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Bynum brothers take a tip from jazz: Improvisation is the key

The brothers, on the scene since the 1990 opening of Zanzibar Blue, just opened Green Soul, whose menu features dishes inspired by soul food — but healthful.

Benjamin Bynum Jr. (left) and his brother, Robert Bynum, at South restaurant, 600 N. Broad St.
Benjamin Bynum Jr. (left) and his brother, Robert Bynum, at South restaurant, 600 N. Broad St.Read moreMICHAEL KLEIN / Staff

In 1990, Robert and Ben Bynum cracked the Center City scene with a bold idea: a live-jazz venue that gave food and music equal footing while serving a diverse clientele.

Zanzibar Blue, on 11th Street near Pine and later downstairs at the Bellevue, ended a 17-year run in 2007. Meanwhile, the Bynums began building a collection that has included such names as Warmdaddy's, a blues club first in Old City and now in South Philadelphia; Relish, a jazz-themer in West Oak Lane; South, a jazz-theme restaurant in Spring Garden; Heirloom, a now-closed BYOB in Chestnut Hill; and Paris Bistro in Chestnut Hill, which they recently sold.

The brothers got started in the club business learning from their father, Benjamin Bynum Sr., now 95, who owned neighborhood bars and founded the Cadillac Club at Broad Street and Erie Avenue in North Philadelphia, which hosted such stars as Gladys Knight and the Pips and Aretha Franklin.

Last week in Spring Garden, the Bynums opened Green Soul, whose menu features soul food prepared in a healthful way, a modernizing of the menus at Relish and Warmdaddy's.

Green Soul is on Mount Vernon Street just off Broad Street, next door to South.

Robert, 61, went to St. Joseph's Prep and the University of Pennsylvania. Ben, 55, graduated from Penn Center Academy and attended Morehouse College before transferring to what is now the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College.

One of the keys to their success, they say, borrows from jazz: Improvisation.

What did your father teach you before you opened?

Robert: I think our father oftentimes had a jaded perspective on the business, and it was very much  "Make sure you count your money. Make sure you keep your eyes on your money. Be careful who you trust because people will steal from you." And I think that was more of an old-school perspective. That was his focus, whereas our focus coming in was always on "Let's provide the service. Let's provide a good product. Let's make people want to be a part of what we're doing."

Was it preordained that you two would work together?

Robert: I don't think so. I had worked for my father for five years or so and felt like it was time to begin thinking about doing my own thing. And at that point, Ben was at Morehouse, and we discussed the concept that became Zanzibar Blue. And at the point the conversation turned to Ben going to culinary school, so Ben went to the Restaurant School. And then once he finished, that's when we opened Zanzibar Blue in 1990.

Ben: I didn't want to come back home and kind of get back into the flow [of running a club]. I thought this was more of an adult concept, if you will, a little bit more international in terms of the feeling. It seemed like it was going to be something viable, and, obviously, jazz being the original art form, it seemed like the perfect combination to combine with fine dining.

What inspired Zanzibar Blue?

Robert: I felt strongly that, from a consumer's perspective, a night out on the town too often was very segmented. It was, "Let's go to dinner," and then, "Let's find something else to do." Or, "Let's try to find something else to do." And, in my mind, the ability to put two different entertainment aspects together in one location would solve a lot of problems where people were trying to figure out what they were going to do. It'd make it a lot easier to park once and have a nice dinner, walk next door and listen to some nice jazz.

By the way: Did you think of calling South “Zanzibar Blue”?

Robert: We did. We felt like there are so many people who had experienced Zanzibar Blue on 11th Street and on Broad Street that we were going to be faced constantly with, "Oh, well, this is fine, but it's not like this, or it's not like that." And we just felt like we would, on a daily basis, be competing against the memory that people had about the other two establishments. And there would just be no way we could win that.

What kind of preparation did you have for this business?

