FIRST BEST FRIENDS, NOW OWNERS OF THREE MAJOR RESTAURANTS IN PHILADELPHIA
When Kim Strengari and Marianne Gere first met as bartenders at a brand new restaurant on the Main Line in Philadelphia in 1990, one thing was abundantly clear. They didn’t like any of the bar staff. Anyone, that is, but each other.
Fast-forward more than 20 years and that instant kinship has turned into a long-running partnership, one that has blossomed into – at various points in time – a cleaning business, a catering business, and five different restaurants.
The idea of running one restaurant with your best friend would seem impossible to many, much less three at the same time.
But Strengari and Gere, owners of the restaurant group Conshy Girls in Conshockhocken, Pennsylvania, believe their dreams never would have come true without each other.
While the pair may have first bonded over their alliance at work, as well as their large Italian-American families, it was their differences from each other that actually helped push them into business together.
The restaurant world is the only one Gere has ever known.
She worked as a waitress and in fast food before she got into bartending and met Strengari.
“My family is all about food,” she told Loyal Nana. “Any celebration, food is the first thing that’s thought of. It’s our blood. I didn’t have a choice.”
Strengari had gone through a similar series of jobs, quickly realizing that she hated college but loved bartending.
While she had also grown up in a family that was united by food, it was the interaction that came with being behind a bar or serving a table that Strengari had really loved.
“My family was all about celebration with food, but I never got into the food end per se,” she said. “It’s not the food as much for me as the front of the house.”
A shared love for the restaurant industry, with diverging passions for food and business, converged into a golden decades-long partnership.
It began after Strengari’s partner in her cleaning business moved away. She asked Gere to join her as a partner and, around the same time, they started their catering business as well.
“We had our cleaning customers, and we’d cater for them as well,” Gere said.
Even when the pair opened their first restaurant, Bella Luna, in March 2000, they were still working at their two other businesses as well.
“At our very first restaurant, we were cleaning buildings after we got off work,” Strengari recalled. “We have definitely worked hard.”
But looking back on the memories of Bella Luna, Strengari said at the time it never actually seemed “that hard”.
“We were younger, we weren’t worried about mortgages, we didn’t have a whole lot, but every night seemed really fun,” she said. “We owned a restaurant. I had wanted to own a restaurant my whole life – it was amazing.”
“The restaurant business is hard, but it never seemed that hard to me because I loved it so much.”
“Bella Luna was a blast, we learned as we went,” Gere added. “Everyone wants to own a restaurant but until you do, you don’t know what it entails. I have more memories from that restaurant then all of them combined.”
And the women quickly realized that their passion for opposite ends of the restaurant was actually their biggest asset.
“I was in charge of the kitchen and Kim was front of the house,” Gere said. “We didn’t have many conflicts because we both had our areas to manage.”
“Having defined roles is really important,” added Strengari. “If there were struggles, I don’t remember them. I think of all the happy things.”
But it wasn’t just their passions that diverged, it was their personalities. And the best friends credit their differences with helping them grow as both people and businesswomen.
“I’m definitely tougher, I’m a little more of a bitch,” Strengari said with a laugh. “I can admit I was jealous of how nice Marianne was all the time, but I now definitely try to see the world with rose-colored glasses. I try to see everything more in a positive view. It doesn’t always work, I’m not perfect, but trying to channel her energy at times helps me to be better.”
As for Gere, she has tried to adopt the skills that have helped her best friend become so successful at the front of the house of their restaurants.
“I’ve learned a lot from Kim. With her tougher side, I try to adopt that, be more stern, be more business-savy,” Gere said. “Looking at numbers and getting the best deal, I try to do more of that.”
“And I try to remember people’s names. She used to teach me a game on how to remember people’s names, but it didn’t work,” she added with a laugh.
“We’re really the yin and yang of each other,” said Strengari. “Whatever I’m not she is, and vice versa.”
In their 20 years in business together, the friends have only had a few major fights. And it was after their worst one that Strengari’s stepfather reminded her how much they needed each other.
“He said, ‘You’re both going to fail if you split up. If you both leave each other, you both fail. That’s why you’re both so good together,’” she recalled.
It was then that the friends really understood the benefit of embracing each other’s different qualities instead of trying to fight them.
“I think couples should do that too,” Strengari said. “That’s some good advice.”
“It really is almost like a marriage – but we don’t have sex though,” added Gere with a laugh. “I think I spend more time with Kim than I do with my husband.”
After three years, Strengari and Gere closed Bella Luna and opened Stella Blu in Conshohocken. In 2007 they opened Gypsy Saloon, their longest-running restaurant. The eatery pays tribute to the friends’ Italian roots, with signature dishes including the Lobster Mac ‘N Cheese, the Bacon and Mushroom flatbread, and the Mussels Margarita.
“Gypsy is our oldest restaurant, she just turned 15, and she’s a quirky little neighborhood restaurant,” said Strengari. “I spend most of my time there. We do a lot of catering out of it.”
“It’s just this cool little neighborhood joint, where you can find a CEO and a girl who lives paycheck to paycheck. It’s a little bit of everyone.”
In 2012 Strengari and Gere also opened Southern Cross Kitchen, drawing inspiration from their most popular monthly special at Stella Blu.
“The month of March we always did a Southern-themed menu and people loved it,” Gere recalled. “There were no Southern restaurants in this area – like a nice restaurant with a bar – so when we had this opportunity, our first thought was “We have to go Southern.”’
Southern Cross Kitchen is the women’s largest restaurant, with bars on both levels and a menu that includes Shrimp and Grits, Catfish Tacos, Jambalaya, and Fried Pickles. Like Gypsy Saloon, Strengari and Gere do a lot of catering out of it as well.
And in 2015 the friends opened Gypsy Blu, a combination of Gypsy Saloon and Stella Blu – which they have since sold – that combines both American and Italian cuisines.
With each location, Gere and Strengari designed and decorated each restaurant and created every menu.
After nearly 20 years in business, the two are starting to learn how to step back from taking on every responsibility and being available 24/7. But there are also still the countless special memories, including a recent fundraiser that brought 500 people to Southern Cross Kitchen – including the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Sharing things like that is amazing,” Gere said. “When things are good and you’re sharing it with someone you love, that’s an awesome feeling.”
“It’s good to have someone to fall back on. When you’re complaining about something, they know exactly what you’re thinking about. When I say things to my husband he doesn’t get it, because he’s not in the trenches.”
Strengari said the women are stronger individuals – and business owners - because they have each other for support.
“You can relax and have fun,” she added. “I would never in a gazillion years do this alone.”
“It’s fun to be able to do this with someone you love and someone whose family,” Gere agreed. “And it’s just nice to have your best friend with you.”