Why Are Philly Brands Flocking to the Suburbs?

Changes in work and living patterns have prompted brands long associated with the city to set up shop on the Main Line. That’s great for the ’burbs, but what’s it mean for the city?

philly brands suburbs main line

Philly brands like Boyds, Di Bruno’s and La Colombe are opening Main Line outposts. / Illustration by Hawk Krall

An earlier version of this article said Plymouth Meeting Mall had “shuttered.” The mall remains open in its original format.

There’s nothing quite like shopping at the elegant Boyds store on Chestnut Street in Rittenhouse Square.

Opened in 1990 in a building that originally housed a funeral home and more recently belonged to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the store is a showcase of high fashion and style, staffed by attentive but not intrusive salespeople. The establishment takes pride in its high level of service; a team of tailors handles all alterations on a floor customers never see.

This has made the clothier, which has been a Philadelphia fixture for 84 years, a one-of-a-kind shopping experience that draws patrons from far and wide.

Until this past September, when the company opened an incredible simulation in Wayne.

The Wayne store is a slimmed-down version of the Chestnut Street flagship. It offers a selection of the merchandise you’d find downtown, but customers can also order any item Boyds sells and have it delivered to the store.

Yet, says Boyds president Kent Gushner, Boyds’s heart is in Philadelphia: “We believe in Center City, and our plans are to remain in Center City for many years to come.”

Boyds isn’t alone in its thinking. Over the past decade or so, and especially since the onset of the COVID pandemic, a number of businesses with deep roots in town have planted their flags in heretofore unknown (to them) suburban territory after many happy and profitable years.

Among them: Di Bruno Bros., the epicurean emporium founded in the Italian Market in 1939, which has had a store in the Ardmore Farmers Market since 2011 and opened a new location in Wayne last year. Fishtown-based La Colombe Coffee Roasters, home of the cold-brewed draft latte, added a Bryn Mawr location to its four city coffee shops in 2016. And a slew of restaurateurs have followed suit, including Marty Grims, who bought the legendary White Dog Cafe in University City from founder Judy Wicks in 2009 and opened a second location in Wayne the following year; Nicole Marquis, whose HipCityVeg fast-casual restaurant chain opened a store in Ardmore in 2019; Marc Vetri, whose latest foray into fine Italian dining, the Fiore Rosso steakhouse, debuted this past summer in Bryn Mawr; and Jose Garces, who opened a Buena Onda location in Radnor early last year and is set to unveil an outpost of Amada nearby early this year. It’s getting to the point where it’s hard to tell whether one is in the city or the ’burbs along the Main Line.

One motivating factor for the expansions into suburbia is simple: the desire to grow one’s business. But other considerations come into play.

Barbara Kahn, professor of marketing at Penn’s Wharton School, notes that while the suburban-expansion trend has been going on for some time, the pandemic accelerated it. “What we saw happen during COVID was the shuttering of Class B and C malls” like Granite Run and Echelon, she says. (Malls are classed according to sales per square foot; King of Prussia, for instance, is Class A.) The rise of e-commerce and “buy online, pick up in store” shopping, she says, worked to the advantage of “neighborhood centers” — those suburban Main Streets located closer to where people actually lived.

That pretty much explains how Boyds landed on the Main Line in the fall of 2020. “During COVID, the city was pretty quiet,” says Gushner. “Nothing was happening. We decided to open a temporary store at Suburban Square in Ardmore, and at the time, we were doing that based on no other reason than trying to survive.

“And that’s where we learned that there were quite a few people who live out in this suburban area who would just come into that pop-up store and say that they don’t come into town, period. They live out there, they work out there, they eat out there. And there was a mind-set among these people that it just wasn’t convenient” to go into the city.

The experiment proved successful enough that Boyds asked the owner of the site, who planned to build condos on it, to extend its lease. When the owner could no longer do so, a site in Wayne became available for a permanent location.

That, in turn, has exposed another new and different set of customers to Boyds, Gushner says. The Wayne store “is making our brands accessible to people who live further west than Wayne, such as Malvern or West Chester. And for those people, driving to Ardmore is too far for them.”

The same factors that made these places great for shopping again also made them great for dining.

