Why Cafe Estelle in Philadelphia failed

Marshall Green cooks during lunch at the restaurant that he named after his grandmother.
Marshall Green cooks during lunch at the restaurant that he named after his grandmother. (DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: September 21, 2012

FOR CHEFS, the number 86 holds such a sinister, teeth-chattering connotation that the eight might as well be replaced with double sixes. It's restaurant slang for a dish or ingredient that's been completely shot, a state of cupboard's-bare vulnerability brought about by poor planning, lackluster resource management, an unexpected slam of business or any combination of these things.

Marshall Green speaks for most chefs when he calls a kitchen hampered by a list of nixed items his "absolute worst nightmare." So why has he earmarked Sept. 29 and 30 for a blowout he's calling "86 Brunch"?

After nearly five years in business, Green has decided to shut down Cafe Estelle, a charming critical darling that never blossomed into the buoyant business the meticulous Glenside native envisioned. The announcement, which Green made public via Twitter on Aug. 28, was masticated and discarded by Philly's scoop-obsessed food blog cycle in the matter of 24 hours. But there is more to the story of a restaurant permanently shutting off the gas than that.

Green, 31, worked at places like Django, Meritage and Ansill in his pre-proprietor days. Though it was years before securing financing, location and concept, he knew what he was going to name his first place back in 2004. That was the year his paternal grandmother, Estelle Green, passed away. A longtime caterer, she was the major culinary influence in Green's life, and he promised her on her deathbed that he was "going to open a restaurant and call it Estelle."

He and ex-partner/ex-fiancée Kristin Mulvenna made that happen in 2007. MG Real Estate Group, developers of 444 N. 4th St. Lofts, approached the duo to take on the ground floor of the residential building, at the "tweener" intersection of Fourth and Willow, just south of Spring Garden.

"It was just an opportunity to open a restaurant," said Green of his decision to sign the deal in the unorthodox location, backed by a six-figure investment from family and a build-out loan from MG.

"It was between Old City and Northern Liberties," the chef figured; back then, NoLibs was an up-and-coming enclave, while Old City had enough saturation to suggest residents and businesses might creep north.

Five years' worth of ambitious breakfasts, lunches and brunches later, Green laments that "Northern Liberties went north and Old City stayed where it was."

The restaurant's coordinates, he believes, are "what worked against us the most." But location didn't stop food scribes from plating plaudits. Writers and bloggers were effusive in praising Green's thoughtful, hands-on methods - basically everything is done from scratch with pricey, high-quality ingredients - and the grinning disposition of the front-of-house staff.

Though the 444 building stipulated that the cafe serve weekday breakfast and coffee as a service to its residents, Green initially planned on stretching the concept to include dinner. But the restaurant's burgeoning fame as a top-tier place for eggier diversions, plus inconsistent crowds after dark, succeeded in branding Estelle primarily as an a.m. destination. "Brunch happened," said Green. "And when brunch happened, it required every ounce of my concentration."

But the omelette-mecca reputation didn't necessarily translate to the books. Green is blunt in discussing the slow financial development of Estelle, which Mulvenna left when she and Green ended their relationship in 2009.

"On paper, we've never been in the black. We've always been in the red," said Green, a tangible example of how critical praise doesn't always translate to dining dollars. "It's always been a losing endeavor."

Shortly after marrying his wife Amy, in September 2011, Green began seriously assessing the future of Estelle, whose five-year lease expires the Sunday after next. After powwowing with a well-connected friend and a business broker and watching the target asking price for the business dwindle exponentially, he came to the difficult decision that shutting down and ceding the existing equipment to his landlord would be the most realistic option, as opposed to signing on for another five years.

Initially stricken with feelings of "anxiety, frustration and thoughts of failure" over the choice, Green said he's since come to feel relieved, and nearly liberated, about the future.

"The best possible scenario would be that I sold it and paid off the debt to my investors," said Green, who has no plans for the fall other than fishing in New Jersey and taking a trip to New Orleans. "That is what I was hoping for. After all that, this is the best realistic scenario." (In recent days, a potential buyer wishing to purchase the Cafe Estelle name came forward, but as of press time no deal had been struck.)

Which brings Greeen, and us, to 86 Brunch.

"It's not like we're putting paper up in the windows on Sunday afternoon and not coming into work . That's not how we're closing," he said. "We want to have a party."

Next weekend, he hopes to fill all his tables as his kitchen cranks out whatever they can dream up to fully deplete Estelle's kitchen inventory. If you order, say, the very last portion of duck confit, you might walk away with a door prize - a pound of coffee, a shot of whiskey, a Café Estelle mug. Green wants to cook and celebrate what he's accomplished, not wallow in culinary woe.

"Running out of food is what I'm used to stressing about," he said. "Now, at least for a few days, I don't have to worry."


Drew Lazor's twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things on the Philadelphia food scene. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish of food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at andrewlazor@gmail.com.

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