We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
It’s rare these days to hear about a new restaurant that doesn’t offer local beer on tap or doesn’t serve seasonal, locally sourced food. Fifteen years ago, however, when those were the philosophies Paul Kimport and William Reed embraced at the bar they were opening in sleepy Northern Liberties, the ideas were far from routine.
Before Standard Tap, which officially launched on New Year’s Eve 1999, Northern Liberties had few storefronts. In the decade and a half since the tavern on the corner of Second and Poplar began slinging local drafts to go along with a blackboard-only menu, the neighborhood has undergone a transformation, and is now filled with restaurants, cafes, parks and residences.
A similar renewal has taken place in Fishtown, where the newly booming retail corridors are also centered around a Kimport-Reed venture. In 2004, the longtime friends took over and relaunched Johnny Brenda’s, where they built on their original ideology by adding live music to the fresh and local mix.
Over a cup of their own house-roasted coffee (followed by a pint or two of Sly Fox O’Reilly’s Stout), the two 47-year-old publicans reflected on how long it took them to get the doors open on their first project, how the neighborhood used to be so bad that taxis wouldn’t even drive into it, and how radical it seemed to devote a dozen taps all to local beer.
How did you meet?
William Reed: Working in restaurants around Philadelphia. I think it was Zocalo where we first met — I was a server there from almost the beginning.
Paul Kimport: And I was bartending. I was the “bar manager” there if you can call it that (it was a very small bar program, so it’s kind of a glorified title).
When did you decide to open a bar together?
WR: The idea came about from going out for beers after work. We had a common interest in creating a better bar; that’s what we’d always talk about. How we would do it differently, or what we liked and didn’t like about whatever bar we were drinking in. Our first plan was to open a brewpub, or a small brewery. We had no clue how many years it would take to actually make that happen. We had no capital, and no experience in management.
How did you make it happen?
WR: I taught myself how to brew at home, and then in 1994, I got the job as the brewer of the Sam Adams brewpub in Center City [where Nodding Head was]. At first I almost didn’t take the position, because it would slow us down, but we realized it would give me so much good experience it was worth taking a little detour.
PK: During that time, I did as many different restaurant and non-restaurant jobs I could figure out how to get into, to learn. I did catering, I worked in a butcher shop — Harry Ochs, which was in Reading Terminal Market. I’m not a trained chef, but I’ve always had a real interest in the idea of connecting food to quality resources.
How did you choose this location [at Second and Poplar]?
WR: I had been living in a loft around the corner. It was pretty desolate around here then; Northern Liberties was just a lot of vacant spaces. But we started looking here because the space was cheap, plus we thought the neighborhood was about to get a lot cooler.
Was there any restaurants around here, at the time?
WR: Not really. There was a coffee shop down the street — LionFish — and Liberties, which was a bar that had been built as a showcase for the antiques store next door. This building had been sitting vacant for a while, and had never been winterized. Every pipe had burst, every floor was crooked, and part of the roof was missing. But that’s why we could afford it. We bought it in 1996.
Do you know what this building was before it fell into disrepair?
PK: We traced it all the way back to 1850 as a tavern. It was called Ken’s Den, then Bulls Head Tavern. During prohibition, it was a pharmacy where they sold “medicinal whiskey.”
When did you decide to do a bar instead of a brewpub?
WR: Pretty early on in the renovation. We decided it would be tough to squeeze brewing equipment in here (I had been brewing in a pub where the space was super tight, and the last thing I wanted to do was re-create that). Also, we realized Philly wasn’t hurting for good beer — Dock Street and Stoudt’s had been around for a while, and we had we had Yards and Victory and Flying Fish and other breweries opening up.
PK: We realized maybe what was missing was a great American tavern that gathered it all under one roof, and brought that local sensibility to the food, too.
WR: We didn't want it to be an Irish pub or a British pub or a Belgian pub. We wanted it to be a Philadelphia pub.
How did you come up with the name?
WR: There’s a place in Port Richmond — I think it’s still standing — called the Standard Feather Company. I remember seeing it while driving to Home Depot one day; and the “standard” part got stuck in my head. Like, what could possibly be standard about a feather company? Or, what’s a non-standard feather company? I was talking about it with Paul and one of us said “Standard Tap.”
How many taps did you have when you opened.?
WR: We opened with 12 draft lines, two hand pumps and the little kegerator-refrigerator we still have. We decided the strongest statement we could make was to not have any bottles or cans at all. Not have it be “mostly local,” but to be entirely local. To have people say, “This is where you go for local beer.” At first, it wasn’t easy to fill that many lines with local beers that I was proud of. But over time, all the local breweries got better and expanded their lineups, and more breweries opened. Eventually we expanded to 24 taps.
PK: We got some inspiration from DBA in New York, where they served real ales and only had a blackboard menu, but we got more righteous about it. For instance, they had Heineken hidden away for people who asked for it, and we thought, well, that’s not really walking the walk. We wanted to prove you could open a successful bar without a lot of things people thought of as requirements, like having Coors Light, or TVs, or serving food that’s not wholesome.
Was it hard to train staff to embrace the local philosophy?
