The Market Underground

By Carolyn Wyman

Originally published on July 2014

Most shoppers probably think the Market is busiest Flower Show week, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or almost any Saturday afternoon. But the busiest times are actually when most shoppers are still asleep, from 4 to 8 a.m. almost any morning, when stand owners set up for day.

Those hand trucks and trolleys you may occasionally see fighting their way through the aisles during the middle of the shopping day? They’re usually bearing fruits and vegetables from busy produce stands that don’t have enough storage on the Market floor to keep their shelves stocked for eight hours, says Market assistant general manager/physical plant czar Chris Gowen.

So where do Market merchants store their food and supplies? And where does this stuff come from in the first place? What follows is a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.

“There is as much hustle-bustle and chaos at the loading dock, as there is inside the Market,” says Michael Holahan of the Pennsylvania General Store.

That loading dock is a small street that runs along the Market’s east wall between Arch and Filbert streets and the vehicles unloading there on any given morning range from “a tractor-trailer from mega food wholesaler Sysco to a 15-year-old Dodge, back seat laden with local produce,” Holahan says.

Most of the fresh meat and fish stands put their latest deliveries immediately on display or in refrigerators and/or freezers located right at their stands; those that are putting fish on ice or in cases with fluctuating temperatures will empty these units every night and refill them every morning.

Stands receiving less frequent deliveries or that use a lot of dry goods will hand-truck newly received orders into one of two freight elevators that go down to the Market’s basement for stacking in stand-designated refrigerators or cages.

Especially considering its century-plus age, the basement is surprisingly well-lit and orderly. With the exception of the occasion antique horse trailer or sign, it’s not unlike a storage unit area you might see in a large apartment building — albeit a building filled with foodies. The Original Turkey’s spacious cage resembles a restaurant kitchen. Iovine’s walk-in looks like a miniature version of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market where they get many of their wares. Body-sized bags of unroasted Old City coffee beans dominate another aisle.

“It’s like a little city down there, harkening back to what it was like when the Market first opened,” says Holahan.

In those early 1890s, the Market’s basement “cold storage” facility was among the largest and most sophisticated of its kind. Ammoniated brine was pumped through its 52 rooms by centrifuge so that the temperature in each room could be set between 0 and 44 degrees. These rooms provided storage for all the merchants as well as for local hospitals (to store their medicine), restaurants and breweries (including Yuengling, which warehoused its hops). The trains that then rumbled in and out of the Market’s second floor brought in food from around the country and the world and the cold storage kept it fresh. When a giant ice maker was installed there in 1923, the basement doubled as an ice plant, supplying ice to all the merchants, the trains and businesses throughout Philly.

But the cold storage space’s fortunes mirrored those of the market and its Reading Railroad owner. By 1960, the basement was losing money and so closed, beginning nearly 20 years of decline. By the early 1970s, Roger Bassett, whose family made its ice cream there for more than six decades, says it was a dank space that was “all boarded up” “without elevator service,” just generally “nasty.”

Merchants were forced to install boxes with refrigerators or freezers at their stands, “creating a walling effect, closing off much of the Market,” recalled former Market manager David K. O’Neil in his book Reading Terminal Market: An Illustrated History.

To combat that, many of these modern cold-storage units eventually migrated to the Market’s east wall, where they stayed until the Avenue D renovation of 2011-2, when they were moved to the basement to make room for the Rick Nichols meeting space and new merchants the Tubby Olive and Valley Shepherd Creamery. The basement was simultaneously spruced-up, making it more hospitable not just for storage but also for food preparation.

Bassett says making Original Turkey side dishes and salads in his basement cage allows him to “save on valuable retail space.” DiNic’s and Hershel’s both roast meats down there. Valley Shepherd ages cheese in a basement space employees affectionately refer to as Nick Cave (after the singer/musician). Valley Shepherd’s cage and walk-in are similarly named for the actors Nicholas Cage and Christopher Walken, respectively.

Longtime merchants Bassett and Holahan see the vitality of the storage space as a reflection of what’s going on upstairs on the main floor. After years of underutilization, the storage area is now close to bursting at its seams. At Thanksgiving time, in fact, Godshall’s parks a refrigerator truck out in the loading area for its turkeys and Beiler’s sets up a table on Arch Street to sell pies.

(2019 update: Michael Holahan, the Market stalwart quoted in this story, died in 2016. His wife, Julie, now runs the Pennsylvania General Store.)