Reading Terminal Market: Rick’s Steaks widout?

Posted: July 05, 2007

Rick Olivieri should have been smiling.

After all, the National Education Association's 9,000 delegates were in town and the lines at Rick's Philly Steaks were longer than usual as folks wandered by his big window at Reading Terminal Market, across 12th Street from the convention center.

Instead, Olivieri was on the phone to lawyers, business associates and friends, trying to figure out whether his family's 25-year reign in that corner of the venerable market will come to an end July 31.

That's the deadline managers of the 104-year-old market gave Olivieri on June 28. Sometime this fall, market managers will bring in a "fresh face" - Tony Luke's Old Philly Style Sandwiches, he of the stellar Zagat's rating as well appearances in the ring, recordings and film.

But is it a fresh face or more a case of getting rid of a troublesome old face?

Kevin Feeley, a spokesman for general manager Paul Steinke, insisted that Olivieri's departure has nothing to do with his often thorny dealings with management as head of the Reading Terminal Merchants group.

Feeley said Tony Luke is too high-profile to pass up: "Nationally, this is a premier sandwich shop. We think the chance to bring Tony Luke to the market is significant and only makes the market better."

Olivieri, 42, is unconvinced: "He may be Zagat's but is he part of the third generation of the family that invented the steak sandwich? Has he been invited to France three years in a row?"

Olivieri, in fact, is the grandson of the original Pasquale "Pat" Olivieri, who with younger brother Harry founded Pat's King of Steaks in South Philadelphia. In a convoluted family saga that has caused confusion as well as pending intra-family litigation, Pat's King of Steaks passed down to and is now owned by Harry's grandson, Frank Olivieri. Rick Olivieri's business was started 25 years ago at Reading Terminal Park by his father, Herbert, as Olivieri's Prince of Steaks, playing on Pat's title of king. In 1995, when he began managing the Reading Terminal shop, Rick renamed it after himself.

No, says Olivieri, this is not about Tony Luke. It's "retaliation" for his role as president of the Reading Terminal Merchant's Association during several years of protracted, painful bargaining on new leases for about 50 of the 76 tenants.

"I spend all this time negotiating leases for the tenants and I'm not going to take care of my own?" Olivieri asks.

Feeley acknowledged Olivieri's work as the merchants' advocate but insisted that bad blood had nothing to do with the decision to evict him.

Feeley noted that Olivieri had been on a month-to-month lease and that management and Olivieri were in lease talks when the chance to bring in Luke occurred.

"He made it clear that he didn't like some of the terms of the new lease," Feeley said. "But, quite honestly, we would have probably signed with him again if the Tony Luke deal hadn't come up."

"We know this has significant consequences for Rick," Feeley added. "But we're not really doing something to Rick. We're doing something for the market."

Market insiders say there is no question that Olivieri rubbed market managers the wrong way in his six years leading the merchants association.

"They hate him," said one market veteran, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

The turmoil began in 2003 when Steinke and management began pressing tenants for sales figures in preparation for negotiating new five-year leases.

The changes, Steinke said at the time, were part of introducing modern business practices at the market and making it more competitive with what was then the start of incursions by such upscale national grocers as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.

The merchants, a famously independent lot who for years resisted even keeping to the market's stated operating hours, objected and resisted.

They argued that the nonprofit market should not be required to compete with for-profit groceries. The changes, they said, would harm the informal, idiosyncratic atmosphere that made the market famous and successful.

In late 2005, as lease talks dragged on, management stunned merchants by announcing that six longtime tenants' leases would not be renewed.

Two eventually won reprieves but the incident left many tenants uneasy.

That feeling is heightened now that news of Olivieri's eviction is circulating.

"I already signed my lease but it makes you think, 'Am I next?' " said Thomas Nicolosi, who for 26 years has owned and operated DiNic's, specializing in roast beef, pork, veal and chicken sandwiches.

Several tenants - Michael Holahan of Pennsylvania General Store; Vincent Iovine of Iovine Bros. Produce; and Nicolosi - met Monday with Ricardo Dunston, chairman of the board that runs the market; Steinke, and others urging them to let Olivieri stay.

That was not likely, Holahan, the interim merchants president, said he was told.

Holahan said he believes Olivieri ran afoul of the board because he strongly advocated the merchants' interests.

"Now that [the lease] is over, we believe a good business that's been open for 25 years should at least get the option for a new lease," Holahan said.

Feeley said Luke's menu would be negotiated along with his lease to avoid conflicts with existing tenants.

"We're really excited to be part of the Reading Terminal Market," said Luke, 45, who said he had been "putting out feelers" for available space for several years.

Although he never met Olivieri, Luke said his son did at Citizen's Bank Park, where both men have locations.

"I don't know anything about the politics that went on up there," Luke said of Olivieri's troubles with market management. "My son says he's a great guy."

Olivieri, meanwhile has not given up. Petitions in his support are circulating in the market, and his lawyer, William A. Harvey, said other things were planned.

"They bit off more than they can chew," said Harvey. "Rick isn't going to silently walk into the night. He's going to be there on Aug. 1."

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or

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