HipCityVeg’s Marquis, for instance, wound up following her customers to the ’burbs. Her firm, Marquis & Co., is on a mission: to spread the gospel of healthy vegan eating to a still somewhat skeptical world. Her chosen vehicle is HipCityVeg, a chain of restaurants that’s married an all-plant menu to fast-food service and prices.

Since opening the first HipCityVeg in 2012, Marquis has broadened both her approach to making vegan food fun and her geographic reach. Her company also operates two distinctive bar/restaurants: Bar Bombón, a Puerto Rican cafe in Rittenhouse Square, and Charlie Was a Sinner, a Midtown Village establishment that pays homage to its racier past. And HipCityVeg now has seven locations: three in Philadelphia, two in Washington, D.C., and two on the Main Line.

So how did a restaurant whose middle name is “City” land in suburbia?

“A lot of people come into work from the suburbs, or did before the pandemic,” says Marquis. “So we knew that a lot of our customers were working in the city and living out in the suburbs anyway. We thought it was just a natural progression.

“And most of all, I wanted to stay in touch with our customers. A lot of our customers ‘grew up’ in HipCityVeg, because we’ve been around for more than 10 years. Some of them, even more now than ever because of the pandemic, are living out in the suburbs. So this is a great way to stay connected with them.”

It wasn’t so much a decision to move to Wayne as it was a decision not to make further investment in Philadelphia,” says Bill Mignucci Jr. of Di Bruno Bros.

Di Bruno Bros., on the other hand, has had a store in the suburbs for longer than HipCityVeg has been in existence. The cheese and gourmet food emporium opened its first suburban outpost in Ardmore in 2011. A second location, in Wayne, opened last year.

For Di Bruno Bros., the first suburban store was the result of an alignment of the stars, according to president and CEO Bill Mignucci Jr. “The opportunity in the Ardmore Farmers Market presented itself to us, and we were positioned well at the time with people and products. It was a natural, organic transition, and the store has become one of our great destinations.”

But, Mignucci says, the company decided to open its second suburban store, in Wayne, only after some thought and deliberation. The choice was driven by changes in the city environment more than by shifting customer habits. Not that those didn’t affect Di Bruno’s business in the city: Their outposts in Rittenhouse Square and at 9th and Chestnut both saw significant drop-offs in lunchtime business as a result of the shift from office work to working from home. That shift also affected their gourmet grocery business, though not by as much, since many of the patrons who buy food to serve at home from one of Di Bruno’s three city stores also live in the city.

But factors other than those weighed heavily in Mignucci’s mind.

“It wasn’t so much a decision to move to Wayne as it was a decision not to make further investment in Philadelphia,” he says. “And that was an internal conflict that for us at Di Bruno’s was very, very hard, because our roots are in the City of Brotherly Love — the Italian Market. We’re all about the Philadelphia underdog, Philadelphia grit, Philadelphia with a blue-collar work ethic — what’s more representative of that than the Italian Market? So we’ll never abandon that.

“But when it comes to a business decision, where do you go as a small-business owner? You go where there’s the least risk, the least headwinds. In 2018, my answer was different. It was, ‘We are an urban food company that loves to celebrate being part of the fabric of Philadelphia.’ But the pandemic and all we’ve been through has transformed our decision-making. In 2020, when we decided to open in Wayne, there was no momentum in Philadelphia.”

There remains plenty of that on the Main Line, from a small-business standpoint. The home to the region’s most affluent households, it represents a rich opportunity for any shopkeeper, restaurant owner or service provider. The Main Line’s wealth may explain why all three of these companies chose to expand there and not elsewhere in the suburbs — at least, not yet.

For Boyds’s Gushner, the existence of a customer base that did everything in the suburbs came as something of a revelation. “I’ve lived my whole life out in the western suburbs,” he says, “so it’s not like I don’t know a lot of people out there; I do. But I’d never grasped properly the amount of people who just live out there and their mind-set is, ‘I’m just not coming into the city.’

“Personally, I don’t get it. I’ve worked in the city all my life. But I can assure you there are a lot of people who think that way, and we’ve learned that just by listening to people who came into the store in Ardmore.”

