Benna’s Cafe sits at the corner of Eighth and Wharton in a brick rowhouse with colonial-style windows that let light into the one-room coffee shop. On a weekday morning, when patrons are ponied up to the counter, sipping coffee from mocha-brown ceramic mugs and eating bagel sandwiches, it almost feels like a bar.
“It’s very Cheers-like, and it has been for 15 years,” says owner Nancy Trachtenberg, a spunky, entrepreneurial force who seems innately South Philadelphian, despite hailing from Lower Merion.
Besides keeping its patrons caffeinated since 2004, this humble neighborhood coffee shop has, in one way or another, brought together multiple couples.
“There’s at least four,” Trachtenberg says, and “probably a whole bunch that I don’t know about.”
Trachtenberg likens Benna’s to a thestral, a dark, winged horse in Harry Potter that only those who have witnessed death can see. “It’s been here for 15 years, and people who have lived here their whole lives still don’t know that we exist,” she says. “You have to be a certain person to even see us.
“And those are the people who come in and stay.”
The first — that she knows of — came about in 2005. Mickey Pascarella, a real estate agent, was rehabbing a house he had bought at Fifth and Wharton and would go to Benna’s every day for a break.
“I would sarcastically read ‘Family Circus’ aloud,” Pascarella says. “I’d read it loud enough so most people could hear. It kind of became a thing.”
Observing his wry sense of humor, Trachtenberg, a self-described yenta, was reminded of a friend. She went to Pascarella: “I know somebody equally as good-looking as you, and you’re both very funny people.”
She introduced Pascarella to his future wife, former Daily News staffer Lauren McCutcheon, at Royal Tavern on “a group date,” Pascarella recalls. And Trachtenberg was there again at the end of their second date — karaoke at Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar.
“I did drag them together,” Trachtenberg remembers. “They were both pretty reluctant.”
Eventually, they overcame their reluctance: Pascarella pinpoints the moment they knew they had hit it off. They were walking home from a date at Passyunk Tavern (now Stogie Joe’s). “And we sat on that wall and smooched,” he said to McCutcheon over coffee.
They married in 2011 and today have a 7-year-old son, Michael.
The year 2011 was an auspicious one for Benna’s meet-cutes. Joanna Quigley was working as a barista at B2, the Benna’s sibling shop Trachtenberg opened on East Passyunk Avenue in 2008 (and sold in 2017). Brian Turner, an English teacher at Abington Senior High, was already a B2 regular when the relationship he had been in ended in summer 2011.
“I hated being at home, just alone, grading,” Turner says.
He started going to B2 every day to work after school and to enjoy the scene that included fellow teachers, a neighborhood saxophonist and, occasionally, singing baristas.
Turner had a nickname for Quigley (Polly Pocket, for her short stature and bleached-blond hair) and he liked her quirky style and her free-spiritedness. He considered asking her out but thought it might be awkward.
But the more he came in, the more Quigley started noticing him, too. They discovered they had shared tastes in food and music — they had been at many of the same concerts as far back as the ‘90s — and both had Ukrainian grandmothers.
“By October I worked up the guts,” Quigley remembers. Trachtenberg helped her role-play a way to ask him out: She would slide his coffee across the counter and say, “I got your coffee.”
“And then I asked him if [he’d] want to hang out sometime, and he said ‘Well, I need your phone number,’” Quigley says.
Turner recalls it slightly differently: “I remember my response being, ‘You mean, like, a date?’” (Quigley belly-laughs when she hears this.)
“They took it from there, man,” Trachtenberg says. “Joanna just needed a push.”
Their first date was at South Philly Tap Room on a school night. They married at City Hall in 2015. Their son, Angus, is 1.
It took more than a nudge to bring Crystal Stokowski and Davidson Thomas together.
Stokowski was Trachtenberg’s third hire at Benna’s and was “her forever go-to employee,” as Stokowski says, until 2009. That’s when the die-hard surfer and artist moved to Hawaii to live and work at a beachside hostel between touring as a production assistant with the band Modest Mouse.
About a year later, Thomas started working as a barista at Benna’s. He and Trachtenberg saw each other nearly every day for a year, he remembers.
He was shy at first, but as Trachtenberg got to know him, “I realized he was, you know, a weirdo and that he has a great sense of adventure. He was also a lover of life.” She was reminded of her wayfaring friend, Stokowski.
And Trachtenberg thought to herself, “Oh boy, this is going to be good.”
In 2012, Stokowski was on tour in Australia. She and Trachtenberg would catch up over Skype chats — Stokowski ate breakfast while Trachtenberg had dinner. Trachtenberg told her: “You need to come back to Philly, because you need to meet Davidson.”
She dismissed the notion, but a show in New Jersey brought her to Philly a few months later, in May 2012. “And Nancy, somehow, convinced me that I needed to pick up a shift,” she remembers.
That’s how Stokowski and Thomas finally met, opening B2 together one morning. “I was usually the first one there, usually 15 minutes early,” Thomas remembers, “and Crystal had beat me there.”
After their shift, Trachtenberg held a staff meeting that she insisted Stokowski attend. (“I’m not even staff anymore!” Stokowski objected.) After the meeting, Trachtenberg invited the intended pair out for a beer. She kept creating scenarios for them to hang out; they even went bowling with her and her daughter (Benna’s namesake) one night. And the efforts paid off.
“It was clearly a match made in Nancy heaven,” Stokowski says.
When her next tour was canceled out of the blue, she prolonged her stay. Within a month of meeting, she and Thomas bought a truck together, and she started teaching him how to surf. Six months later, he was packing up to return to Hawaii with her.
Now living in Rehoboth Beach, Del., the couple eloped in 2016 in Puerto Rico and are expecting their first child in March.
Love wasn’t as immediate for Lisa Conn, a former Benna’s barista and freelance artist, and Keith Marchiafava, a Philadelphia Military Academy biology teacher who grew up two blocks from the shop. Conn had been serving Marchiafava double espressos for a couple years when, in 2013, it dawned on her that he was cute.
“You were in here with your baseball buddies and had a baseball cap on,” Conn remembers to Marchiafava over a recent coffee at Benna’s. Their 8-month-old son, Copper, sat cooing in her lap. “And they all were sitting in the corner in their cleats and got dirt everywhere, and I remember I had to sweep up. But I just remember being like, ‘Oh, Keith is really cute.’”
In the preceding years, Trachtenberg recalls, “Lisa was in her chrysalis, and in the process of emerging as the most beautiful butterfly.”
Conn puts it plainer. “I had to date not-the-right guys for a while.”
The night before her 30th birthday — “this is cheesy,” she prefaces — Conn saw a shooting star for the first time, and she made a wish. The next day, as she was crocheting a scarf at the back table in Benna’s, Marchiafava came in.
He sat down with her and they talked. “It was the first time that we really talked talked,” Conn remembers.
“She mentioned something about a pedicure, and my dad swears by pedicures” Marchiafava says. “It was the end of my baseball season and I was like, ‘My feet could use a nice little treatment.’”
So Marchiafava — who had been harboring a quiet crush on Conn for some time — went for a birthday pedicure with her. They waited for an hour at the nail salon, watching a bad rom-com and talking. When he later told one of his coworkers what had happened, she told him, “You’re in the friend zone.”
A few days later, Conn invited him to a screening of Princess Bride in Jefferson Square. It was their first date. They married in May 2017 and still live near Benna’s. Conn brings Copper to the shop three or four times a week.
“The great equalizer,” Trachtenberg says, “is being part of the Benna’s family. There’s kindness here.”