After many years vacant, the commercial space at Walnut Place, facing Independence National Historical Park, is about to spring to life thanks to a pair of socially minded entrepreneurs. Thomas Steinborn, a communication designer from Germany, and chef David Wong, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney (who also studied Viennese baking at Ecole Grégoire Ferrandi in Paris) have partnered on a concept that’s half café and half social experiment. The project, which opens to the public in July, is called “FRIEDA for generations.”
Renovate and Re-connect
Built in 1926, the former Maryland Casualty Company office at 312 Walnut Street sat empty for almost 17 years, its generous transom window hastily blocked with plywood. The ground floor commercial space failed to attract prospective tenants. It could not be easily ventilated for a restaurant and the tall ceilings presented challenges. Inside, the peeling painted ceiling was crisscrossed with haphazard plumbing lines dropping from upper floors with no regard for architectural grandeur, though the building was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1999.
Nothing stirred in the space until Nolen Properties and PMC Property Group bought the building in 2012, converting the offices on the upper six floors into apartments and leasing the ground floor to Steinborn and Wong, who came to Philadelphia from Sydney, Australia.
The two are hoping to leverage personal experience, current demographic trends, and extensive market research for the inter-generational cafe concept, which they envision as a hub for community art workshops, vocational training, industrial design prototyping, and, ultimately, a place to re-connect people of all ages and economic situations. Rather than create yet another place to get coffee, the founders of FRIEDA for generations want to bring the young and old together in a forward-thinking, design-minded environment.
Retirement poses a dilemma not only for the individual, but also for society. Steinborn understood this as his own mother faced retirement. He and Wong have applied their professional backgrounds with the start up’s mission to address the conflicts and loneliness of aging in a society that arbitrarily labels anyone over fifty as old. The organization’s business design is all about social engagement with a dash of basic human courtesy, like “holding a door open for someone,” says Steinborn.
Community And Design
The name of the start up is a loving tribute to the memory of Steinborn’s grandmother, Frieda. Once the cafe is open in July, FRIEDA aims to generate in-house social networking, while promoting design through highlighting local craftsmanship with its made-in-Philadelphia proposition where everything including the furnishings are for sale. If you like the elegant, handcrafted chair you’re sitting on you can buy one from the woodworker through the cafe. The beautiful coffee mug you’re holding? Inquire at the counter and buy one from the local potter.
After scouting different cities in the US, Steinborn says he and Wong were most drawn to Philadelphia’s energy. “I can feel it. Something is moving,” says Steinborn. He sees the city as having a manageable scale where one can have an unusual, creative idea and realistically pursue it. There is also a tradition of community involvement here that dovetails with their organization’s social concept.
Everything about FRIEDA is about design, but without the lofty complexity. “Just be normal!” says Steinborn, who says he is tired of the pretentious nature of so many new cafes, contemporary design venues, and designers. Respectfully, he even takes the vaunted “Maker” culture with a grain of salt. “This is just what people did in earlier times,” Steinborn says, implying there was no hand wringing about “authenticity.”
Outreach strategies are fundamental to the operation. Successful community baking and other cross-generational workshops have been underway offsite, as the cafe space won’t be public until its soft opening on July 4, 2015. But already Steinborn and Wong’s FRIEDA original cookies are in demand and will be available at the Franklin Flea Headhouse Market starting June 13.
Making Something Out Of Nothing
Steinborn gave up his job at a branding agency in Sydney, Australia, two and a half years ago to start FRIEDA for generations. He and Wong twice bid on the space at 312 Walnut Street for their start up and lost both times. It came back on the market months later and they finally procured a home base.
“Honesty, transparency and surprise,” is how Steinborn characterizes the layout of the cafe, now partially sheathed in crisp, new drywall. The floor plan will be anchored with a hefty, troweled concrete serving counter. Large areas of raw, old construction will remain unenclosed and exposed, a gesture to the open design concept.
Renovating the commanding former lobby with an 18 foot ceiling and 2,000 square feet of column-free space has been expensive. Partners and investors have contributed significant funds to the project. But this project isn’t only about making money for investors. Steinborn and Wong believe that their vision will fill the space and a fluid exchange between open minded people will emerge, where one creative idea will ultimately lead to another. “It was meant to be,” says Steinborn, smiling at his and Wong’s persistence.