Late last May, Phoenixville couple Ed Simpson and Laura Vernola learned on social media that Steel City Coffee House, the Chester County town’s funky, gastronomically flawed mecca for local musicians at Bridge and Main streets, would close after its Saturday night show.
They went to the show. On Sunday, they bought the place. Simpson’s heart was in the music. Vernola’s heart was in the food. Where were their heads?
“It was one of those things where it was like, just do it,” said Vernola, who owned Deuce restaurant and bar in Northern Liberties from 2005 to 2008, then spent a couple of years going to tastings with celebrity chef Jose Garces as his marketing manager.
"We looked at the numbers quickly,” she said. “I’m not going to deny there was little arrogance on my part. For 13 years, they’d nailed the music but nobody ever nailed the food. Nobody made any money on the music. So I thought, ‘If we come in and fix the food, we’re going to do great.’”
Simpson said, “We knew we were buying a broken business. As a coffee house, it didn’t have spectacular coffee.”
It does now: Hobo Ed’s Artisan Coffee from Adamstown, along with breads and cheeses from Stoudt’s Good Wonderful Market there, and Vernola’s home cooking -- from a breakfast bowl of poached egg, potatoes, asparagus and scallions to her cowboy chili and farm-to-table salads and sandwiches. “I’m not the chef,” she said. “I’m the home cook. I’m 100 percent Italian, so, of course, we have meatballs.”
She and Simpson reopened Steel City in June, restoring an eclectic musical lineup that ranges from Deb Callahan’s blues to Hurricane Hoss’s country swing to Steal Your Face’s Grateful Dead tributes to Burning Bridget Cleary’s Irish fiddle tunes to current resident artist Eric Sommer’s virtuoso guitar solos.
And they brought back Steel City’s iconic open mic nights. Phoenixville resident Shawn Cephas, a soulful singer/writer who has performed as “Street Greek” at Steel City since 2007, said open mic night is the heart of the town’s vibe.
“The thing Steel City gets is, Phoenixville is a town of characters,” Cephas said. “It’s like Stars Hollow on ‘Gilmore Girls.’ It’s not about ‘Let’s put a bunch of restaurants and a cool dress shop on Main Street and make this the next hipster hot spot.’ This is a town full of artists.
“So open mic night is not just future Jim Croces who think they’re undiscovered nuggets that the world hasn’t found yet. If you’re going to sit there all night, how many dudes with guitars can you sit through?”
Instead, Cephas said, open mic night is a variety show of “spoken word, jugglers, a guy who turned on a karaoke machine and sang ‘Survivor,’ a girl playing jazz on an upright bass. People get up and tell jokes. Little kids show up and play the piano. It’s people baring their souls. They’ve had a long day at work, a tough week, and the one thing they look forward to is getting on the stage and doing their thing. It’s a force of nature. It’s community.”
But it won’t be sustainable unless people start thinking of Steel City as a place to enjoy the munchies along with the music, Simpson and Vernola said.
Yes, they admit, buying the place was a little impulsive. But Simpson and Vernola have been a little impulsive since they first met 18 years ago, when both of them lived in Albuquerque, N.M. They dated for six months. She fell in love. He broke her heart.
“Both of us were a little young,” Simpson, now 46, said. “Both of us were a little wild.”
“He was sowing his oats, man,” Vernola, now 42, said. “Good-looking guy, long hair, wasn’t ready to settle down.”
She moved to Philly, then to Phoenixville, and started her own Grassroots Marketer web design and social media consulting business. He moved to Akron, Ohio, and worked in graphic design.
“We did not talk for about 16 years,” Simpson said. “Not one word. Then she found me on LinkedIn, sent me a message, said she still loved me and always had. I don’t want to say she stalked me online, but…”
Vernola said, “He called me that morning and told me, ‘Call out of work. We’re going to meet halfway in Altoona.’ I said, ‘That’s four hours away and I don’t know you.’”
They met in Altoona, and hung out for hours in an Applebee’s. Vernola remembers drinking a lot of Jameson’s. “I like whiskey,” she said. “After a while, he said, ‘We’re getting a hotel room.’ I said, ‘Wow! That’s really presumptuous.’ I bought a change of clothes at Walgreen’s for the next day. Shorts and a tank top.”
“We laughed so hard that night,” Vernola said. “Listened to a lot of music. Frank Sinatra to the Grateful Dead, Stevie Wonder, everything but hardcore hip hop.”
They spent the next few months driving between Akron and Phoenixville to see each other until Simpson caved and moved to Phoenixville.
For Simpson, the purchase of a hot music mecca fallen on hard times was a chance to reconnect with the guitar-playing South Florida teenager who left home in the early '90s and moved to Hollywood, Calif., where, he said dryly, “I was a starving musician, living the dream,” selling toner by day, jamming in warehouses by night.
“I wanted to be the next Guns N’ Roses, the next Motley Crue, the next Bon Jovi,” he said, “but after four and a half years, I realized I was one guy in a sea of 10,000 guys, all trying to do the same thing.”
He moved to Albuquerque, figuring the odds of becoming a rock star were better there. They weren’t. He got into hotel food and beverage management.
Two decades later at Steel City, Simpson said, “I’m plugged back into that whole group of musicians and people that love listening to music.”
The musicians include blues singer/songwriter Callahan from Northwest Philadelphia, who has played Steel City for years. “It’s always been one of my favorite singer/songwriter venues because it’s always had a great vibe as a listening room,” she said. “People aren’t going there to get drunk, and see the band as sort of secondary. I feel heard and appreciated by audiences there.”
Callahan said she was “really disappointed and sad” when she heard Steel City was closing last spring, but having met Simpson and Vernola when she played there in September, “I feel the chances for success are really high.”
Cephas agreed. “Steel City nurtures artists,” he said. “It’s like when the Grateful Dead played the Fillmore back in the '60s. I don’t know of any place like it in the Philadelphia area. It’s a listening room. When you play there, you don’t hear a whisper. You don’t hear a peep. It’s home turf. It’s community.”