Harrisburg establishments target broader audience
Call it the thrill of developing a new concept.
Consider it undying faith in a thriving urban center.
Maybe it's just watching outside trends and capitalizing on local opportunities.
Whatever the motivation, developers in downtown Harrisburg over the last year — seasoned restaurateurs and nightclub owners, as well as first-time investors — have spent heavily to bring their respective visions to the capital city and fill in perceived gaps.
From an upscale martini bar that blends sushi and tapas to a family-friendly tap house and comedy club, the downtown area is gradually moving away from the late-night dance club scene and morphing into a place that caters to a broader audience.
The ongoing evolution will help bring people back to the city and raise income levels, which should create even more opportunities for savvy entrepreneurs and grow the city's tax base, said Matthew Crocker, assistant vice president for Washington County-based Crossgates Inc.'s midstate office.
"Economics will demand more of a higher-end clientele," said Crocker, chairman of the city beautification committee for Harrisburg Young Professionals, or HYP. "I think you're starting to see a reflection of that."
The downtown is still a very viable option for restaurants and bars, though it has changed a lot, said Ron Kamionka, a familiar face behind much of Harrisburg's club growth for more than a decade.
Kamionka, who owns clubs and pubs on the East and West shores, as well as in Bloomsburg, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, is a trend watcher by nature of his business enterprises.
"You're always keeping an eye on the next hot thing. You have to reinvent yourself," said Kamionka, who recently converted his Eclipse nightclub into Second Street Comedy Club.
The club, which is connected to the Harrisburg Hardware Bar, helps expand the downtown demographic, he said. More diverse dining and entertainment options should keep people in the city longer, which would boost business.
"Downtown is all built on synergy," he said. "You know people aren't going to go to just one place in a night."
The goal for Kamionka and other downtown property owners has been more mass appeal for more than just the under-30 crowd, which is often associated with the post-midnight club scene.
Downtown owners have paid for added police patrols and invested more in new concepts that might help distance themselves from the crime.
For example, Judd Goodman is in the process of converting his former Dragonfly nightclub, which sits alongside Kamionka's bar and comedy club on North Second Street, into the Federal Taphouse.
The restaurant, which is slated to open in the coming weeks, is one of two in the works for Goodman. He also is opening a Federal Taphouse in Lancaster this winter.
The establishment will boast 100 beer taps that cater to the craft-loving crowd and a wood-fired grill for pizzas and other artisan cuisine. In Harrisburg, the property also is home to Fed Live, a music venue that opened this fall.
Goodman said he has no interest in the 2 a.m. audience. His focus will be lunch through midnight, hoping to attract the professional crowd and families, while giving other audiences another place for live entertainment and special events.
"We need to bring people downtown earlier," he said, which would be "better for downtown" in the long run.
Goodman said he believes his destination establishment, where the emphasis is going to be on locally sourced ingredients and original adult beverages, will help drive more traffic to the downtown and fill a void.
"I'm a property owner in the downtown and I live downtown. I still believe in downtown Harrisburg," he said. "I've never lost faith in downtown Harrisburg."
Goodman's previous concept had a long run, but it's time to move on from that and give people more reasons to come downtown, he said.
Buddha Buddha is a martini lounge that serves Asian-inspired small-plate dishes. The lounge is another blend between restaurant and bar with an emphasis on scratch-made food.
Galiardo is targeting the professional crowd over happy hour and a late-night audience looking to grab a drink and share some sushi.
"For a restaurant district like this to work, there has got to be an energy, a reason for people to choose to go there," he said. "Downtown Harrisburg has kind of become that place."
The downtown area is undergoing a metamorphosis, he said.
"I think we have a nice even mix right now," Galiardo said, citing a shift over 12 years from having a few upscale places to a heavy focus on the younger crowd and now a more mature audience again. "For the first time, we have found the status quo."
One of the major change agents for Harrisburg has been HYP, which started in 1998 and today has more than 1,000 members.