Truth to tell, all this has happened before. Way back in 1930, for instance, Strawbridge & Clothier made the then-novel decision to open a branch of its 8th and Market flagship in a new Ardmore shopping center called Suburban Square. As the city’s suburbs continued to grow and expand, it opened additional branch stores, first in Jenkintown the year after the Ardmore store opened, then later in a string of suburban shopping malls.

Other local department stores followed in S&C’s footsteps: John Wanamaker, Lit Brothers and Snellenburg’s opened suburban branches from the 1950s onward.

All of these stores have since met their demise, driven into the ground by lackluster management or merged out of existence by larger chains that acquired them. But the department stores laid the groundwork for the phenomenon we see now.

And like the department stores before them, most of the established retailers that have branched out to the suburbs didn’t do so quickly. Strawbridge & Clothier waited 62 years to open its first suburban branch; Di Bruno’s took more than a decade longer than that, and Boyds a decade longer still. The restaurants moved faster because restaurateurs often respond quickly to shifting trends, tastes and customer demands.

But now that these urbanophiles have had a taste of suburban success, where will they go next?

All three are still committed to the city, in varying degrees. For Marquis, it remains a core part of her restaurant chain’s identity. “We’re not replacing our urban focus; we’re simply adding to it,” she says. “We see that people recognize our brand, which is great, and that’s part of the reason we took the leap to go outside the city. But our heart and our core is still in the city.”

Changes in dining habits in both city and suburbs are leading her to scale back plans to open new stores for now. “We went from 90 percent of our sales being in-store to 35 percent in-store,” she says, with online pickup or delivery accounting for the rest. “So our business model has shifted. We’re certainly going to continue to expand, but I don’t see any further expansion for the next year. I think we’re going to do what we do really well: work on exciting limited-time offers, test out new ingredients, really advance our digital-marketing and digital-ordering platforms.”

Gushner doesn’t see Boyds unveiling another store in the near future. “It took us nearly 85 years to open a second store, so I don’t think we’re going to open a third store in 85 days,” he says. “I think we walk before we run. Can I say that, unquestionably, we’re going to open other stores? No, I can’t say that. Nor can I say that we won’t. I think it depends on what happens in this store, how successful it is, and how well we’re able to run this store without compromising our standards in the city.

“Our business model was based on having just one great location in the city. That was our philosophy. This is a different business model, so it remains to be seen.”

Mignucci’s commitment, however, is more contingent. And it depends on a change in climate. “Even today, those headwinds in the City of Brotherly Love, which we love, are greater than they’ve ever been when you talk about business environment, resources and costs,” he says. “Why are people opening businesses on the Main Line or outside Philadelphia? Because it’s a little easier and a little more predictable.”

Changing dining and shopping habits, he continues, will mean that Di Bruno’s will open more stores in the suburbs; many of its customers now live their entire lives there. But he would gladly open more stores in the city if conditions changed.

What would Mignucci like to see change? Some of the things he says the city needs to work on are items many would agree with him about: crime, poverty and homelessness. But others make a bigger difference — especially attitudes towards small businesses at City Hall.

“Any world-class city needs great retail, food and entertainment,” he says. “And I think leaders of this city need to fuel and support those industries — retail, food and entertainment. The leadership in City Hall and others could do a better job of making this a more business-friendly city in these difficult times. … Why doesn’t the city leadership provide resources — not just economic, but other resources — to help small businesses?”

Supporting the small-business community, he says, is “something the City of Philadelphia should do more of. I’ll never abandon Philadelphia, but there are more reasons now than ever not to choose expanding in Philadelphia.”

One other thing Mignucci says the city could use is a “cheerleader” in City Hall. He gives police commissioner Danielle Outlaw good marks for her willingness to listen to business and community leaders but says Mayor Jim Kenney could do better on outreach to the city’s small-business community and enlisting its support for improving and promoting Philly. But since Kenney’s second term ends on December 31st, it will likely be up to whoever succeeds him to restore the momentum Mignucci would like to see. (In July of 2022, the city created the position of Director of Nighttime Economy, a.k.a. “the Night Mayor,” with the idea of addressing some of these issues.)

And a better business climate in Philadelphia certainly wouldn’t hurt Gushner, Marquis, or any other business owner who’s deciding where and how to grow.

Published as “The Suburban Gambit” in the February 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.