From the windows of her coffee roastery, Thu Pham sees SEPTA trains roll through the Harrowgate section of Kensington on the Market-Frankford line. Pham, who roasts single-origin Vietnamese coffee in a converted warehouse amid neighbors who make popsicles, ice cream, kombucha, and crafts like ceramics and shoes, believes it won’t be long before those trains start bringing people to her door.
Pham’s plans for her company, Cà phê Roasters, include someday opening a cafe on nearby Kensington Avenue. A daughter of immigrants, Pham grew up in Olney watching her older sister crack ice with her hands, pour condensed milk into a glass, and stir it with a long spoon, always giving Pham a taste.
“Vietnamese coffee was always a ritual for me,” said Pham, 26. “It’s something I want to share, the process and that cultural memory.”
Cà phê, housed in the MaKen Studios North Building at 3525 I St., is one of a growing number of food-focused businesses taking root in and around the city’s Harrowgate section, an impoverished enclave northeast of Kensington that borders Port Richmond.
Much of that growth has been encouraged by Shift Capital founder Brian Murray, whose social-impact-focused development firm has bought about 1.5 million square feet of property in the area, including the two cavernous MaKen buildings and storefronts along Kensington Avenue.
Murray envisions a future in which the avenue is transformed into the city’s next thriving commercial corridor, with bakeries, restaurants, and microbreweries. But he said he was equally focused on revitalizing the community in a way he described as “anti-Amazon,” with independent shops that serve neighborhood residents and visitors, and businesses owned by women and people of color.
“Food is a critical component,” Murray said. “And to us, the important question is, who are the entrepreneurs who will have these opportunities? Who’s at the table? Who has power in the community? These are the questions that need to be at the forefront of these discussions. Because I really think Philadelphia has a unique opportunity at this point in time to get this right.”
Before Shift bought them in 2014, the MaKen buildings (short for “Made in Kensington”) were used as a textile mill and to store fabric. A stone’s throw from the epicenter of the opioid crisis that has ravaged parts of Kensington, the renovated studios total about 250,000 square feet and now house artists and manufacturers, such as woodworkers and clothing businesses. Larger tenants include Little Baby’s Ice Cream and Snap Kitchen, which in 2016 built a kitchen in MaKen South to prepare food for the company’s retail locations and hired local residents to work there.
In fall 2017, Shift Capital launched the Kensington Avenue Storefront Challenge, soliciting small-business proposals and awarding nine projects, including Pham’s, with a year of free rent, advice, and money for renovations.
In the coming months, those businesses will start to emerge. Pound Cake Heaven, a bakery that operated in Yeadon and from a truck, is set to open at 3415 Kensington Ave. on April 26. Naturally Sweet Desserts, a vegan bakery offering late-night deliveries, also plans to open this year, as does a Philly Pretzel Factory franchise.
Nearby business owners say the neighborhood already is shifting. At the Loom Building, a former carpet mill at 3245 Amber St. less than a mile from the MaKen buildings, tenants include many artists, Passero’s coffee, and Sacred Vice Brewing, a one-room brewery with a tasting room that is open on weekends.
Founders Justin Steinberg and Matthew Brodsky brew small-batch beer and sell to a handful of bars. After opening the tasting room in November, the metal sign they put out front was stolen twice. They noticed that Uber drivers either waited to make sure people got inside safely or stopped at the end of the block and refused to go farther.
“Once someone comes, they don’t have a problem coming back,” Steinerg said. “There’s a treasure hunt aspect to it, and there’s certainly something appealing about that to some people."
Their neighbor is Betsu Studio, which sells furniture and decor items and rents space for photo shoots. The businesses collaborate on “sip and shop” days, and the tasting room draws regulars who live nearby, some of whom already are worried that the neighborhood will be “discovered.”
The three founders of Fishtown Ferments, a company that sells jars of naturally pickled vegetables in local stores, this year hosted two pop-up dinners in its headquarters, a warehouse with a kitchen off Aramingo Avenue on the outskirts of Harrowgate. Each dinner was attended by 30 people, who sat at folding tables to enjoy dishes made with fermented vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut.
“That tells you there’s a desire for unique experiences,” said co-founder Mike Landers, who runs the bar program at Kensington’s Martha bar and oversees fermentation there. “And it tells you there’s a willingness to explore.”
Pham was familiar with the Harrowgate section when she moved into the MaKen building in December. After graduating from Drexel University, she got involved with 12+, a nonprofit that helps students pursue postsecondary education, and worked at the nearby Kensington Health Sciences Academy.
She launched Cà phê with two business partners, including 12+ founder Raymond John, after hearing of the storefront challenge. She learned roasting techniques by immersing herself in research, and last year started roasting Robusta beans, lesser-known beans grown in Vietnam.
She sold her first cup of coffee at last summer’s “A Dream Deferred” exhibit at the Northern Savings Fund building on Spring Garden Street, then at other pop-ups around the city. She makes four blends, including one from Thailand, and plans to source beans from China, Korea, and Indonesia in the future.
After launching her online retail business, Pham will focus on opening her coffee shop, which she said will serve espressos, lattes, and other drinks. She plans to donate a portion of profits to 12+, and hopes to one day bring some of those students into her business.