Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market is one of America’s largest and oldest public markets. It began operation in a National Historic Landmark building back in 1893 and has become one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations along with the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.
Like a typical public market, it offers a wide and varied selection of locally grown & exotic produce, locally sourced meats, and poultry, along with the finest seafood, cheeses, baked goods, and confections.
The historic public market also houses several restaurants under one roof, a reflection of the ever-growing diversity of the city. Today the Reading Terminal Market is one of the nation’s most successful public markets with more than 75 independent small businesses that offer an array of fresh and prepared foods, lunch counters, and places to eat and shop.
Last July, after 128 years in existence, the market opened its doors and welcomed Tambayan, its first Filipino concept restaurant.
Kathy Mirano, the founder and chef of Tambayan and Runner’s Sweets and Treats, felt that it was about time that a Filipino establishment opened in the market, where more than a hundred thousand Philadelphians and tourists pass through every week enjoying its exceptional products, history, and people.
“Dumaan po tayo sa butas ng karayom, pagod at hirap. Pinaglaban ko po talaga,” Mirano told the Asian Journal about her journey in getting a spot to showcase Filipino food and culture in Philly.
Getting a spot for Filipino cuisine in the market is a full circle of sorts for Mirano, who has been working for 21 years as a manager and server at the Olympia Gyro, a Greek lunch counter inside the market.
Mirano recalled that she walked inside the market more than two decades ago to find a job. She was working multiple jobs then to make ends meet.
“I was cleaning houses, washing dishes in some restaurants, and taking care of old people. That’s how I started here in Philadelphia 26 years ago,” she shared. “One day, I walked down Reading Terminal looking for a job. Maybe I could find something a little bit better than cleaning houses and washing old people.”
After being out of a job for about six months due to the pandemic, Mirano resorted to baking and cooking. She would then sell her products to her friends, fellow runners, and friends who work in hospitals. She also sold her products online, through Facebook and Instagram.
Her creations – from ube cakes, ube rolls, French ube macarons, lumpia, kare-kare – became hits and her success inspired her to dream bigger.
Last year, she submitted a business proposal to the market’s board of directors. She wanted to have a spot and sell Filipino food in the market, something that she knew had never been done before.
“It was definitely not easy getting in,” she said. The runner-turned-baker-turned-restaurateur is not someone who retreats from challenges, as her more than 400 medals from different races including 16 marathons and an ultramarathon would prove.
She went to a battery of interviews with the board members that ended with her letting them taste her creations, including ube macarons, pancit, and halo-halo. She made them realize that Tambayan was absolutely necessary for the City of Brotherly love.
The board was impressed with her presentation and tasting and gave her the go signal.
The entire process took about six to eight months before she got the approval.
Tambayan has been open for more than three months now and Mirano is not about to rest on her laurels. She is taking her mistakes and lessons learned seriously as she prepares to break new ground.
The Taal, Batangas native said owning and operating a restaurant was not in her wildest dreams.
“I grew up very poor back home, I grew up without a mom. Kayod marino talaga, my late father taught me the value of hard work,” she shared. “He also said always be proud of what you do and always be nice to people and proud of who you are.”
This is why she hopes Tambayan would be true to its name, a local hangout place where friends and family would spend time eating and sharing stories. She also hopes that Filipinos who travel to Philadelphia whether as tourists or as conference attendees across the street at the convention center would visit them.
For now, Mirano is enjoying the attention she has been getting from locals and tourists alike.
She said she feels “very overwhelmed at times” because she didn’t really expect that locals and tourists in Philadelphia will embrace Filipino food the way they have done so.
“The past few months have been amazing. Since we opened, we’ve always sold out. People are crazy about our food. A lot of people come down and I don’t have food anymore but it’s a good sign for me as a new business owner,” she added. “I’m very happy, there are ups and downs, but the sales are amazing. I’m very thankful and grateful.” na