Diane Mastrull: Milk & Honey stretches West Philadelphia roots to Center City

Co-owner Annie Baum-Stein sits in the Sister Cities Park Milk & Honey Cafe, which opened six months ago.
Co-owner Annie Baum-Stein sits in the Sister Cities Park Milk & Honey Cafe, which opened six months ago. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 13, 2012

Mauro Daigle leaned forward in his chair, his face set in a no-nonsense expression, as he disclosed the highly sophisticated reasoning behind his and wife Annie Baum-Stein's decision to launch a business in their West Philadelphia neighborhood, where commercial enterprise wasn't exactly thriving.

"Smoked salmon," he said.

And bagels, Baum-Stein added. "You literally couldn't get bagels and smoked salmon" without getting in the car and driving to another part of the city, she said, deeming that "absolutely unacceptable."

All over New York, it's a meal achievable with a short walk, the Bronx native explained. She and Daigle were determined to make it so in their University City neighborhood.

Living there since 2006, they decided three years later that they knew enough about the needs of its residents to be confident that a cafe and market offering locally grown or sourced products, including smoked salmon and bagels, would be supported. They opened Milk & Honey Market in the 4400 block of Baltimore Avenue - and soon realized they were only partly right.

"Just having local product was a disservice to the neighborhood," Baum-Stein said. "I had to get bananas and avocado."

Evidently, residents were used to and appreciated what had preceded Milk & Honey - a convenience store that carried all sorts of products, whether from Manayunk or Mexico. "I literally shed a tear," Baum-Stein said of deciding to ease up on her local-only procurement plan. It now influences about 70 percent of Milk & Honey's offerings.

Sales have grown about 20 percent each of the last three years, rising as Milk & Honey's selections of baked goods and prepared foods have grown, made in a nearby commissary Baum-Stein and Daigle opened in 2011.

Now they are trying to find their way in what could be their toughest entrepreneurial endeavor so far. They are six months into a second Milk & Honey outlet, this one a distance, especially in demographics, from its West Philadelphia roots.

Milk & Honey is the vendor selected by the Center City District for its cafe/visitor center at the new Sister Cities Park on Logan Square.

A $4.9 million development project completed in May has transformed what once was a 1.3-acre outdoor magnet for the homeless along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 18th Street into a popular attraction for young families.

The highlights are a Children's Discovery Garden modeled on the Wissahickon and its riparian environment, a pond for sailing toy boats, and an interactive fountain of 10 jets that shoot water up from a bluestone plaza.

With its emphasis on locally connected fare, "it seemed Milk & Honey was the best fit for what we were trying to accomplish here," Halford Welch, the Center City District's senior director of capital projects, said during a visit last week to the Logan Square location. Milk & Honey is housed in a contemporary structure of limestone, glass, and red cedar designed to give those inside a cozy feeling of being tucked under a rock overhang.

Baum-Stein has been "a fabulous player" in helping develop programs to keep the park attracting visitors now that the weather has turned too cold for frolicking in fountain spouts, Welch said.

The site's seasonal nature is among the trickiest parts about operating a Milk & Honey there, said Baum-Stein, who also owns the Philadelphia Java Co. on South Fourth Street.

"We feel very embraced by our neighbors in West Philly. We're a repeat-customer place," the 37-year-old mother of two said one morning from a table at her Sister Cities site. "This is different. We are a tourist destination."

Jarring evidence of that came last month, she said, when "sales dropped off more quickly than we expected."

To try to offset the post-summer swoon, Baum-Stein, along with the Center City District, has been devising ways to lure nearby residents to Sister Cities Park and Milk & Honey year round. One of them was "Pairings on the Parkway," an event held every Thursday night from August through October featuring live music and cheeses provided by Milk & Honey. Visitors were encouraged to bring their own wine.

The idea was to get the word out that "we're not just for kids, not just for midweek lunch," Baum-Stein said. It seemed to work. Each "Pairing" event drew 40 to 60 people, according to the Center City District.

As a resident of nearby Cherry Street and a mother of three young children, Marisa Piccarreto is a frequent user of Sister Cities Park and patron of Milk & Honey. As a city parks advocate, she sees a cooperative venture worth replicating.

"This private/public model between Center City District, Parks and Recreation, and private enterprise . . . is a model that works for the sustainability of parks," Piccarreto said. "Hopefully we will see this model followed by other parks in Center City."


Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mastrud.

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