Kennett Square, long dubbed the “Mushroom Capital of the World” for the sprawling farm houses that surround it, actually grows no mushrooms. But in recent years, the town has capitalized on that designation and its southern Chester County location and transformed from a sleepy small town into what borough officials had long envisioned it could be.
The one-square-mile borough is chockablock with shops, restaurants, small businesses, and a bustling downtown. There are purveyors of art, furniture, clothing, coffee, books, toys, and tchotchkes. There are cafés, gastropubs, and restaurants, including the acclaimed Talula’s Table, whose seasonal farm-to-table tasting menu draws food lovers from across the country.
Taken together, those things led the travel website Culture Trip to label Kennett Square one of “the most beautiful towns” in Pennsylvania. It’s a bucolic getaway for day trips and weekend travelers, and it’s home to an increasing number of residents and businesses.
In just the past three years, the borough has welcomed 20 new businesses, including a brewery that is developing — wait for it — mushroom beer.
Borough officials have encouraged that development while surrounding Kennett Township has largely remained rural, said Mary Hutchins, executive director of Historic Kennett Square, a nonprofit that has long been the force behind the borough’s change. Nestled among miles of mushroom houses that produce fully half of the nation’s mushroom crop, Kennett Square stands out as something of a gem. And it’s been aiming to increase its profile for decades.
Genesis Healthcare, one of the nation’s largest care providers, helped perk up the borough’s main drag in the late 1990s when it established its headquarters downtown, Hutchins said. The headquarters, on State Street, was purposely built without an employee cafeteria in the hope that its workers would spend money at local restaurants.
In “fits and starts,” Hutchins said, Kennett Square began to blossom. Visitors began making the trek to the borough. Part of the early lure was Talula’s Table, which in 2007 Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan credited with transforming a “far-flung agricultural hamlet into a must-stop destination.” By the following year, diners were vying for reservations that booked up to a year in advance for what LaBan called “one of the most coveted dining experiences in America.”
At the front of the restaurant is a market brimming with pastries, sandwiches, soups, salads, cheese, charcuterie, and locally sourced dinners-to-go.
“Every year, we do more business,” chef-owner Aimee Olexy said in a recent interview at the restaurant. “And in a place like this, your business is very reflective of the number of people that come in. It has to do with people moving here, but I think it’s people also being employed here, visiting here, day-tripping here.”
“It’s just become more desirable,” Hutchins said of the borough, home to nearly 6,200 people.
David Perrone, a now-retired lawyer and longtime Kennett Square resident, has watched development move in town with a skeptical eye.
“I have some doubts whether this is good or not,” he said of the change, standing around the corner from a strip of storefronts offering boutique goods. “ … It’s a sociological thing. It has to evolve on its own. So that’s what I think [officials are] trying to do, and I’m not sure it’s going to work.”
His uncertainty, though, comes amid ever-expanding development and eager entrepreneurs.
Over the past three years, the borough has welcomed a host of new ventures. Tara Dugan, a former assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, opened worKS, a boutique marketplace, in an old gas station. Matt and Kathy Drysdale and Kent and Amy Steeves created Braeloch Brewing. Sandra Mulry, co-owner of the Creamery, a pop-up beer garden, shares space with the hobby sport space, Chop Shop, where customers can hurl axes at wooden bull’s-eyes. And Deanna Johnson, a South Carolina native, owns the carefully curated home goods shop, Marché.
Johnson already feels competition in the borough’s increasingly crowded center of commerce.
“For small businesses, it’s becoming harder and harder because everyone wants a piece of the yummy pie that’s cooking here,” she said. “ … So that is a worry, as a small, young business.”
As commerce has grown, so, too, has housing. Tom Bentley, chief executive of Bentley Homes, has built four housing developments in the borough.
“It’s got the historic buildings and the brick sidewalks and the cool little alleys and stuff, and a bunch of new restaurants,” he said while at Walnut Walk, one of his Kennett Square housing developments featuring luxury, three-story townhouses. “The new housing just kind of adds to the whole thing, I think.”
But the town’s growth has put housing there out of reach for some. While the median income in the borough was $76,400 in 2017, according to the latest available census figures, about 10 percent of borough residents live in poverty. That is nearly three times Chester County’s poverty rate of 3.6 percent.