Robert: I think that one interesting thing that now that I look back on it, when we opened Zanzibar Blue, I had never worked in a restaurant. Not one day. Ben had worked in restaurants after Restaurant School, but I hadn't, and in my mind, it speaks to approaching situations without fear or trepidation. I didn't know what to be afraid of. I didn't know what was going to be a problem. My feeling is just, "Everybody else is doing it, then we can do it." But I think too often now, people will spend too much time online, figuring it out, trying to analyze it. Sometimes, ignorance is just bliss. You just go in, and you do it, you make it work.

Ben: We think even today, every day, we look at a large part of what we do as being what jazz is based on — that's improvisation. Much of our day is spent on improvising as we deal with the various problems that we encounter.

How is the business different nowadays?

Robert: The first thing I would cover is just the labor market. The restaurateur had leverage 10 years ago, 20 years ago, certainly 30 years ago. And you could really work hard at developing your staff and developing a management team and really holding on to people. We've been fortunate that many of the individuals who are still with us have been since Zanzibar Blue. But as we try to expand today, the biggest challenge is just trying to find a labor market and individuals who are committed to the reflection and really want to exhibit the passion necessary to be successful.

Thirty years ago, there were probably a third or quarter of the number of restaurants that there [are now]. And we remember numerous days in Zanzibar Blue where it'd be snowing outside and we'd have a line outside, people waiting to get in. And, so the market was just much larger, the market share had not been diluted to the point that it is now.

Jazz, blues, healthful soul food: You do concepts that comparatively few other local restaurateurs touch. Tell me about that.

Ben: I don't know. I hope it stays that way.

Robert: I notice other restaurants doing jazz and doing entertainment and things like that. But we've, from day one, it was very much our motto, our plan, that we would not be a restaurant that just had music or we would not be a music venue that just served food also. It was very important to us that there be equal emphasis placed on both and that they both could stand on their own if necessary. But you could also merge them together.

Ben: Obviously, music for us is an expense. I mean, because there's some nights that the music was free and it's complimentary. And there are other evenings when there's a charge, but in very few cases are we making a profit on those things. It's more of an amenity to offer our guests.

What have you learned over the years?

Robert: This is going back to touch on your question about our father. One of the things he always encouraged us to do was to demonstrate perseverance. To this day, he has that sort of spirit about never giving up and that you'll encounter many things that whether they're frustrating or failures that you run into that you always persevere. I think technology is one of those things today that has changed the business from the perspective of the consumer, with Yelp and OpenTable. Your guest has the ability to immediately comment on your product, and our motto has always been to try to rectify any issue while our guest is here and hopefully avoid any [negativity].

What is your biggest success as restaurateurs?

Ben (chuckling): Longevity.

Robert: We do feel that we have a responsibility to the African American community to be a place where the African American community can come and feel comfortable. We do think that's one of the challenges in the city is that it is such a racially segregated city.

And it's interesting. I think two years after we opened Zanzibar Blue, Philadelphia Magazine did a piece on us. And it was "Zanzibar Blue, one of the only places in the city where you can find black people and white people together." And to this day, that is oftentimes the case. We're very fortunate to have a clientele that is diverse because there are a lot of people who are not African American who feel like because we are African American-owned that we are an African American establishment. We always try to put ourselves out there from a position of inclusion, as opposed to exclusion. We've always wanted to have places where everyone is included, where everyone felt comfortable. And Green Soul to some extent is the culmination of all that, because we want to include everybody in that, not just racially, but also gender preference, sexuality, everything.

Where do you see change?

Robert: I think that one of the fortunate realities of a bad labor situation is that many restaurants are now forced to consider individuals from an employment perspective that they might not have before. I'm sure you've gone into restaurants, and, I don't know if you've noticed, but there are many restaurants where there are no African American employees. And I do think that the challenging labor market has forced other restaurateurs to say, "Wait, maybe I will consider this person. Maybe I will consider that person and give them an opportunity." And realize that there's a lot of positivity there.