He co-owns a restaurant, holds both public administration and law degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, is a former deputy commissioner in the city's restaurant-overseeing Office of Licenses and Inspections, and most recently headed a nonprofit with $30 million current and completed projects.
With that kind of resume, is it any wonder Anuj (pronounced A-new-j) Gupta rose to the top of a list of candidates from a national search to become the new manager for nonprofit food icon Reading Terminal Market?
"I wanted it bad," Gupta, 41, told a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer in mid-May, when he was named to succeed Paul Steinke (who resigned last December after 13 years as Market manager to run for City Council.). Why so bad? we asked him one recent morning at a table near the Head Nut, as the Market's breakfast crowd sipped coffee and ate doughnuts and egg sandwiches.
"Because I love this place. Who wouldn't want to have the chance to have an impact on an institution of this importance? This is not just one of America's greatest food markets, it's also one of this country's greatest public spaces."
Gupta grew up in the Philly suburbs as a foodie, the son of "gourmet chefs" whose Jyoti Foods was one of the first brands of all-natural shelf-stable Indian foods sold in U.S. supermarkets. "Leftovers in my house growing up meant leftovers from yesterday's four-course dinner," he says.
Career-wise, though, Gupta's long-held goal was public service at the federal level. But an AmeriCorps job in Boston, a summer internship in Philly and a fellowship in New York City made him see "that you can have a bigger impact locally. That's also where the real innovation happens."
Hence his L&I and Managing Director's Office jobs in the Nutter administration, and for the past four-and-a-half years, as head of community development corporation Mt. Airy USA, all while patronizing Reading Terminal Market. In fact, Gupta remembers having breakfast at the Market his very first day of his City Hall job in 2008.
As his family's primary cook, with a particular talent for Vietnamese dishes ("I'd put my pho broth up against anybody's," he boasts), Gupta says he frequently shopped the Market for dinner ingredients during his three years working for the city, storing them in an office refrigerator before taking the train home to Mt. Airy. Although, Gupta adds quickly, already in Market-booster mode, you don't have to have an office refrigerator or be a great cook to make dinner from the Market.
"I know many of the fish vendors will pack your purchases in ice so they'll be fine for a number of hours." And, "Getting a high-quality, quick meal on the table is as simple as grabbing some sausages from any of the great sausage specialists in the Market -- all they need is some grilling -- and a couple of salads or pasta dishes from any number of stands."
Gupta is married to University City District planning and economic development director Prema Katari Gupta and has two young children. About nine months after the birth of now 5-year-old daughter, Leela, Gupta began a Saturday morning ritual of breakfast, shopping and book-reading/father-daughter bonding in the Market that lasted three years. "I could have gone to the seating area at Whole Foods and done the same thing. But it wouldn't offer the same experience. The Market much more lends itself to spending family time together." That's one of the things that makes it so special."
As owner, with his parents, of Jyoti Indian Bistro in Mt. Airy, Gupta can also relate to Market food vendors. "I know what a stand owner goes through when facing an inspection because as a restaurant owner, I've been through it myself." Gupta also knows how it feels to "have someone buy your food and be really satisfied. That's hard to beat." In fact, he says, sometimes after a long week of working on long-term projects at Mt. Airy USA, he would man the register at Jyoti Bistro on a Friday evening for a restorative dose of that immediate, positive feedback.
Gupta is taking over the reins of a Market that, "thanks to the fantastic work of Paul [Steinke], the board, the merchants and the staff" is in "a position of strength." Still, he says, "Just maintaining the status quo" at a time when a Mom's natural foods store is being built at 11th and Market and when Gallery Mall renovator Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust is talking about creating "an epicurean experience on Filbert Street would be a recipe for disaster."
In the immediate future expect a renewed "focus on cleanliness and safety" from a Gupta administration, and, going forward, efforts to increase the Market's accessibility through technology, including upgraded Wi-Fi, a smartphone app highlighting specials and helping with Market navigation and also, possibly, partnering with Center City corporations to make the Market's existing Instacart delivery service a company benefit. (So for example, an Aramark employee could "shop" the Market online in the morning and find her purchases waiting for her in the building to take home at the end of the workday.)
He is also hoping to "make better use of the entire inside and outside of the building to relieve some of the congestion during peak periods," perhaps by closing Filbert Street to vehicular traffic afternoons for seating and arts performances on ordinary Saturdays as it is now for special events, like this Saturday's annual Sidewalk Sizzle and Ice Cream Freeze.
As for the personal challenge of working among all the Market's great food without getting fat, Gupta says, "I was a competitive swimmer and still train two to three times a week, so I just need to keep that up -- if not increase my practice frequency!"
Carolyn Wyman is the Market's news correspondent and operator of the Reading Terminal's bi-weekly Taste of Philadelphia Food Tour.