Local Seltzer Brand Two Robbers Fighting A Very Fishtown Battle To Open Retail Outpost On Frankford Avenue
Hard seltzer is hardly a fresh face in the alcohol industry these days, and bars have been a mainstay on Fishtown’s Frankford Avenue for over a decade now. But one local company is striving to bring both concepts together in the face of fierce opposition from neighbors.
Two Robbers founders Vivek and Vikram Nayar presented their proposal for Burgers and Seltzers, a retail outpost for their hard seltzer with a sit-down restaurant component, to the Fishtown Neighbors Association in a zoning hearing Tuesday night. They were met with a mix of reactions, about two-thirds of which were stridently against the project, with the rest varying between resignation over the commercial density of the Frankford Avenue corridor and excitement about a new concept.
The two twin brothers and founders, along with their older brother Ashok, who assisted in the presentation, went to FNA for a letter in support of the project’s application for zoning relief, which will go before the Zoning Board of Adjustment on Aug. 25, for a fully opaque garden wall. A 50% opaque garden wall is permitted on the lot under the code for the North Delaware Avenue Neighborhood Commercial Area Overlay District. That overlay forbids bars, but Two Robbers has already obtained a special exemption as a sit-down restaurant with no standing allowed.
The Nayar brothers stressed their establishment would not be open late at night and that the fully opaque garden wall is necessary to minimize noise from the outdoor dining area of their establishment. The property they seek to establish as Burgers and Seltzers sits on a triangular lot at the corner of Frankford Avenue and Shackamaxon Street, and is owned by Roland Kassis, the developer behind much of Frankford’s transformation over the past decade.
In addition to being widely available at alcohol retailers across the city and on the delivery app GoPuff, Two Robbers has a dedicated tap at the Yards brewpub at Fifth and Spring Garden streets, which also brews all of Two Robbers’ products in a contract capacity. Two Robbers raised $6M in a Series A funding round that closed in April, and has plans to release hard kombuchas and cold-brew coffees as well as non-alcoholic beverages in the future, Ashok said during the meeting.
Though craft hard seltzer brewpubs began popping up soon after seltzers themselves, they are not nearly as ubiquitous as craft breweries in terms of retail commercial property use. To date, no seltzer-focused establishments have opened in Philadelphia. As the city’s first seltzer-only company, Two Robbers is seeking to expand its brand reach by establishing a physical presence within Fishtown’s vibrant food and beverage scene, the brothers said.
“We really view this as an art installation,” Ashok said, citing a stained glass feature by local artist Alex da Corte that will have a prominent place inside the establishment’s front door.
Vivek and Vikram told attendees of the virtual meeting that they both live on Frankford Avenue themselves and have a vested interest in not adding further noise or chaos to the corridor. They mentioned flyers that had been posted around the neighborhood warning residents of a planned beer hall at the property and vehemently denied planning anything of the sort.
Since all of its meetings went virtual as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the FNA zoning committee no longer holds direct resident votes on proposals at its meetings. Instead, it takes into consideration the quantity and content of responses during meetings in deciding whether its letters to the ZBA are in support or opposition to projects. The ZBA is under no obligation to vote in line with a registered community organization’s recommendation letter, but support from an RCO is considered an important feather in the cap for developers seeking variances. The FNA zoning committee didn't respond to requests for comment on whether it ultimately decided to support the project.
“[Burgers and Seltzers] is not a place for people to drink needlessly, which is consistent with the brand we’re building outside of this building,” Ashok Nayar told attendees. “We want to help protect against some of these concerns, to act as your eyes and ears.”
Across Frankford Avenue from the lot sits Frankford Hall, a German-style biergarten from Stephen Starr that frequently draws crowds of college students and young people from other neighborhoods, and has gained a reputation as a boisterous party spot. It was also one of the first properties Kassis developed on Frankford. He has gone on to build the flagship location of hometown coffee chain La Colombe and award-winning restaurant Suraya, named for Kassis’ grandmother.
The block of Shackamaxon between Frankford and Girard avenues is filled with row houses, owners of which took to the chat section of the Zoom hearing to air their grievances about Frankford Hall and voice their distrust of Kassis, who they claimed broke promises that Frankford Hall would have minimal impact on the neighborhood.
“These ideas would be great if you owned the property and could bring them to fruition,” resident Robert Chinnici wrote in the chat.
Frankford Avenue has been the center of the explosion of buzzy restaurants and bars in Fishtown that began with the redevelopment of Johnny Brenda’s in 2010 and picked up speed in the latter half of the previous decade. Though some residents voiced their belief that Frankford is already a bustling commercial drag, residents of Shackamaxon Street expressed fear that Burgers and Seltzers would encourage revelers to encroach on their residential block.
A version of this story has played out dozens of times over the course of Fishtown’s growth period, as the vast majority of multifamily and mixed-use projects that go before the FNA are met with concerns over parking (never enough), height (always too much) or other impacts on near neighbors such as trash collection and loading docks. In order to gain support for a home on a coveted corridor for restaurants and bars, Two Robbers' founders say they are taking great pains to assuage those concerns.
“What we’re trying to create is an inclusive environment, and definitely one that is respectful of the neighborhood we live in,” Vikram Nayar said.