Professional Portraits: Valerie Safran

Professional Portraits: Valerie Safran

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Hollywood has its power couples — Bennifer, Brangelina, TomKat — and, here in Philadelphia, we have Valemar, or should that be Malerie? Partners in life and in business, Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney are the owners and operators of five successful businesses.

Starting with the 2002 launch of Open House, a modern boutique on 13th Street between Chestnut and Sansom, they have been an integral part of the revitalization of the area known as Midtown Village. About to open their sixth business, a Mediterranean bar and restaurant, they’re an even-busier pair. We managed to pin Safran down to learn a little more about the successful entrepreneur.

PGN: Where are you originally from? VS: My family is originally from outside of Chicago. When I was in seventh grade, we moved to Lancaster, where my parents still live.

PGN: Are you an only child? VS: No, there are four girls in the family. I’m next to last in the line up.

PGN: Did you have second-middle-child syndrome? VS: No, my parents had us involved in so many activities we were all too busy to bother with anything like that. I played just about every sport and was involved in student government and other extracurricular activities. We all were, and my parents were supportive of all of us. In fact, my father coached a lot of the teams we played on. We were encouraged to become leaders: I was the pitcher on my softball team and most of us captained whatever teams we were on. I guess it worked because we all became pretty successful women in our respective fields. I think they’re proud of the fact that they have four strong, independent daughters that can take care of themselves.

PGN: What did your parents do? VS: My father was a teacher and he had a small-business school where my mother taught classes on occasion. She was a huge role model: She was very smart and was the one who did the investing and handled the finances. She was the one who encouraged us to travel and be independent. She wanted us all to be able to make our own way. She was a remarkable person and was somewhat responsible for me getting into the culinary business. When I was growing up, we never went out for dinner: She did all the cooking. She had a little herb garden in the back and was part of a co-op. She was really into nutrition and health. I originally thought I was going to be a Spanish teacher and, in fact, studied abroad in Spain for a year, but at heart, I really wanted to be a culinary-arts teacher. I used to bake every weekend while my friends were out playing. In the end, though, I went to Shippensburg University and had dual majors in elementary education and Spanish education and taught for a year before deciding that working with young kids wasn’t for me.

PGN: How did you get from there to what you do now? VS: Well, in college I played volleyball for the first three years, but the situation wasn’t good. I really didn’t like the coach and ended up leaving the team and taking a job waitressing on the weekends instead of playing. I really liked it. I worked at a little family-owned Italian restaurant where they made their own bread and pasta. I still did well in school; I’m one of those people who always wanted to get straight As and please the parents. But there I was with two degrees and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I decided to take a year off and move to Miami to waitress before deciding what to do next. My father was not happy ... at all. [Laughs.] Then when I told them I was going to go to bartending school, they almost lost their minds! My grandmother had an apartment there that she let me use and I had a wonderful carefree year working several jobs in the service industry, from restaurants to catering to a job at Crate & Barrel — which I took so I could get a discount at the store — which taught me a lot about retail.

PGN: How did you end up in Philly? VS: After a year, I came back to the area to teach, because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do and I was taught to always do the responsible thing. Long story short, I was miserable teaching, so I moved into the city and got a part-time job waitressing at Valanni’s restaurant. That’s where I met Marcie. She is the total opposite of me. She’s much more of a risk-taker and basically told me if you’re not happy teaching then do something else. One day when I was particularly unhappy, I was driving with a friend down 12th Street and he said, “What would you like to be doing right now?” I told him I’d like to be driving in a Land Rover with a child, checking on my cute successful store. I got home and called Marcie — we’d been dating for three months — and asked her if she wanted to open up a store with me. She said sure and the rest is history.

PGN: How did you get underway? VS: Well, Marcie was making a lot of money, but didn’t have anything to show for it. I wasn’t making so much, but had always been financially responsible. We starting saving money and then signed a lease with Goldman Properties. I knew about [Tony] Goldman from when I lived in South Beach and liked how he’d come in and redeveloped a whole area.

PGN: How do you think you and Marcie helped effect change in the area? VS: I remember Marcie telling me how desolate it was crossing over to this side of Broad Street when she first went to Valanni’s. But even though there wasn’t much else around it, people flocked to it. We realized that if you have something people want, they’re going to find you and support it. We couldn’t afford anything in Rittenhouse or Old City, so we looked at 13th Street. The only thing around was Trust and they weren’t doing too well. But Goldman was trying to get people to open up in the area and they told us that Capogiro had signed a lease already. Later, we heard that they told Capogiro that we’d signed a lease when at that time we hadn’t done so yet! But they knew the kind of businesses they wanted and they knew of Marcie’s reputation and style. We liked the idea of one person controlling the area because we knew they had a certain look that was consistent with what we wanted.

