No beckoning searchlights, no red carpet, not even a drop-in by a city dignitary marked Bottle Bar East's grand opening in December. Still, it was a big deal - another first in a string of new ventures, with plenty more planned, for a stretch of Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia's transitioning Fishtown neighborhood.
Major credit for the ongoing metamorphosis from Girard Avenue to Master Street goes to restaurant royal Stephen Starr, who since 2011 has opened two culinary outposts - Frankford Hall, a beer garden, and Fette Sau, a barbecue joint - in a place where for decades the primary entertainment draw had been restaurant/music club Johnny Brenda's.
Starr gave people new reasons to venture into a part of the city long overlooked by anyone but Fishtowners. But most of the fresh commercial activity helping to turn it from pass-through corridor to stop-and-stay destination is the result of chance-taking by little-knowns.
Entrepreneurs such as Bottle Bar East owners Brad Helder and his uncle Mike Kellett; the Lola Bean's Mary Button and Erica Zito; father and daughter Denis Boyce and Heather Karlie Vieira, who operate neighboring furnishings shops; and James Hammarhead, whose Hammarhead Industries designs and builds motorcycles on the block and plans a retail store there in the spring.
"The last year of growth in this corridor is just amazing," said Hammarhead, a former University of Pennsylvania brain researcher who planted his entrepreneurial roots in Fishtown nine months ago. "There's creativity in everything that's happening here."
As proof, Kellett noted the preponderance of taxis outside venues with liquor licenses at closing time: "They know where the business is."
It's why Vieira, a Philadelphia native who worked and lived in Manhattan for 10 years, returned and opened 20th Century by HKFA at 1311 Frankford in May 2012. With her husband and two young daughters, she moved into a home behind her business.
"Fishtown is going back to its roots, when Frankford Avenue was the avenue for shopping," she said. "It's neat to be part of something as it's evolving."
Even a 111-year-old nonprofit on the block is tapping into the momentum. The Lutheran Settlement House, which serves seniors, the homeless, and domestic-violence victims, is raising money for a $1.5 million facade overhaul, an urban farm, and a deck and green space for street-view sitting.
"It connects with my vision to leverage the artistic and entrepreneurial spirit of newcomers with the entrenched need that continues to exist," executive director Kelly Davis said.
For Helder, Bottle Bar is his second investment in Fishtown. In a serious test of nerve, he opened Xhale, a tobacco shop and cigar lounge, two years ago on a not-so-evidently promising section of Girard Avenue. His $70,000 investment has proved sound as sales and the number of new faces in the chairs grow.
From the faithful occupying those high-backed leather smoking thrones, Helder and Kellett learned the neighborhood and mustered the courage to invest $250,000 into opening another business.
In about 2,000 square feet of storefront space once aglow from the torches of AAA Welding Services' tradesmen, Bottle Bar glistens with 39 feet of refrigerated cases holding 700 varieties of craft beer for takeout. Farther inside is a copper-topped, full-service bar with sides fashioned out of old pews from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Lower Merion. Beyond that is a small kitchen; upstairs, works by local artists are for sale.
"I don't think we could get a better location in the city of Philadelphia right now," Helder said last week from behind the taps.
Turnout has been robust for special-event nights, including Thursdays and the first Friday of every month, when live jazz is offered. Carryout sales are steady, buttressing, Helder and Kellett said, their hypothesis that there is a need to be met in the neighborhood, where lifelong residents have been joined by young singles and early-stage families.
"A typical Saturday you'll see three, four, five strollers in here," Kellett marveled.
Also visiting frequently is a fan of Bottle Bar's Cuban sandwich: Boyce, who opened the Karlie Corp. antiques shop at 1309 Frankford in May 2011. There, a bakery once served a largely blue-collar neighborhood employed by such defunct local concerns as Jack Frost, American Can, Cramp Shipyard, and Schmidt's Brewery.
One afternoon last week, Boyce launched into ambassador-of-the-avenue mode, first showing off his shop and then his daughter's before heading into Lola Bean's to encourage co-owner Button to share her Fishtown enthusiasm.
She did without pause. As Fishtown residents for seven years, Button said she and Zito wanted "to be part of the growth." They opened their coffee shop in 2010, naming it after their 9-year-old husky/pit bull mix.
"I'm sure there will be another coffee shop two blocks from here soon," Button said. It's a development she wouldn't fear, she added, because "that means there's demand."
Roland Kassis didn't mention a coffee shop. But the general partner of River City Flats and developer of so many of the properties now boasting new businesses in Fishtown - including Frankford Hall, Fette Sau, and Hammarhead - did say he was in talks to have a hotel join them.
"Big things are coming to the neighborhood," Kassis said.
Some might say they already have.
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