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Belles of the block

With three restaurants and three more businesses operating, two women have made a once-seedy Center City strip their bustling bailiwick.

Valerie Safran (left) and Marcie Turney at Mediterranean-style Barbuzzo, their third restaurant on the block. Behind them is Verde, their flower and chocolate shop. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)
Valerie Safran (left) and Marcie Turney at Mediterranean-style Barbuzzo, their third restaurant on the block. Behind them is Verde, their flower and chocolate shop. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)Read more / Staff Photographer

Walk along 13th Street from Chestnut to Sansom, and it's hard not to bump into Marcie Turney or Valerie Safran as they zigzag from sidewalk to sidewalk, dodging cars and trucks.

The couple run this block, or most of it, anyway. They own two BYOB restaurants, Lolita and Bindi, above which they live; then there's Grocery, a market, hugging one corner of Chestnut. Two more of their businesses, Open House, a home-furnishings store, and Verde, a flower and chocolate store, line up across the street midblock.

This week, in a storefront just off Sansom Street, they have opened their sixth business: Barbuzzo, a rustic Mediterranean restaurant with a farmhouse design and their first liquor license.

Having their world compressed along less than 300 feet of a city street is "exciting, rewarding, crazy, and on a bad day, suffocating," Safran said.

"We're addicted to opening businesses," she continued, grinning. "When you do something and you do it well, you just keep going."

The couple has been the engine driving much of the turnaround of this once-seedy neighborhood. But, as their leases come up for renewal in the now-thriving block, will they become a victim of their own success?

A conversation with Turney and Safran is like watching a doubles team on a tennis court. Serve up a question and one starts lobbing details, while the other jumps in to win the point.

Like most restaurateurs, they were career-changers.

"I was unhappy teaching and waitressing," Safran said. "Marcie was the one who said, 'If you're not happy . . .' "

"Then do something else," her partner finished.

The Lancaster County-raised Safran, 35, says her family stressed personal responsibility. "You go to college, you get a degree, you get a job. . . . "

"But you don't have to teach for the next 30 years," Turney allows.

Turney, 40, a Wisconsin native who started at Temple University's Tyler School of Art on a field-hockey scholarship, says she always thought she would be a graphic designer. "I came back sophomore year and there were computers everywhere and I was 'no.' I don't want to sit in front of a computer all day."

Turney segued to a series of kitchen jobs, from Judy's Cafe to Rock Lobster to Michels. Meanwhile, she enrolled at the Restaurant School.

Turney was walking home near 20th and Spruce Streets in 1996 when she noticed her old Rock Lobster buddy Audrey Taichman looking out the window of her under-construction restaurant, Audrey Claire. Turney recalls that Taichman asked her: "Why do you have this chef's outfit on?"

"And I said, 'Why do you have a restaurant?' " Turney says.

Taichman hired Turney as chef at Audrey Claire, and when Taichman opened Twenty Manning in 2000, Turney became chef there, too. Turney moved on soon after.

Turney had heard that George Anni was opening Valanni, a Mediterranean restaurant-bar, on Spruce near 13th Street, a few blocks from her current empire. "I was riding my bike across Broad Street and there was nothing over there, except Vetri," Turney says.

Turney was hired, and in turn, hired her brother, R. Evan Turney, now chef-partner of Anni's operation, which also includes Mercado and Varga Bar. That is where she met Safran, who was waiting tables so she could afford living in Center City on the salary of an eighth-grade Spanish teacher at Abington Junior High. Safran also liked the restaurant business, much to her parents' chagrin.

The slice of Washington Square West had long been known as the gayborhood, with a solid residential base sullied by an underbelly of seedy retail and late-night activity.

By early 2002, around 13th and Sansom Streets - a few blocks north of Valanni - developer Tony Goldman was buying real estate, hoping to usher out the check-cashing agencies and peep-show houses. Goldman offered low rents in his bid to fill his stores.