PGN: What were some of the challenges? VS: I remember trying to figure out how to write up a business plan. I went to the Small Business Administration for help and they just didn’t get what we were trying to do. They said, “So, you want to open a trinket shop.” I got out of there. Nobody wanted to give us money, but Goldman’s rent was cheap and they were willing to help us outfit the space. Luckily, I had perfect credit and had at least five different 0-percent-interest credit-card offers in the mail. I told Marcie, you keep your job as a chef, just in case, and I’m going to open the business on the credit cards. I’ll work the store and we’ll get them paid off by the time the year’s up. I had a little bit saved up and we knew that even if we didn’t make a single sale, Marcie’s salary was enough to cover us for one year. But from the moment we opened, it was a success. We opened in October and by the end of December, we expanded. In six months, we had all the credit cards paid off. People were excited that we were there because there was nothing else in the area yet. But it was still kind of shady. The local hotels used to advise tourists not to come down 13th Street. In the wintertime, when it got dark early and the store was empty, I’d sit there thinking, I really hope no one comes into the store and takes me! But I like to think we helped turn that around. After the success of Open House, we then approached Goldman about renting other spaces. They knew we were super-hard workers and liked what we’d done with the store, so they were happy to work with us again. Marcie had always wanted to own a restaurant, so that was our next step. We decided to open up a Mexican restaurant, Lolita. We still couldn’t get a bank to finance us but Goldman’s helped us a little. Trust had closed, so they needed good tenants on the block to make it appealing to others. Just as we signed the lease, we found out that Steven Starr was opening a new restaurant, El Vez, right across the street from us. And we were like, Great, why did he have to choose to do Mexican here of all places? Now what? But it turned out to be a good thing, because it brought people to the neighborhood and people would talk about El Vez and then say, “Hey, did you hear there’s a place across the street where you can bring your own tequila?” I think both businesses benefited.

PGN: Do you think being successful openly gay businesspeople has benefited the LGBT community? VS: I don’t think in those terms. We’ve always been open but, at the end of the day, it’s hard work and good food that makes us successful. To me, when people have a good experience here, it doesn’t matter that I’m gay or a woman for that matter. Some people think I need to have a gay flag on my door, but I don’t want to do that: I don’t like labels. If people find out after the fact that the owners are women who happen to be gay and it changes their perception a little, that’s the way I like to do it. At the same time, I think there are a lot of gay people who are proud and supportive of what we do and we appreciate and acknowledge that. PGN: What was your worst blunder? VS: Probably opening a café. We had a café in the space where Bindi is now. We thought it would be so great sitting outside our café, relaxing, having coffee, etc. But even though it was making OK money, we hated it! We kept it going for a year and then turned it into Bindi. A café/coffee place is all hard work and you only make a few dollars at a time. Upscale restaurants are definitely more our cup of tea!

PGN: What do you do to take your mind off business? VS: When I/we need a break from 13th Street, we usually take a day trip up to New York City and go out to two or three restaurants in the same day. We are completely stuffed when we’re done, but New York always has new restaurant and retail openings and we like to go to all the new places. It’s inspiring to be in New York and think about what our next endeavor will be. We love everything about food — eating it, of course, but also restaurant design, food packaging, discovering new ingredients, etc. In 2009, we took two two-week trips to Italy and Spain. When we travel, we don’t bother with anything but the food markets, food history, take cooking classes with local chefs and wine tours. We love learning from really passionate people who are great at what they do.

PGN: If you could do something dangerous one time, what would you do? VS: [Laughs.] Sell the businesses and run to Tahiti. Some days you really want to just get out of Dodge.

PGN: What was your favorite book or toy as a kid? VS: I don’t know why, but I loved Dr. Seuss’ “Are You My Mother?” As for toy, I don’t really remember; I think I’ve always been serious. I didn’t even like cartoons. I was like, What’s the big deal? They’re not real ... I still don’t know how people read comics and stuff. [Laughs.]

PGN: What advice would you give the you of 10 years ago? VS: Ten years ago, I was 25 years old and could never have imagined where I am today. Sometimes I wish I was still 25 — time goes by so quickly and I love the challenge of new businesses and being out there discovering new things. Right now, I feel the pressure of deciding whether or not to have children. I figure I have another two years to make a decision. We could certainly adopt later, but my clock is ticking. But I don’t enjoy the pressure because I don’t feel ready yet! Back to the question, I would tell myself to never doubt my instincts. I was a little unsure of myself because I was young and didn’t know much about business, but at some point I realized the only “right way” to be successful is to be willing to adapt and change to whatever may present itself. Confidence really goes a long way. Fortunately, I had Marcie to jumpstart me to believing in myself.

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