Where to Open Next? Strangelove’s Co-owner Leigh Maida Explains.

Leigh Maida and husband/business partner Brendan Hartranft–along with other parnters and investors–own and operate four neighborhood bistros that emphasize quality brews and delicious pub fare. Each outpost shapes the neighborhood it’s in and is shaped by the neighborhood as well. Their newest project? Strangelove’s in Center City, which is much anticipated.

We asked Maida how the couple decides where to open next. Her answer? “I can totally reveal our master real estate plan for you: there isn’t one. (Ta-da!)” Still, she gamely answered a few questions via email–better than phone when you have a baby on your arm.

On Memphis Taproom, 2331 Cumberland Street, Philadelphia PA (Kensington):
“We started looking for a space of our own many years before we settled on Memphis Taproom. That building, business (a term I’d use lightly) and the liquor license were for sale and along with two partners (Ken Correll and Paula Decker) we were able to afford the mortgage. It was the right amount of space, and because the neighborhood was so residential and far flung, we felt like we could make it work. The incoming wave of younger homeowners was already apparent, so, while it was (and is!) an enormous risk, it also seemed like a solid gamble.”

On getting buy-in from longtime Kensington residents:
“We worked really hard from the beginning to make sure that we were as welcoming and inclusive of the entire neighborhood as we could be. The long standing residents have been as important to us as the newer homeowners. I remember interviewing our first batch of new hires and telling them how we wanted to be a bridge between the two groups. I think we’ve basically made that happen. When we applied for a zoning variance to open the Beer Garden next door, there was a meeting in the space and the group of neighbors who gathered (mostly old guard, with a few newbies sprinkled in) to hear about our plans voted unanimously to support our application. That was a huge deal to us — that the neighbors trusted us to open an outdoor drinking establishment on their residential corner meant that we were doing a good job of appealing to everyone around us.”

On opening Local 44, 44th and Spruce streets, Philadelphia PA (West Philly):
“Local 44 was a space that we had our eyes on since moving to West Philly. Brendan and I seem to have an attraction to bars that are treated badly and not cleaned for many many years. The desire to open in West Philly was born out to total practicality: there was no where nearby that we could get a beer and a casual bite to eat AND experience friendly or efficient service. That sounds so bitchy, but we really did open up with a ‘we’ll be the nice people place to hang out!’ mission.”

On maintaining a balance between university students and other residents:
“We worked REALLY hard (and still do) to make sure that we cater to the residents of the area. We don’t turn students away at the door, but we do demand that they conduct themselves like adults, and we’re quick to eject the ones who can’t get down with that. Undergraduate students bring a different atmosphere to a room, and our main goal was and is to provide the full-time neighborhood residents with a place to eat, drink and be well taken care of for not very much money. It FEELS like a community there to me, so apparently we weren’t the only ones looking for something that wasn’t available.”

On Resurrection Ale House, 2425 Grays Ferry Avenue, Philadelphia PA (Graduate Hospital)
“Resurrection was kind of a fluke. The space became available for a very low price and Brendan and I jumped because the deal was a good one. We had been watching the transformation of the neighborhood for a while. We factored the Naval Square complex into our business plan. In addition to the rehabs popping up all around our corner, at that time there were hundreds of occupied units directly across the street. Turns out a VERY small fraction of those Naval Square residents frequent our spot. As far as we can tell, they drive in and drive out of the gates and our little business gets overlooked. We’ve made a go of it with the greater neighborhood. And the landscaping they do over there is lovely to look at…(ha ha).”

On Strangelove’s, to open at 11th Street between Walnut and Locust (Center City):
“Strangelove’s came about because we had been in contact over the years with a real estate broker who kept us in mind when viable properties became available. He introduced us to the good folks at Pearl Properties regarding a different (bigger, splashier, newer — not for us) space that was being built in a new construction building. As it wouldn’t have required us to clean disgusting bathrooms, replace entire HVAC systems or repair plumbing and electrical installed 1,000 years ago, we naturally had no interest in it. When Pearl Properties bought the old Doc Watson’s space, they must have remembered our love of old, dirty and broken-down bars, and we got a call from the real estate broker. We walked through it and had a deal signed really quickly.”

On Center City intimidation:
“Going into Center City is kind of a big scary move for us…[but] we figure we can bring something new to a saturated Center City dining scene by just being who we are — small potatoes operators who build little communities around bars. This is just a much bigger neighborhood! The rest of the places around us will only help to drive traffic in our direction. We hope to earn loyal guests by providing them a product that they’re still not able to get, despite the high concentration of restaurants and bars in the area.”

Different neighborhoods, same vibe:
“All [our places had] long-, long-term occupants (kind of minor legends) that anchored a community — Memphis Taproom was Walt’s, owned by the Sawchyn family since the 20’s. Local 44 was Murph’s Tavern, home of the underground, underage speakeasy. And now the old Doc Watson’s, which has a fantastically colorful history.”

Maida and co. are creating fantastically colorful histories of their own with each establishment. So which neighborhood next?

Related: Strangelove’s Gets an Opening Date [Foobooz]