WR: It did take work to get people into a mode where they weren’t apologizing to the public for “only” having local beers. Like, we feature local beers, we celebrate local beers, we’re totally into local beers! Not, “We’re sorry, we only serve local beers.” That took some training. But a lot of our staff have been here since day one, which I think speaks to the culture of the place. People really believe in what we sell and what we do. It’s awesome.
Was the neighborhood dangerous back then?
PK: It certainly looked dangerous. Sometimes it was tough to get a cab to take me here.
WR: It was more desolate than crime-ridden. There were a lot of broken car windows; we actually had an old truck stolen from right out front. There were also tons of car accidents, because there weren’t any stop signs and people would drive really fast to get through.
When did the area start changing?
WR: Very soon after we opened. While we were working on our space, a trio of guys opened The 700. They bought their building after us, but all quit their jobs and were able to open within six months or something. It was thrilling to us, because it stopped us from thinking we were totally nuts to open a bar out here on this weird little corner. And then Mark Bee opened up N. 3rd, not too long after our launch. Within the next two years, development here really snowballed. Around 2002, we expanded into the building behind us.
So you were doing well enough to warrant expansion. How did you get customers; did you advertise?
PK: Not really, we always thought it was better to spend our money on quality product than advertise. We were hoping to be unique enough that people would write about it. And it worked. Rick Nichols was really the first, he did a feature in the Inquirer with a big color picture of our confit of duck leg. After that, the New York Times did wrote about us. Also in the City Paper, Fern Glazer did a nice piece.
WR: We got a lot of good press early on. But we worked for it! I mean, we worked for it as far as we worked for the bar, put everything we had into it. We weren’t hiring PR people or kissing journalists’ [butts] or anything.
PK: I remember when Rick Nichols came into the kitchen, I wanted to spend time with him, but I was just too busy. I was like, “I’m sorry, but I really just have to get all these tickets out!”
WR: We also had [late beer author] Michael Jackson come in once. He was in town for the Book and the Cook, and someone said he wanted to come by for Saturday brunch. We didn’t serve brunch on Saturdays, but we opened the place just for him.
Did Craig LaBan write a review?
PK: He did, I think it was during the second year we were open. Then he re-reviewed us and gave us another bell.
WR: Right, it was when he reviewed N. 3rd. I remember Mark Bee being really pissed, because LaBan gave N. 3rd two bells, but then he also did a sidebar where he gave us a smaller but better review, bumping us up to three bells.
In 2004, you guys opened Johnny Brenda’s. Why did you decide to open a second bar, and why Fishtown?
WR: As we were wrapping up our expansion at Standard Tap, I remember thinking, “It’s gonna be really weird to not be renovating or expanding or fixing or building something.” But we had been priced out of Northern Liberties. It was really frustrating, actually, because we wanted to buy houses here and we just watched as the prices doubled and doubled and doubled each year. So we decided to look in Fishtown.
How did you decide on the location at Frankford and Girard?
WR: It was the first place we looked at, and we ended up practically buying it on the spot. We were ostensibly just there to kick the tires on the idea of a second bar, but we walked out with a bit of a Budweiser buzz and a handshake deal. We were like, “Oh ... did we just do that?”
It was already operating as a bar?
WR: Yes. It was called Johnny Brenda’s! It was owned by a retired boxer named John Imbrenda, but he was in a nursing home at that point, and the family was ready to sell.
How were you planning to make it different from Standard Tap?
PK: We had a much smaller kitchen over there, at first, so I designed the menu for one person to be able to execute it. Lots of grill cooking, because you needed less pots and pans. Also, we decided we were going to serve lunch. We wanted JB’s to be a place that was always open, that people knew they could always go to.
WR: Also, there was a lot of personality at the bar already, with John Imbrenda, so we went with that theme a bit, honoring his history as a boxer. (The Imbrenda family loves it, they still come in as customers.) But the local beer thing wasn’t something we wanted to change, that was something we really believed in. Not only did it allow us to support friends and neighbors, it’s also so much greener, with less of a carbon footprint. Plus there’s the freshness issue. It just works on so many levels.
Did you notice more and more bars start to embrace local beers?
WR: Oh yeah. Even right in this area. The Abbaye opened up, and N. 3rd was here, and The 700. I remember when LaBan reviewed Bar Ferdinand, he wrote something like “There weren’t was many local beers as I would have expected, given the neighborhood.” And even though I thought it was kind of a strange thing to say — because it was a Spanish tapas house — I was pretty happy about the sentiment.
How did you get involved with Philly Beer Week, where you’re now chairman of the board?
WR: It was after the first Philly Beer Week, and Scoats [Grey Lodge Pub owner Mike Scotese] and I were talking about how it was all so serious, how the event needed some levity. So we came up with this idea, somehow, of a hammer. We sketched it out gave it to metalworker Warren Holzman, who made it into something real. We called it the Hammer of Glory, and the next year we did this really silly relay with it. It was a huge hit. After that, PBW founders Don Russell and Tom Peters and [the late] Bruce Nichols were like, “Well, OK, now you and Scoats have to join the board.” So we did, and here I am.
901 N. 2nd St., 215-238-0630
Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., Monday to Friday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday; full menu through 1 a.m. nightly