Old City fire aftermath is bad for business

Heavy equipment and fencing have blocked off the 200 block of Chestnut Street, site of a Feb. 18 fire. Entrances to Capofitto, Xenos Candy & Gifts, and Old City Tobacco are, for all intents and purposes, inaccessible.

Nearly a month after the fire that ravaged the 200 block of Chestnut Street in Old City — routing dozens of residents from their homes — the businesses that dodged the flames, smoke, and water are coping with an uncomfortable, though not uncommon, reality:

Camera icon MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
Stephanie Reitano at Capofitto says business is off considerably after the fire on the 200 block of Chestnut Street in Old City.

Operating while shrouded in steel fencing and wrapped in yellow caution tape, isolated from many customers.

Chestnut at Third Street, across from the Museum of the American Revolution, has been closed not only to vehicles but to pedestrians since the morning of Feb. 18, when the fire began at 239 Chestnut.

“No one can find us,” said Stephanie Reitano, whose Capofitto restaurant at 233 Chestnut reopened March 3. Reitano erected hand-lettered signs at the corner of Third and Chestnut to direct potential pizza and gelato customers north on Third, east on the unmarked alley known as Elbow Lane, and south on Bank Street back to her front door.

Last Saturday was busy with regulars and locals, she said. Business at lunchtime, though, has been dismal.

Also affected are Reitano’s neighbors, including Xenos, a gift shop, and Old City Tobacco Co.

Camera icon MICHAEL KLEIN / Staff
Stephanie Reitano at Capofitto created signs to direct passersby to her restaurant and to neighboring stores.

Rob Esplen, vice president of operations for Jose Garces’ restaurants, said lunch business at the Spanish restaurant Amada, at 217-19 Chestnut, was particularly slow since the fire. Overall, he said, business was off 25 percent, year over year. “It’s been devastating for the block,” he said.

The Little Lion and Gina’s 45, both on Third, are closed for the foreseeable future. Revolution Diner, once at 239 Chestnut, is a total loss.

The detours and street closings will not end soon. In a statement late Thursday, a city spokeswoman said two cranes to be used in the demolition of 239 Chestnut and the partial demolition of 237 Chestnut are expected to be positioned on or about Friday — one on Chestnut and one on Third.

Also, the city said, 239 Chestnut must be made safe for fire marshals and officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to enter and determine the cause of the fire. Investigators have not been able to get access to the area of origin.

Other than properties destroyed by the fire, the only property that residents and businesses have been entirely unable to reoccupy is 241-43 Chestnut, said spokeswoman Karen Guss.

On Wednesday, L&I and ATF met with residents and businesses. L&I said the danger to 241-43, which shares a party wall with 239 and is being braced pending the demolition, is too great to permit residents from reoccupying or even spending much time in the building. The concern is that if 239 gives way, it could pull down or fall into 241-43. The city is allowing brief visits by residents to remove essential items.

Putting up with nearby construction and detours is a fact of life for many restaurateurs, one of the many variables in the business.

Baology, a Taiwanese restaurant at the Sterling on John F. Kennedy Boulevard near 19th Street, was shut down for five days last October after plumbers accidentally cracked a pipe and unleashed a wall of water on the restaurant. The closing followed three months of construction that directed potential customers through a maze.

James, a stylish bistro at 19th and Arch Streets, has been shrouded in scaffolding since its opening in September 2016. Some has been removed, and management says it has been promised that the rest will come down soon.

One painful example of devious outside forces is that of Napoleon Cafe, a swank, antiques-filled destination for espresso and fancy desserts that opened in late 1989 in then-solidly blue-collar Port Richmond.

Napoleon caught on quickly, expanded next door, and added an ambitious menu of savory food. Then came March 13, 1996, when an arson fire closed nearby I-95 for a month, and repairs tied up the highway and local roads for months. Business sagged. Late that year, the owners moved Napoleon to the southwest corner of 15th and Locust Streets in Center City.

Six months after the move-in, PATCO began constructing an elevator from its train platform to the street mere feet from Napoleon’s front door, and a chain-link fence closed most of the sidewalk. Business sank.

After suffering what owners estimated was a loss of $1.1 million in gross revenues over the construction, Napoleon met its Waterloo in 1998. The elevator was completed in time for the opening of Fado, the bar that occupies the site.

Owners usually look at the challenges with dread and anger. Fergie’s, the quintessential bar on Sansom Street near 12th, endured about two years of construction as a high-rise apartment building was erected over and around it. Rather than complain, owner Fergus Carey this week chose to look at the bright side: “I will have a village of 500 [customers] living above me.”