Global Conversations with Layla El-Tannir, Special Projects, Reading Terminal Market

Layla El Tannir is a former Global Philadelphia Marketing Specialist who now works in the Special Projects department of Reading Terminal Market. She recently traveled to Beirut, Lebanon to speak with officials from the Souk El Tayeb to discuss how both markets can work together in the future. 

Interview conducted by Najah Springer on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association 

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, where you’re from, and your profession?

I moved to Philadelphia from the United Arab Emirates in 2011 to study Business and Hospitality at Drexel University. My co-op with Global Philadelphia Association opened my eyes to the range of possibilities when combining my life experiences with what I learned at Drexel and the knowledge I had acquired about Philadelphia.

In my last quarter at Drexel, Zabeth [Teelucksingh, executive director, Global Philadelphia Association] encouraged me to interview for an internship at Reading Terminal Market. This was the key to my future and I didn’t even know it.

After a successful internship, I was available for hire for a year, so the Reading Terminal Market Merchants’ Association created a position for me. The focus was all on guest service. Luckily, the leadership of the Market embodies the spirit of opportunity, and they decided to sponsor me for a work visa to lead Special Projects for both the Reading Terminal Market Corporation – focused on the day-to-day management of the Market – and the Reading Terminal Market Merchants’ Association – the leadership of the 80 merchants in the Market.

All of my projects stem from the efforts to better position the Market in the ever-changing competitive landscape that surrounds us, and to ensure that it is set up to survive for another 125 years. There is the opportunity to create, launch, and manage programs; engage with communities; educate students about the importance of the Market; and enable as many types of people to get involved and build our RTM family for the future.

What is the Farmer-to-Farmer Program and how were you selected to go abroad?

The Farmer-to-Farmer Program, also known as F2F, provides technical assistance from U.S. volunteers to farmers, farm groups, agribusinesses, and other agriculture sector institutions. The goal is to promote sustainable improvements in food security, agricultural process, production and marketing.

The F2F program leverages the expertise of volunteers from U.S. farms, universities, cooperatives, private agribusinesses, and nonprofit farm organizations to respond to the local needs of host-country farmers and organizations. One of the six cooperative agreements was awarded to Land O’ Lakes International by USAID for the MENA region. International Executive Service Corps reached out for someone from the Market to apply for the position. The assignment was posted nationally and internationally, and there was a thorough interview process that it required six references.

Why did go you abroad to Lebanon?

This was the last volunteer assignment in Lebanon for Reading Terminal and I figured it was for Souk El Tayeb before I interviewed. [Editors note: Souk El Tayeb is the first farmers market to open in Lebanon and is now a forum to share food, traditions, and hospitality in a way that has helped bring together fractured communities.] It made sense to pursue this opportunity given the fact that I am Lebanese, and had spent time studying the food landscape of the country while I was waiting for my work visa to come through. I was nervous about the fact that I was on the younger spectrum of applicants, since they look for volunteers with plenty of experience, but I was hoping my passion for markets, food, and people would make up for it.

What did you discuss while you were in Lebanon?

Souk El Tayeb is a farmer’s market that is active two days a week in different parts of the city of Beirut. The success of the Souk has led the organization to expand their efforts to farm-to-table restaurants and even guesthouses. Their impact has truly influenced the local food movement.

I visited the Souk on several days, and spent some time talking to each of the vendors about their product, their experience with the Souk and their overall goals moving forward. I also interacted with different members of their management team at their main office to go over the application process, introductory materials, marketing strategies, operations, and other efforts that are connected to the Souk.

Tell me about the report you created based on this experience. 

The purpose of the report was to summarize the experience and provide five to six workable recommendations for the management of Souk El Tayeb.

The main recommendations focused on language. It is important to get the language and content consistent across documents because it is the foundation of the work culture. There were opportunities to add more content, develop some procedures and transform aspects of the application, evaluation, and introduction processes.

The other recommendations focused on empowering the merchants to be in control of the Special Producer’s Committee, to have the Committee be a resource connecter for the vendors to companies that can assist them with whatever their needs are, for Souk El Tayeb to develop a marketing strategy that includes more interactive posts, and to ensure that the extensions of the Souk (the restaurants and the guesthouses) do not overshadow the Souk in the marketing realm.

What was your ultimate goal in being overseas?

Ultimately, the goal was to fulfill the objectives of the assignment by taking my experience with Reading Terminal Market and other projects and applying it to the challenges or opportunities at Souk El Tayeb. We always take the initiative to build relationships with other public markets, farmers markets, and food halls in America. It is important to have a dialogue and we are happy to share the lessons we have learned along the way.

To my knowledge, we didn’t have any international relationships with markets or food halls before this trip, so it was very cool to be able to make that happen through this opportunity.

There is always something to improve on, and I definitely brought back some valuable information for my team here. The RTM experience is one that cannot be mirrored and, unfortunately, I wasn’t around when Reading Terminal Market opened 125 years ago as a farmer’s market, so I never got to experience that initial atmosphere. However, I feel like I got a glimpse of what it may have been like, just imagining the hustle of the merchants and the display of the specialized products.

How do you see your time in Lebanon benefitting the globality of Philadelphia?

Reading Terminal Market is already rich in culture and heritage, and it contributes in many ways to the globality of Philadelphia. When you combine that with the dialogue and experiences from trips like this, it elevates the overall value of the Market to the city. The power of dialogue benefits everyone on a local, national, and international level. We have built relationships with food institutions and markets on all those levels now. Everything we learn influences our decision making and inspires new ideas, which our merchants and customers, predominantly Philadelphians, both benefit from.