meat, cheese and other staple grocery items in one of the country’s oldest and largest markets have seen steadier traffic.

Vendors serve 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

But restaurants that cater to people in need of a quick bite or visiting the landmarked building located conveniently close to the city hall and convention center downtown were more acutely affected by restrictions on travel and indoor dining to slow the spread of the virus.

Vanesa Peredo, owner of A Taste of Spain, prepares Jamon Iberico ham sandwiches 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

Visits to the greater Philadelphia area dropped by as much as 40% last year and spending by visitors was cut roughly in half, according to projections from Econsult Solutions, Inc.

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The challenges the market’s merchants are facing are indicative of the hurdles impeding restaurants, shops and other service industry employers across the country that are seeing slow rebounds as people remain hesitant to travel or spend time close to each other indoors.

“All our customer base has just disappeared,” said Voulgaridis, 48, who took over the family business, Olympia Gyro, in 2009 as the economy was coming out of the Great Recession. In 2012, he received a cease and desist notice from the U.S. Olympic Committee, requiring him to change the name of the business from Olympic Gyro.

Athens Voulgaridis, owner of Olympia Gyro, 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

While sales are improving after the city reinstated indoor dining earlier this year, they are still down by about 65% from pre-pandemic levels, Voulgaridis said.

“This was just taking a knife to everything and cutting the lifeline to everything you’ve had,” he said.

SURVIVAL TACTICS

The market is surviving thanks to a combination of government aid, fundraising and investments made to its online delivery services, said Allman, the market’s CEO.

With many vendors struggling to keep up with their bills, organizers raised more than $520,000 to help cover operating costs through a campaign on the crowdfunding website GoFundMe.com and other fundraising efforts.

The market also revamped its online ordering service and introduced curbside pickup.

Space for indoor dining at the market ebbed and flowed in accordance with city guidelines meant to slow the spread of the virus.

The dining closures were especially painful for Vanesa Peredo and Alejandro Carabe, who opened their Spanish tapas cafe and gourmet food store in December 2019, just weeks before the first reported U.S. cases of COVID-19.

Their large display of Jamon Iberico, a cured ham delicacy popular in Spain, was a big draw for people in the food court. When the seating went away, so did the walk-in customers they relied on.

Vanesa Peredo, owner of A Taste of Spain, cuts a slice of Jamon Iberico ham 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

Things are starting to improve. After running the stand on their own for most of last year, the couple hired an employee in December. They are hoping to build up their customer base as the economy continues to recover.

“I don’t think we can see anything worse than what we saw last year,” Peredo said. “It’s been overwhelming, but also a learning process for us.”

Voulgaridis says his restaurant would not be open if it were not for loans he received from the Paycheck Protection Program, which offers forgivable loans to small employers affected by the pandemic, and other aid. His staffing has been halved from six workers before the pandemic.

However, there are reasons to hope as college students return to the city and foot traffic slowly increases, he said. One particularly encouraging development: He was recently chatting with some customers who wandered over from the convention center next door.

They had just received their vaccines.

Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Dan Burns and Marguerita Choy

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