"We have a very captive audience that is coming into the city to be part of a number of things," said Meron Yemane, HYP's president. "I think restaurants and other businesses see that and have responded."
Harrisburg sees tens of thousands enter and leave its borders every day for work. It's the job of organizations like HYP to keep commuters in the city a little longer and get them to come back on weekends.
"We saw the creation of the (downtown) scene. We saw it grow out," Yemane said. "I think it's more of an evolution that is taking place. It is capturing all audiences rather than segmenting them. (The downtown) can be all things to all people."
HYP is a significant player in the changing face of the downtown, said Brad Jones, vice president at Harristown Enterprises Inc., which owns Strawberry Square and is responsible for other commercial development in the downtown, including the Hilton Harrisburg.
"(HYP) is a juggernaut of energy and enthusiasm," Jones said. "They're the people who see the possibilities, and they get things done. Their enthusiasm is contagious."
Restaurant chains such as Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches and Susquehanna Township-based Arooga's Grille House and Sports Bar have taken note of downtown opportunities and opened locations this year on North Second Street.
Several newcomers also have taken a chance on the downtown, including Ron and Julie Gilbertson, who opened Old Town Delicatessen on North Third Street in May.
"This is something I always wanted to do," said Ron Gilbertson, who grew up and worked in a deli in Philadelphia.
The Gilbertsons looked at several locations in the downtown before opting on their location across from the state Capitol.
"There is definitely demand. We thought something around here would be a success," he said, hoping to bring a fresh deli twist over lunch to the city's busy downtown professionals and politicians. "We felt like it fit here."
With their Boar's Head deli line and locally sourced ingredients, the New Cumberland couple has built a strong following, especially on the catering side of the business, which is expected to expand.
"We were surprised the concept worked so well," Gilbertson said.
The downtown also has attracted a barbecue joint like MoMo's BBQ & Grill, a nonprofit coffeehouse like Agia Sophia, a pita sandwich hotspot like Pita Pit and even crepes with the opening of Au Bon Lieu.
"Harrisburg is the heart of the region," Yemane said. "It's important that the heart of the city thrives. What we're seeing now is not only do people believe in the downtown but know the future is brighter than the past."
The Vartan Group's 1500 Project, a mixed-use condominium building in Midtown, and Cumberland County developer Dan Deitchman's residential work for Harrisburg University of Science and Technology are just a few recent projects that are part of a bigger revitalization process, Yemane said.
Fresh faces in downtown Harrisburg
Downtown Harrisburg has undergone a steady transformation during the last two years. Several restaurants and nightlife entertainment spots have opened — many with the thought of catering to a broader age group.
Here are some of the establishments that opened in the downtown in 2011 and 2012:
1. The Sturges Speakeasy: Opened June 2012; 400 Forster St.
2. Home 231: Opened April 2011; 231 North St.
3. Old Town Delicatessen: Opened May 2012; 512 N. Third St.
4. Buddha Buddha: Opened October 2012; 400 N. Second St.
5. Second Street Comedy Club: Opened November 2012; 236 N. Second St.
6. Federal Taphouse: Restaurant opening slated for December 2012, Fed Live music venue opened in September; 234 N. Second St.
7. Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches: Opened October 2012; 219 N. Second St.
8. Capitol Shoe Repair: Opened August 2012; 202 N. Second St.
9. Arooga's Downtown: Opened March 2012; 201 N. Second St.
10. Pita Pit: Opened September 2011; 100 N. Second St.
11. HealthyWay: Opened May 2012; 405 Walnut St.
12. Au Bon Lieu: Opened July 2012; 1 N. Third St.
13. Agia Sophia: Opened September 2011; 225 Market St.
14. MoMo's BBQ & Grill: Opened May 2011; 307 Market St.
15. Sindbaad Restaurant & Catering: Opened August 2012; 19 S. Third St.