Something Truly Unique Could Be Coming To Buzzy Frankford Avenue
That Fishtown is a hip neighborhood with lots of buzz is no secret; Forbes called it the “hottest new neighborhood in America” (somewhat comically) due to its potent allure for millennials and the explosion of new businesses up and down its main drag, Frankford Avenue.
The next arrival on Frankford could be a major outlier, in more ways than one: a dinner theater concept straight out of the golden age of nightlife, from business partners who own a 1970s-vintage restaurant and banquet hall in Far Northeast Philadelphia, in a building owned by the same family that once operated it as a factory.
Contrast that with the way Roland Kassis has transformed Frankford farther north: purchasing former industrial buildings and either tearing them down or repurposing them, but always with an eye for “cool,” like the flagship La Colombe or Stephen Starr’s neighboring restaurants Fette Sau and Frankford Hall. All have been wildly successful thanks to their successful targeting of millennials.
Ken Margolis and his family have owned the factory at 1108-12 Frankford Ave. for around 50 years, most recently using it as a facility to manufacture ice cream machines. But as he saw (and applauded) the transformation of the area, he noticed a discrepancy between the new businesses and the people who predated them in the area.
“A lot of the families that live here are almost shut out [of the Frankford revival],” Margolis said.
As the Margolis family business, now named KM Resources, expanded over decades, it snapped up more factories in the Philadelphia area and other cities. And as the manufacturing industry declined nationwide, Margolis sold off the business’ equipment and focused on its real estate holdings, including the factory that started it all and the sprawling, empty lots between Frankford Avenue and Front Street under Interstate 95.
In 2006, Margolis sold some of the lots and the former Ajax Metal Co. factory to Core Realty, which transformed the area into the Fillmore-anchored entertainment complex that Margolis said now serves as an anchor for the southern end of Frankford Avenue. He held onto the original factory and one lot, at 22-44 Wildey St., to serve as parking for his vision of a family restaurant.
Dead set on preserving the building, constructed in 1910 but without any historical protections, Margolis did not even entertain offers to sell, which he said came from a bunch of developers who “would have loved to have the footprint, but they wanted to tear [the building] down.”
Instead, with his background as a process engineer, he and his children went about redeveloping the building themselves and searching for partners to run such a restaurant.
Ylia Dzlieri and Lasha Kikvidez own and operate Golden Gates Restaurant, a white tablecloth-style space serving Russian cuisine, which Kikvidez said gets a large part of its business from weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and other such family occasions.
Margolis hired Nadia Bilynsky of MPN Realty to find a tenant, but Dzlieri and Kikvidez saw MPN’s sign on the building from I-95 and inquired. Before long, they had signed a 15-year lease for the 13K SF building with options for renewal.
Looking to move beyond the gold-trimmed, white-tablecloth style, which Kikvidez “hates,” the pair found the space at 1108 Frankford Ave. to suit the industrial-chic that they wanted to pursue — which dovetailed perfectly with Margolis’ preservationist ethic. They brought on architect Janice Woodcock, who also designed the Fillmore, to design both the interior and the exterior, as well as a three-story, 3,300 SF extension designed to match the original building’s facade.
Dzlieri, a former concert pianist and pop singer, will be directing the event programming, which would set the yet-to-be-named restaurant apart from the varying flavors of gastropubs, coffee shops and bakeries that populate Fishtown — in his words, “a modern reimagining of a classic, Jazz Age dinner theater.”
“There could be a five-minute Shakespeare reading, then back to the dinner and a DJ’s music, and then maybe someone would play a jazz or classical piece on the piano, and then a light might hit the corner and an aerialist would perform,” Dzlieri said. “It’s all about creating happenings.”
The cuisine will be a mix of Eastern European influences, as Kikvidez hails from Georgia, his wife from Belarus and business partner Alex from Ukraine. It is an ethnic cuisine not yet found in Fishtown, and with an experiential component both decidedly retro and in keeping with retail's current obsession with creating experience.
Margolis, Dzlieri and Kikvidez are taking great pains to endear themselves and their plan for the building to the neighborhood, hosting multiple meet-and-greets in the raw space and offering free parking in the Wildey Street lot to neighboring residents. They will need the goodwill of the neighborhood if their plans are to proceed smoothly.
Though Frankford Avenue is long past its industrial heritage, the building's zoning is not. The Fishtown Neighborhood Association is holding a meeting on June 12 to decide whether to support the conversion, with the Zoning Board of Adjustment's public hearing scheduled for the following morning.
“The neighborhood’s response is such a big factor," Woodcock said. "If they are welcoming of the building, it won’t take long at all to get the approvals from City Hall.”
If the FNA and ZBA meetings go smoothly, Woodcock estimated that it would be only a matter of weeks before the work of creating the restaurant can begin. Kikvidez is targeting a New Year's Eve party as the space's first major event.
Construction is expected to proceed in phases, with the extension estimated to take about six months. If the neighborhood is opposed to the project, the delays could stretch. But Margolis is confident that his position as a local owner with deep roots and concern for the area will serve the proposal well. He promises 24-hour security to combat the vagrancy and crime that still pops up occasionally a block away, underneath the interstate.
"I can terminate [the restaurant's] lease if they're not successful," Margolis said. "And that doesn't mean just in terms of sales — they need to provide something good for the neighborhood."