Don’t Come Between Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran

Behind the Line is Foobooz’s interview series with the people who make up Philadelphia’s dynamic bar and restaurant scene. Click here for the full archive.

Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran have spent the past 16 years building their 13th Street empire: five restaurants (Lolita, Jamonera, Barbuzzo, Bud & Marilyn’s, and Little Nonna’s), a gourmet prepared food market (Grocery), two boutiques (Open House and Verde), a chocolate company (Marcie Blaine Artisanal Chocolates), a specialized desk nameplate business (He Said, She Said), and an event space (Upstairs at Barbuzzo).

Now, they’ve officially named their restaurant group Safran Turney Hospitality, brought on Lolita and Barbuzzo alum George Sabatino as culinary director, and announced plans to open concepts in South Philadelphia — and become parents — in the near future. Here, they tell us about how they made it all happen and how they keep each other going.

Our names are…
MT: Marcie Blaine Turney.
VS: Valerie Marie Safran.

We grew up in…
MT: Ripon, Wisconsin, and I moved to the Poconos when I was seven.
VS: Munster, Indiana, half an hour outside Chicago, until we moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania during middle school.

We came to Philly because…

MT: I was going to Temple to play field hockey and go to Tyler School of Art.
VS: Philly was the closest city out of the suburbs for me.

We met when…
VS: I was teaching while working part-time as a server at a restaurant where Marcie was the executive chef.

We opened our first business in what was then the city’s red light district because…
MT: It was the only place we could afford. Where Double Knot is now was a men’s theater, and the marquee outside had a guy with duct tape over his crack, and the show was “Dawson’s Crack.” That’s what they were playing. And we were like, “We’re gonna open our dream store on this block!”
VS: People said, “I won’t even walk down 13th Street. How could you open a store there? Are you insane?” That never bothered me. It’s the city, it’s all kinds of people here.

We knew things were taking off in this neighborhood when…
VS: Open House had been open for a few months. When we opened it in 2002, it was half the size it is now. We opened October 1st. By February 1st of 2003, we had signed on to almost double the size of the store. Goldman Properties came to us about a restaurant, we started to talk about Lolita. Even then, nobody was opening down here yet. Trust was open down here at the time, it was a failing restaurant.
MT: Where El Vez is now.
VS: Lolita came, El Vez came. When those restaurants were successful, the retail got busier. I remember West Elm opened and I was freaking out, and then I kind of understood the Burger King-McDonald’s thing — actually, people are gonna come to both stores, so just do your own thing.

Little Nonna’s | Facebook

When the stock market crashed in 2008, we were…
VS: Signing the lease for Verde and Barbuzzo. Even though it felt like the world was ending, we were fine — because we were always affordable, always a place where it didn’t have to be this crazy special event for you to go out. I always say, Friday, Saturday, Sunday — that’s when you pay your bills. Monday through Thursday, that’s when you actually make money. And we were busy Monday through Thursday and on the weekends.

Today, 13th Street is…
MT: The best street. The center of the city. You have conventions, City Hall, Avenue of the Arts, businesspeople, homeowners, renters, literally all around the center.
VS: Traffic on a Monday, traffic on a Saturday.

A big part of our success has been…
MT: We chose to do it with our own money.
VS: One of the things that drove us is that Marcie had had an experience previously where there were partners telling her how the menu should be. From day one, she didn’t want to take somebody’s money, because then they get to have an opinion. Early on at Lolita, someone offered to partner with us. I didn’t know the difference, but Marcie said from the get-go, I don’t want a partner. We got lucky and worked our tails off.

The first time we took a vacation after opening Lolita was….
MT: Like three years into it before we took a Friday-Saturday off.
VS: We went to New York, and we were about to drive home. We were sitting outside Dean & Deluca. Marcie had run into get coffee, and we got a text that said “Craig LaBan is here.”

Nowadays when we travel, we go to…
MT: Upstate New York to see Val’s sister Julie.
VS: Before opening Little Nonna’s and Bud & Marilyn’s, which was really intense, we took more international trips for seven to 10 days. Now, it’s five restaurants and 250 employees, and it’s more like five-day trips to Austin or Charleston to check out the food scene. That’s what we enjoy — I’m not sure we’re that great at completely relaxing anyway.
MT: If we go to New York, we’re literally eating at eight places in one day.

Upstairs at Barbuzzo | Facebook

The vibe of the Safran-Turney “lifestyle brand” is…
VS: Quality over quantity. I’m always thinking long-term in the sense of, maybe I don’t have to buy that thing in that moment to make me feel good. I want the beautiful house, so I’ll save now. We’re not extravagant, we’re smart about money.
MT: We’ll be walking down the street sometimes and we’ll hear people talking about us and they don’t know we’re right there. It’s always like, “Ooh, these women, one’s a designer, one’s a chef,” and we’re in jeans and T-shirts walking behind them. But our house will be awesome. That’s kind of how we are.

We keep each other going by…
VS: Having a check-in over coffee, around five o’clock each day. During the day, we don’t really see each other. By five, everything’s accumulated and you need that therapeutic coffee time that gives you new life. I also know there are times when I know not to go home — give Marcie a few hours of decompression.

