Editor’s Note: The printed version of this story in the 7/30 issue of the Local was edited for space. This is a longer version with extended and extra interviews.
by Barbara Sheehan
It may take a village to raise a child, but what does it take to keep the village itself healthy?
In Chestnut Hill, a village within the city, the local businesses play a huge role in its attraction as a place people want to live, visit, or work. Businesses here have the backing of the Chestnut Hill Business Association (CHBA), founded in 1956, whose stated purpose is to “to support the area’s businesses through retail attraction, economic development, and promotion of the neighborhood.”
Most residents know the CHBA as the organizers of large-scale popular events such as the Home and Garden Festival, Fall for the Arts, and Holidays on the Hill. The Association staff, funded through membership dues and tax revenue via the Business Improvement District, is also busy behind the scenes, advocating for, assisting, and nurturing local businesses.
Residents might not be aware of the key role played by Kathie Meadows, Director of Business Development at CHBA. Her job is to ensure that Chestnut Hill remains a vibrant shopping and dining district by recruiting and helping to retain businesses.
“I work closely with and represent all property owners” she said, “and act as a ‘matchmaker’ of sorts.”
Matchmaker is an appropriate description, as she must employ well-honed diplomatic skills in order to meet the needs of both property owners and business owners to whom they rent. And like a matchmaker, she might be called upon to suggest ways that either party can make themselves more attractive to the other, or areas where they may be able to compromise and accommodate for the match to work.
It helps that Meadows, whose resume includes experience as an interior designer, real estate agent and marketing director for major hotels, has a multidimensional set of skills as well a lot of positive energy and enthusiasm for the community.
Take for example, Nerice Kendter, owner of Busy Bee Toys at 8511 Germantown Avenue. Busy Bee Toys was just one of the Doylestown businesses that Kathie recruited to come to the Hill; among the others are Serendipity, Artistic Eyewear, and the Escape Room. Nerice notes, however, that Doylestown doesn’t have anything like the CHBA.
“We have a volunteer organization (in Doylestown),” Kendter said. “But the difference here is that we have these paid professionals, whose job it is to develop and support Chestnut Hill. And that just impressed me from the get-go—that there was someone like a Kathie Meadows here.”
“She had me come here,” Kendter said of Meadows, “ and we took a walk up and down the Avenue and she talked about the community and promoted Chestnut Hill as a viable place to open my second business.”
She credits Meadows and others in the CHBA office who helped her with many issues that she had to address, such as signage, legal considerations, trash removal, promotion of the shop, etc.
Her Chestnut Hill shop has been open since October 2018. Since the COVID pandemic, she has explored creative approaches to helping customers seeking interesting, reasonably priced toys, while remaining safe and socially distant. These included setting up an online presence, providing curbside pickup, shipping, and creating “mystery” gift boxes.
“Customers can call me, give me ages, likes and dislikes of children and a dollar amount and I create a mystery box for them,” she said. “It is very popular.”
Retail under the pandemic is tough, she says, “and we to come up with new ideas to make it easy for people to shop with us.”
What kinds of businesses do well in Chestnut Hill? Meadows said that typically the ones that succeed are the ones that have done so in another location.
“Retail and restaurant operation is not for the faint of heart,” she said. “While many people ‘dream’ of starting their own business, successful operators know it is a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week mindset; it can’t be treated as a hobby.”
She steers away from larger chains, which have dotted the Avenue in previous years, because “independent and small regional stores are among those that thrive. Customers crave a personal experience that they don’t get from online shopping.”
Most importantly, she seeks businesses that put customer and community first. For her overall recruiting efforts, she looks for something that is lacking, or that people are requesting. She also scours publications such as the Philadelphia Business Journal, checks in with professional contacts, and does online research to discern shopping trends.
From this research she sets a goal, for example, a bridal salon or a toy store. She goes out to scout new businesses by posing as a casual shopper.
“I usually do an in-person visit and I ask if they have heard of Chestnut Hill,” she said. “If they are interested, I invite them here, we walk the Avenue and have lunch.”
And so the matchmaking begins.
Kimberly Kingkiner, owner of Kimberly James Bridal, opened her shop on Highland Avenue in April of 2019, but that was after about a year of working with Meadows before she felt ready. “It was actually a wonderful experience,” Kingkiner said. “She would come out after 6 p.m. every night to show me different locations because I was working during the day.”
She especially appreciates of all the assistance she gets from CHBA with marketing and advice for staying in business during the pandemic. Her creative approach to working with brides currently is to allow them to pick three dresses during virtual appointments, which she allows customer to take home and try on in front of family, along a bottle of champagne to make the experience festive.
Even though couples have had to cancel their wedding celebrations due to the pandemic, she advises brides to get married on the date they set and postpone the big party until later.
That’s exactly what she did. Her wedding was scheduled in May of this year, so she and her fiancé got married then anyway and celebrated with a backyard barbeque. The big wedding party has been postponed until October.
Meadows’ support doesn’t end with the signing of a lease. After the opening she continues to assist with visual and in-store merchandising, media promotion, and event participation. She also takes the time to visit businesses in person to check in. “
I will take a day, start at the bottom of the Hill and work my way up,” she said. “I’ll try to spend about 5 minutes with each owner, just to see how things are going.”
Rob and Desiree Pollard opened their Breakfast Boutique on Germantown Avenue two years ago after the property owner, Sanjiv Jain, visited their restaurant in Mt. Airy and asked them to consider opening in Chestnut Hill. Jain introduced them to Meadows, who helped to create a vision for the store that Rob Pollard says just clicked.
“She was very hands-on,” he explains. “She came up with ideas for wallpaper and the interior design and even found a gallery to provide paintings for us.”
He said the ideas were so popular with customers that they redesigned their Mt. Airy store to match.
Breakfast Boutique, one of 15 Black-owned businesses on the Hill, has moved their business from 90% dining-in to all take-out since the pandemic. While the volume is high, ordering services such as Door Dash and Grub Hub take a significant cut. They request that customers who really want to support the business call in their orders themselves.
Like any good matchmaker, Meadows acknowledged the challenges to bringing two parties happily together.
“Sometimes the property owner and the business can’t come to terms.” And she admits, “the retail industry evolves and changes all the time. We just have to adjust and change with it.”
But obstacles do not slow her down. She id there is no other neighborhood quite like this one, Philadelphia’s Garden District. What she finds most special about Chestnut Hill are the people and the stories behind them.
“Each of the businesses that make up our diverse corridor has an innate ability to make every customer experience a special one,” she said. “They truly know their customers-most by name. You just can’t find that experience in a suburban mall.”