Owners of Sorella Rose have lots of competition The family-friendly eatery in Flourtown has rivals for the attention of diners on all sides.

Posted: April 11, 2004

FLOURTOWN — As Maureen "Moe" James Cumpstone sees it, her restaurant, Sorella Rose, is in the middle of a dining triangle, facing serious competition on all three sides.

Perhaps it's a Bermuda Triangle of sorts, or maybe patrons in search of fine dining just have too many choices in the area. They are drawn to upscale Chestnut Hill or to the "destination" restaurants in nearby Skippack and Blue Bell - hence the triangle, concedes Cumpstone.

Cumpstone, 45, knows all about the local community, partly because she's president of a Bethlehem Pike improvement initiative known as the Flourtown-Erdenheim Enhancement Association but mainly because she must keep close tabs on patrons' likes and dislikes.

She and her sister, Lisa James Agnew, own Sorella Rose Bar & Grille, an 88-seat family-friendly restaurant housed in a circa-1811 former hotel.

"I personally prefer to be on the cutting edge," Cumpstone said, "but we find there's a fine line between being trendy and keeping people happy and in their comfort zone." That is why the menu features such culinary dependables as grilled steaks and shrimp scampi.

During my visit, it seemed that the place - a cross between a frilly Victorian bed-and-breakfast and a formal Manhattan eatery - had come far from what Agnew, 44, describes as its mom-and-pop roots.

That would be the sisters' parents, Rose and Charles James. They owned the restaurant, then known as the Springfield Hotel, for 38 years.

Naturally, Cumpstone and Agnew grew up at the restaurant, working summers during their college years at Ursinus College and Millersville University, respectively.

Agnew, who majored in education, also earned a master's degree and has taught for 23 years in the Wissahickon School District.

She and her sister suddenly became restaurant owners in 1997, when their mother died. Cumpstone, who was expecting her third child at the time, left her job as a personnel manager in Philadelphia.

"I'm a part-time person who works a lot of hours," said Agnew, who credits her sister as the restaurant's hardworking "visionary."

For the first two years, Agnew was restaurant manager, even though she "was never there," but teaching school, she said.

Now, she has the help of Patrick Lynch, a detailed-oriented and practiced manager, judging from my visit.

Cumpstone, like her sister, said it was a different era back when their mother managed the place - notably, the bar menu was of prime importance - but the old landmark still relies on its former customer base.

I found Sorella Rose to be neighborhood friendly, but also the kind of place that recalls the casual feel of a midtown steak house.

The menu had a similar dueling personality: It was a mix of old standbys (read: New York strip steak) and what the restaurant industry now calls Soprano chic.

Despite the restaurant's Italian name, I found that the place strays far from the old country. Among the few pasta dishes, for instance, most were given a contemporary spin.

They were described as being prepared with spring vegetables, light cream sauces, or locatelli cheese curls and sundried tomatoes - ingredients that might be found in a cookbook representing 21st-century cooking. Signature appetizers such as "Moe's favorite crab dip," coconut shrimp, and stuffed portabella mushrooms might have been lifted from the menu of an upscale corporate chain.

Yet I also liked the many options available on the so-called salad menu, an offering that changes with the seasons.

The spring salad menu featured a choice of marinated chicken breast, shrimp or scallops, with salad additions I tend to crave, such as toasted nuts and fruity vinaigrettes.

(The salad I tried was on the winter menu, which is no longer available. It had what could be described as an appealing California light side with sweet and crunchy toasted walnuts and juicy mandarin oranges.)

The large salad menu was one attempt to reach out to a particular - perhaps diet-conscious - segment of diners, Cumpstone said.

In recent years, the sisters have also focused on the restaurant's 200-seat banquet facility as way of bringing patrons to the area.

This summer, they plan to open Sorella Rose First Avenue, a 55-seat BYO in Avalon, N.J.

What ties everything together - and hopefully keeps patrons coming back for more - is customer satisfaction.

"My sister and I are out on the floor and actively involved with people," Agnew said. "They want attention and recognition. They want to know we're listening to them."

Contact suburban staff writer Catherine Quillman at 610-701-7629 or cquillman@phillynews.com.


Maureen "Moe" James Cumpstone

Lisa James Agnew

co-owners of Sorella Rose in Flourtown.

Beginnings: The sisters grew up helping their parents run the 1811 Flourtown landmark when it was known as the Springfield Hotel. The place had been in the James family for 38 years and managed primarily by their mother, Rose James. (Their father sold insurance.) Their world changed, as the sisters see it, after their mother suddenly died and they took over the restaurant more than eight years ago. They renamed it in honor of their mother

Specialties: Cumpstone describes the menu as fine-dining casual, meaning that it features both steaks and sandwiches. To keep things interesting, the sisters offer a creative salad menu and daily blackboard specials.

Challenges: Agnew jokes that what they learned about their family's restaurant was handed down to them on cocktail napkins. However, while their mother focused on their Italian heritage, the sisters find they must please a diverse clientele that includes gourmands and traditionalists.

Philosophy: Keep the patrons happy.

If You Go: Sorella Rose is at 1800 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown, 215-233-0616. Web address: www.sorellarose.com. Light fare and sandwiches are available at all hours. Open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, brunch only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Entrees range from $8.85 to $18.95.

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