Outside Insights with Anuj Gupta: Tourism Change Agent

Anuj Gupta, General Manager Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia

Frequently described as a “change agent” in Philadelphia’s hospitality and tourism industries, Anuj Gupta is currently the General Manager of the historic Reading Terminal Market. In this role, he oversees all aspects of the nearly 80 merchant market’s day-to-day operations, as well as guiding the non-profit corporation’s strategic direction. 

Anuj participated with Zoo Advisors as part of a thought leadership panel for a strategic planning client, and we were so impressed with his observations and the relevancy of his experience that we wanted more—and he graciously agreed to this interview.

Zoo Advisors (ZA): How is the Market like the zoos and aquariums we work with?

Anuj Gupta (AG): There are surprisingly many similarities; structurally, the Market is a 501c3 organization with a broad charitable mission led by a governing board. And, like some zoos, we have a public/private partnership; our property is owned by the city and we have two board seats appointed by the mayor’s office and city council.  Culturally, we are a community space, intended to be accessible to anyone; we are a true melting pot by intention.

ZA:        What is the Market’s mission?

AG:        Our mission is broad and multi-pronged: preserve the building landmark; offer a wide variety of fresh and prepared foods; serve as a connection between rural Pennsylvania and our large urban center; embrace the diversity of Philadelphia and facilitate interaction among diverse residents.

ZA:        You’ve been successful in growing the business and it seems like you’ve stayed true to your mission—how have you managed that?

AG:        Since our mission is purposefully so broad, we haven’t seen a need to change as we’ve developed programs and built the business. We’re not a “bottom line” organization—we’ve turned down business that didn’t hit our mission. We’re now holding three large spaces for new market vendors –spaces we could have filled overnight with restaurants and retail chains, but that’s not who we are. We need to make sure we’re hitting mission goals. We are pretty dogmatic about what we’re looking for in merchants; we want to remain an authentic food market; we are not willing to compromise. Our prepared food vendors are a market driver and revenue producer, but we don’t want to become a glorified food court.

My thinking has been influenced by Elijah Anderson’s book The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. It helped me see how the Market might bring people together, foster greater understanding, and learn from each other.

ZA:        How have you specifically embraced the area’s diverse communities?

AG:        We’ve introduced programs to make the market more accessible and easier to use, and we’ve worked on building community connections; taking intentional steps to have our city’s diverse communities reflected among market partners, shoppers, and our vendors. For example, among our many diverse vendors, we’ve added the Market’s first Muslim merchants, the first Latino-owned businesses in the Market’s history, and recently, our first Jamaican vendor, plus we’ve had a 200% increase in black-owned businesses.

One program, Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers, brought together a diversity of cultures from around the city for dinner, music, dance and conversation at the Market. An education program with kids from across the city leverages the Market as an educational resource—we worked with a nutritionist to develop a field trip curriculum so school groups wouldn’t just visit us for lunch--they’d see us as a field trip destination too, where they could learn about history, culture, nutrition, and food. We host after-school programs for boys and girls clubs, a summer camp, and a reading program with a lending library for kids. Our education programs are free to participants and supported by our fundraising work.

ZA:        How have your business ventures not only helped the Market be sustainable financially but become a critical part of the fabric of the City and a draw for tourists?

AG:        Our shoppers now enjoy an enhanced experience that benefits our revenue picture as well. We’ve upgraded our historic building and invested in improvements to operations, safety, and cleanliness and we now offer delivery. We’ve also invested in staff development and improved morale. The Market’s investment in technology has brought mobile optimization of our website and ecommerce opportunities, and public Wi-Fi.

In addition, we’ve received grants to significantly improve the exterior of the building, working with the City to create additional public space and a more market-like streetscape with public art features.

ZA:        What’s your sustainability program? How do you manage all that trash?

AG:        Like many cities, Philadelphia struggles with recycling. Right now, most of the Market’s waste goes right into the public waste stream, with our biggest tonnage food waste. There’s no composting facility large enough to handle our volume, but we’ve recently begun to work with Philabundance [a local food pantry and hunger relief organization] who can take our merchants’ excess edible fresh food. Most of our recycling efforts start with the consumer, and it’s hard to get them to change their behavior—we all need to work on this, including our government entities.

ZA:        Many of our clients lead public/private organizations—tell us about your experience in this area?

AG:        Our City government has been very supportive of the Market, and our city councilman sits on the board—he will do anything he can to help us. The Mayor comes for lunch and so does the Commerce Director and Council Members. But in the end, it all comes down to relationships and understanding each other’s perspectives. Public/Private partnerships are a complex ecosystem to navigate—you have many stakeholders, all of whom are important; you have to be a good listener and be deliberate in trying to incorporate people’s ideas and appreciate their perspective and their passion. [ZA: This sounds much like our conversations with zoos and aquariums!]

We are a beloved institution in the City—it’s always been this way; I can’t take credit for this.

ZA:        What’s your secret to making all this work? What advice do you have for others?

AG:

  • Be willing to delegate and trust folks to get the job done; expect accountability.

  • Have a laundry list or tickler of what’s going on to keep it all on your radar, but don’t micromanage.

  • Use your mobile phone, use your email; I couldn’t juggle everything without these tools (I hate texts!)

  • If you don’t fail, you’re not trying to succeed; I learn from both my employees and vendors.

  • Don’t expect your community to come to you--integrate yourself into the community and learn their goals.

  • Don’t pretend to have all the answers; own up to it when you don’t—which is a lot of the time!

ZA:        Any final words?

AG:       We need to press ahead on climate change education as quickly as possible. It’s an incredible threat we’re not taking seriously enough; we need to learn from others who are addressing this very real challenge. It seems like an area where zoos and aquariums could really have an impact with their education and conservation work.