Reading Terminal merchants back ousted steak shop

Rick’s Philly Steaks should stay, they say. Market management says it runs the joint and won’t back down.

Posted: July 13, 2007

A majority of members of the Reading Terminal Merchants' Association unanimously approved a resolution yesterday supporting a new lease for veteran steak sandwich maker Rick Olivieri.

Michael Holahan, interim president of the group representing the 76 merchants in the 104-year-old Center City market, said that more than 50 merchants were represented at the meeting and that the vote supporting the resolution was unanimous.

Olivieri, owner of Rick's Philly Steaks, was told by market officials on June 28 that his lease would not be renewed and that he had to leave by July 31. Officials announced that he would be replaced by a South Philadelphia competitor, Tony Luke's Old Philly Style Sandwiches.

"This is our official position," said Holahan, owner of the Pennsylvania General Store. "We believe that, based on his long tenure there, the quality of his operation, and that the Reading Terminal Market is all about family businesses, he should be offered a new lease."

Holahan insisted that he and the merchants were "not anti-management" and supported many of the recent operational changes implemented by the board of the nonprofit Reading Terminal Market Corp.

"I think they're setting a dangerous precedent," added Holahan, a 20-year market tenant. "It's not OK that a merchant has to go because the manager found someone with a prettier face. What happens after the next manager comes in?"

Kevin Feeley, a spokesman for Reading Terminal Market Corp.'s board of directors and management, said the merchants' resolution and viewpoint were what their representative expressed at the June 28 meeting at which the board voted 6-1 to evict Olivieri.

"The board's position is the board runs the market, the board made a decision, and it's not going to change," Feeley said.

Market officials have said that they did not believe Olivieri was interested in a new lease and that, at the same time, they had the opportunity to bring in a "fresh face" - Tony Luke's - whose name and reputation, they say, is better known and will add luster to the market's reputation.

Olivieri, Holahan's predecessor as merchants' president, maintains that the decision to evict him from the spot his family has held for 25 years is retaliation for his role representing merchants during several years of thorny lease talks with management.

It was not clear what effect the merchants' resolution would have on Olivieri's chances of remaining.

Olivieri's lawyer, William A. Harvey, said yesterday that if the dispute was not resolved there would be litigation.

"They not only violated his lease but they have violated their own internal operating procedures for terminating a lease," Harvey said.

Olivieri, a member of the third generation of the South Philadelphia family that claims to have invented the steak sandwich, said he was gratified by the support from his fellow merchants.

"I think it shows real unity within the Reading Terminal Market," Olivieri said. "I hope it has an impact [on management]. I don't think it's too late to talk and work this out civilly."

Olivieri said he was pleased with the public support and said almost 3,000 people had signed petitions supporting his stay in the market.

Holahan said the merchants were not seeking special treatment for Olivieri: "It's over. He signs the same lease as everyone else. Let's put this behind us and go make money."


Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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