Our advice for keeping a relationship strong is…
MT: Know when to leave each other alone. But nobody comes between us.
VS: If we go away, we’re not talking about work. You just have to let it go. There was some point along the way where we realized that things that happen at work…you literally have to let it go. You can’t sit in anger or frustration or failure — you just can’t.

Moving into our new condo was…
MT: A game changer. We were so crazy about working and we lived in the apartment above Jamonera. It became, let’s put this metro shelf with all cooks’ T-shirts over here, and over here is Val’s payroll — all of a sudden, it was closing in on us. We kept holding out and waiting to do that dream house, but we kept opening another project, taking our savings and rolling it into next thing.
VS: [We did it] in that pause period after Bud & Marilyn’s. Now it feels like…
MT: Why did we wait so long?

We keep our space organized by…
MT: Not allowing Val to bring any of her stuff there any more.
VS: I used to wake up and have coffee and 20 minutes later, be on the computer and work. I don’t have my office at home any more, so now I don’t work until 8:30 or 9. It’s those little things, where you have to just check out.

Our favorite thing to eat at any of our restaurants is…
MT: At Little Nonna’s. It’s the rigatoni, with garlic bread and a Caesar salad.
VS: Or Sunday Supper.

Bud & Marilyn’s | Facebook

When we’re at home, we cook…
VS: Nothing. It’s my dream to be a perfect cook at home, but I don’t.
MT: I cook sometimes. I made an awesome gazpacho with the tomatoes in our CSA. I made pickled eggplant the other night at five in the morning when I couldn’t sleep.

When we’re trying to eat healthy, we make…
VS: Salad. There’s this perfect soft feta from MOM’s, turkey breast…
MT: Shaved veggies on the bottom, whatever we’ve got in the fridge, and a sunflower seed vinaigrette. That’s the richness you need — it’s key to eating healthy. You’ve gotta get some kind of fat in there.

When we go out to eat in Philly, we hit up…
VS: Hearthside. We really liked it there. We tend to check out new things — we’re not habitual eaters. We went to Fond the other night, it was really good.
MT: We went to Bing Bing the other night.

Opening restaurants in South Philly will be a big change because…
MT: The spaces are a lot larger. But we won’t have all of the foot traffic we’re used to here.

We really felt like bosses when…
VS: We meet with potential tenants for the South Philly properties. One of them is for rent right now and we have somebody looking at it — not a restaurant but food and beverage-related. He was us 15 years ago.
MT:  It’s full circle — all the things we learned from Tony Goldman, when you would hear him talk about building a neighborhood and how it takes a good restaurant to be that anchor, then retail — it’s exciting to have an opportunity like that all on the same block.

Some of the most important things about our company culture are…
MT: In the kitchen, I want young people who are looking to be taught. I want my chefs to not push them aside, but to take them under their wing, show them the right way. I want people who speak to each other in a respectful manner. You need to respect women, you need to respect the dishwasher, you need to respect the person who just pissed you off.
VS: I think people are comfortable enough to speak up and come to us, and when they do, it’s not pushed under the rug. We deal with it and we confront it.
MT: We always say, we know one thing…
VS: We will always show up. That was easier to say when there was one restaurant.

Jamonera | Facebook

Having George Sabatino as our new culinary director is…
MT: Great, because it’s kind of like someone has come home. Years ago, he started at Lolita on salads. We share a love of fresh herbs, a love of citrus and acid. It was like, who do I trust, who do I know, who knows these businesses? And it’s been awesome.
VS: It gives our chefs at the restaurants some support as well. To have somebody else you can work with — that was always Marcie, but she’s one human being. Whether we’re starting family or wanting to expand and open new businesses, we needed someone she could partner with.

We really started thinking about kids…
MT: After Bud & Marilyn’s. That’s when we decided to make that plan and get everything ready. We’ve worked our asses off, and now we’re at the point that when this happens, we can devote our time.
VS: For a long time, I couldn’t fathom how you could work and raise a kid. But I realized, you can hire people, you can manage things, you can delegate. People — especially women — do it all the time.

Now that we’re in the “live stage” of the adoption process, we’re…
MT: Kind of freaking out inside. But we’re ready, and our staff is ready to step up and help, and they’re excited as well.
VS: We have no idea when it might happen.

Opening restaurants has prepared us for raising kids because…
VS:
I feel like I’ve grown as a person having so many different personalities — people with certain strengths and weaknesses — around me. But restaurants can be so transient. When it comes to a child, it’s pure. They’ll be there when you get home. It’s forever.
MT: “You can’t leave me!” I think it’s prepared us for anything. When I say we’ve seen anything and everything, we really have. I have a rolodex of speeches for my chefs. My “get your head out of your ass” speech, how to be a good leader, how to lead by example.

One thing we’re excited about becoming parents is…
VS: I can’t wait to have a teen who thinks they’re gonna play games on me! We’re probably gonna eat our words. I watch my 14-year-old nephew, we see how he is, we accept him. “You’re gonna be a rapper? Of course you are. We know that!”
MT: I like that they’re gonna grow up in a restaurant family. My grandparents [the eponymous Bud and Marilyn] had a restaurant and I loved it. To have a childhood around food, there’s nothing better than that.

We’re hoping to have…
MT:
 Three kids, hopefully, but starting with one.
VS: She says three, I say two.

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