We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
"Conshy Girls" sounds like a sitcom.
When you get Kim Strengari and Marianne Gere of Conshy Girls restaurants together, the laughs fly. They met as bartenders 21 years ago when Strengari trained Gere on the computer system at Central Bar & Grill in Bryn Mawr (now Tango), and they worked seemingly at every bar on the Main Line.
And through it all — business and boyfriends and marriage (Gere to Richard Gere, "not the actor, but he's just as handsome") — they're still best friends.
Question: Was it friendship at first sight, or ... ?
Kim: We were very similar in our backgrounds and I think that was the connection. We both came from mixed Italian families, just kind of grew up a little different, but the same foundations. I was more of a country bumpkin [from Kennett Square], she was more of a city girl [from West Philadelphia], but basically the foundation was there. The family was very similar and we just bonded right away.
Marianne: I walked in and the manager said, 'This is Kim. She is going to train you on the system,' and that's how I met Kim. And the funniest thing is ...
Kim: I didn't know that! I hate those things!
Marianne: She hates those things [laughs] and she taught me how to use it.
How long did you work together?
Marianne: Two years, Kim? Two and a half?
Kim: I don't know. I left.
Marianne: I left first.
Kim: Oh, you left first?
Marianne: A week before you did.
Marianne: And then we worked at the same bar again [Marbles], a half a block away. So, I think two and a half years.
After there, where did you go?
Marianne: I went to The Greenhouse [in Radnor].
Kim: You did?
Kim: You went to Conshohocken.
Marianne: Did I?
Kim: Yeah, you did.
Marianne: Oh, wait. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Kim: You went to Conshohocken.
Marianne: Yeah, I went out to Tara's, in [West] Conshohocken. And then you went to what? Carolina's [in Radnor], right?
Kim: Yeah. Oh. We had a cleaning business during all this.
Kim: We had a cleaning business almost right after we met at Central. We had a cleaning business, Maid in the USA. We still have it. I mean, it's just basically for the girls that worked for us. Kind of off the charts, now, but at the time it was bigger. We did a lot of new-construction cleaning, and stuff like that.
Marianne: Office buildings.
Kim: Office buildings. Our first restaurant that we owned was Bella Luna. We would work there, day and night, and we would go out the back door at 11 and clean the building.
Who decided that you were going to open up a restaurant together?
Marianne: Kim and I were at lunch, at Marbles, and we heard rumor that the next-door neighbor's restaurant. And that they wanted to lease the building. So we went over and talked to them, and they had some ...
Kim: Wanted a ridiculous amount of money.
Marianne: Ridiculous amount of rent.
Kim: It was $9,000 a month.
Marianne: So I kind of checked out. I didn't even finish listening to them, because it was ridiculous. But then Kim was persistent about it, and she says, 'I think we can get their rent down.' And then she was kind of the dog with the bone, and ran with it, and ... and it happened.
Kim: This is how we make a decision: 'Here, we have this restaurant for you.' 'OK, great. We'll take it.' There's no business plan, there's no thought, there's an hour conversation and we say, 'OK.'
How do you know it's going to work?
Kim: For me, I never didn't think it was not going to work. I don't think that either one of us ever did it, I think we just felt, 'It's going to be good. It's going to be fine.'
Marianne: Failure is not an option.
Kim: No, failure's not even a word. But we never talked about that. We never even think of that. When we open them, we don't think of that. It's just like, 'Oh, this is great! It's going to be amazing! This is going to be so cute!' Everything we do, we think it's so cute, and so wonderful, it's just going to be great, and generally they are. They might take a year, and it might be a little rough ride, but we never think ... I don't think we go there, we just keep on plugging along, you know? Our mind-set doesn't go there.
Haven't you had some anxious moments over the years?
Kim: During the recession, Marianne and I basically had to go back to square one. We were bartenders, we were waitresses, that's how we made our money during those times. And yes, did we have fear that we might lose things? It was more like, 'It's going to work, we're going to get through this.' We didn't have a choice. Everything that we own and had is riding on these restaurants, and it's what we love, and it's what we know. It's all that we know. And so, it was just going to make it through, and we're going to get through it, and we did get through it. We're both really hard workers, and there's no doubt about that, and you know, we got through it.
Your businesses are in the Conshohocken area. Why open in Ambler?
Marianne: A friend of ours, Michael Golden, who's now actually a business partner with us, wanted to purchase the building. He would not purchase it unless we were interested in putting a restaurant on the ground floor.
Marianne: Yes. I had like an hour to make that decision, and I said, 'Can I please call my husband, and just ask him?' And we said we would, and here we are.
What are the challenges in hiring restaurant workers?
Kim: I think it's not just the restaurant field. I hear other businesses ... Customers come in saying they can't find help. It's just a different world out there. … I think it's more that people just don't want to be held accountable for hard work. It's just the way we're raising society these days. Everybody's a winner, everybody gets to be on the team, everybody's in first place. It's a sad world out there. It's not like when we were little, you went outside, you played, you got picked for a team, you didn't go first, you bucked up and you played on the team that you're supposed to play on. Everybody's not a winner. You have got to work hard.
Marianne: Or, I know when I was little, I did anything for a buck. I would sell lemonade, or our friends would gather and we'd do a play, and we'd see if we could sell tickets. No one would come, but we would try anything for a buck. I don't know if that mentality's out there any longer. I think kids are handed everything they want.
Kim: It's just a first-place world.
Marianne: So that need, that ... and I hate to say lust for money, but you need a little lust, and I don't think it's there.
What are you going for in your atmosphere?
How has it worked?
Kim: I think we have a mutual respect for each other. I mean, do we fight, do we get mad? Of course we do. But we're not alike, either. We are, and we're not. We can go out to dinner every night, laugh, have fun, and order dinner. Marianne gets me, and she allows me to be me, and I get her. But I think more importantly, and I'm going to give her kudos, she gets me, cause I think I'm the harder of the two. And I think she gets me, and she just lets me be me. And she accepts me for every good thing, and every bad thing.
Marianne: I would say we definitely complement each other, but we are very different in our style and our approach to business, and even into life, but I think we have basic fundamentals where we're the same. We're a family oriented. We do everything from our heart. That could be good. That could be bad. I think we're good, best friends. That's my best friend in the whole entire world, right there. And I'm bound to cry. I couldn't imagine doing this with anyone else.