Warby Parker to Le Bec-Fin Site a Sign That Center City Is Changing

People want hip, mission-driven retail, not white tablecloths.

On the surface, Warby Parker opening a new location on Walnut Street isn’t huge news. Sure, having the tech-based eyeglasses startup in town brings in more tax revenue, raises the city’s cool factor, and ups our retail game another notch. But it means a whole lot more than that. It’s a sign that Center City’s retail landscape has changed in a big way.

First of all, it’s going into the old Le Bec-Fin space at 1523 Walnut. For years, Le Bec-Fin was the pinnacle of fine dining in Philadelphia led by legendary chef Georges Perrier. But times change, tastes change, and it finally closed in 2013. Chef Justin Bogle tried to resurrect the space as the more modern Avance but that closed after just 10 months.

After more than 30 years as a restaurant, it’ll be just plain weird to see that space occupied by a retailer.

But Center City has changed. Its population is now 47 percent millennials and the average household income is $107,000, according to a new study from Center City District. Residents, combined with out-of-town travelers and office workers have plenty of buying power — but they want a different product for their money.

“A white tablecloth is not the pinnacle anymore,” said Mary Conran, associate professor of marketing at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. People want to eat at a place with local roasted beets. It’s not ‘look how fancy we are,’ it’s ‘look how engaged and connected to the experience we are.’ “

She has a point. Consumers want to know that their money is going to a good cause, so they’re flocking to farm-to-table restaurants or mission-driven organizations like never before. Warby Parker fits that bill too. For every pair of glasses it sells, it donates a pair to someone in need. (Glasses start at $95.)

“It’s a reflection that you’ve got millennials there and people who want to grasp on to the ‘doing well by helping others concept,’ ” said Conran.

The changing retail landscape is also a product of sky high retail rents. In fact, Center City rents have risen faster than any other city since 2008 except for Miami, according to CBRE research. The high rents have driven restaurants away from Chestnut and Walnut Streets and national retailers are moving in because they can afford it. Since 2013, 33 national retailers have opened locations in Center City.

Twenty years ago, the city’s few distinct, fancier restaurants would purposely crowd together on a busy street to create a “Restaurant Row.” But for years now, restaurants have been seeking out less expensive neighborhoods to set up shop. These days, restaurants come to a neighborhood, then retail follows.

“Restaurants are not known for paying high rents,” said Michelle Shannon, vice president of marketing for Center City District. “They don’t have to. They are more destination retailers and that’s why they’re more likely to be retail pioneers. They don’t need to be on Walnut Street — they can be wherever they want to be.”

Conran said: “We’ve seen the restaurant scene eclipse. Le Bec-Fin and Georges Perrier are a different era. They’re 80s. Maybe the 80s will come back at some point. But right now, it’s all about Starr and Garces.”

Shannon agrees: “It’s not the neighborhood it was when Le Bec-Fin was around.”

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