Goldman took the first restaurant plunge himself. He opened Trust, hoping to lighten up the dark southeast corner of 13th and Sansom. It was a critical flop. The chef he installed did not work out.

Safran and Turney had a business plan for a home-decor store called Open House. "We went to the banks and they said, 'You want to open a trinket shop?' and they would say no," Safran says. "I don't like it when people tell me no. If someone tells me no, I find another way."

The other way was through the zero-interest credit-card offers that clogged many mailboxes in 2002.

"I knew it had to be paid off in a year," Safran said. Since Turney was still working at Valanni, they'd have a paycheck.

Open House opened in October 2002, and expanded. "We hit it out of the park," said Safran, who worked the store.

A spark of change was seen. Capogiro, the city's best-known gelateria, opened in December on the northeast corner of 13th and Sansom.

Safran and Turney, meanwhile, were looking for another change. Turney was working hard at Valanni, but the owner was making the money.

"I remember, early on, Marcie saying she wanted to have a lot of restaurants," Safran says.

"I didn't say I wanted a lot of restaurants. I said I wanted to have a lot of businesses," Turney gently corrects.

Goldman owned a storefront on the west side of the street. The Spanish teacher liked the idea of a Mexican restaurant. The chef liked the idea of opening another new restaurant.

The women did not max out credit cards this time. They said Goldman cosigned for their bank loan for Lolita, a sultry BYOB with exposed brick and a bring-your-own-tequila policy that quickly won fans from its opening in March 2004. Catercorner from Lolita, Stephen Starr opened El Vez, where Trust had been.

Goldman next signed them to a triple property on the corner of 13th and Chestnut, and in 2006 they opened a gourmet market/prepared foods shop called Grocery - all self-funded.

When the cafe portion didn't take off, they converted it in 2007 to an Indian-inspired BYOB called Bindi, which has since become known as one of the best Indian restaurants in the city. Last year, they crossed the street and next to Lolita installed a flower-and-chocolate store called Verde.

Things might have stood if not for Robin's Books, a neighborhood mainstay. Robin's was moving upstairs and consolidating, and this created an empty store between Verde and the Sansom Street corner, which was being developed as a pizza cafe called Zavino.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Safran and Turney do, too. They grabbed the space, which they said comes with the option to buy the building.

"We actually first bought this to be a 'vanilla box' and thought of subleasing to a retail tenant," Turney says.

But then chef Michael Schulson signed a half-block away for his Asian restaurant Sampan. Zavino, under chef Steve Gonzalez, was under construction. Both have liquor licenses. "We thought we might as well open our own," Safran said.

Turney wanted to return to the Mediterranean cooking of her past at Audrey Claire and Valanni. "Simple food, fresh food," Turney said. "I just love olive oil and bread . . ."

"And cheese and fish," Safran shot in.

Barbuzzo has all that, and a pizza oven and a kitchen bar.

So does Zavino next door, but that does not seem to worry Greg Dodge, one of Zavino's owners. "It's a beautiful space and they're talented people," he said. "I think they'll do well by us and we'll do well by them. The more, the merrier. . . . How can it not be beneficial?"

The block is fully occupied. South of Sansom, besides destinations such as Vintage and Sampan, Jose Garces is preparing to open a bar called Frohmans Wursthaus. Adjacent blocks of Sansom Street are filling, with bars such as Time and Bar; Opa, a forthcoming Greek restaurant; and a Japanese restaurant called Raw - all less than five years old.

But the neighborhood's success has changed its character - and jacked up its rents. "A BYOB can't open in this neighborhood now," Safran said. "It's even expensive for retailers."

Safran said the rent on their space for Barbuzzo is about three times their current rent for Open House, about $15 per square foot under the lease signed in 2002. She hears that others are now paying as much as $75 a square foot.

They are waiting this out, hoping for a sixth success while knowing that their first two leases are coming up in four years, subject to rent increases.

"We're preparing ourselves now for it," Safran says. "I would like to stay here forever."

"If not," Turney says, "we'd like to buy a building nearby."

Take a tour of 13th Street with Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran at