It happened more than 11 years ago. Michele Ganas had a weird dream and decided to open a business. Driven by the desire to do new things, she reached out to one of her friends, Gena Montebelo, asking if she wanted to be her partner.
More than a decade later, they reap the rewards of their hard work. Their business, The Bottle Shop, is a success, selling beer, wine, and liquors to the East Passyunk community.
“Specifically as women opening up a beer place, it was definitely confusing for some people,” Ganas said.
The East Passyunk neighborhood is known for having a large number of women-owned businesses and lately, that number grows every year.
As of April 1, 2022, 45% of all the independent businesses along Philadelphia’s mile-long East Passyunk Avenue are owned or co-owned by a diverse group of strong and talented women. Ranging from restaurants to apparel stores to salons to sustainable retail, there are more than 80 different women-owned or co-owned businesses that have been instrumental in the growth of Passyunk Avenue and the neighborhood.
“Many of the women-run businesses on East Passyunk Avenue have been around for a very long time, with some opening their doors multiple decades ago,” said Adam Leiter, executive director at East Passyunk Business Improvement District. “While new owners are still coming, it’s important to note that female entrepreneurs were part of this avenue long before it became a huge national discussion.”
Colleen DeCesare and her wife, Jennifer DeCesare, are among the pioneers of this movement. They have been serving breakfast to the community at their coffee shop, Black & Brew, for 15 years.
When they started, the neighborhood was really different, without the many dining options there are today. Colleen DeCesare was living in South Philadelphia when one day on a bike ride she saw an available spot along the corridor she had never seen before. As women in their 20s, they went all in and have made that space her home since then. Now, it is impossible to think about this tiny corner at the avenue without the couple giving life to this bright tile house.
“We both love serving the community, it really lights us up. We feed our inner self to joy, it makes us feel good to serve others,” Jenn DeCesare said.
Despite the warning that there was a cafe at that space before and their business wouldn’t succeed, Colleen and Jennifer DeCesare didn’t give up. With the support of the community, which has grown so much through the years, Colleen DeCesare highlights they still see the same faces that they saw all those years ago visiting the shop.
“We have such a collaborative community,” Colleen DeCesare said. “Women and men, we all help each other, there is no rivalry.”
According to Leiter, 7 out of the last 10 new businesses have been women owned in East Passyunk.
“As the Avenue has continued to grow, the number of businesses established or co-owned by women has as well,” Leiter added. “It’s important for our business corridor to reflect the positive changes regarding women business leaders happening on a national scale.”
An example of this continuous movement is Kouklet Bakehouse, a Brazilian bakery that had its doors opened on the avenue in early February. Owner Mardhory Cepeda has been working in the food industry for more than 10 years. Before moving to the United States to study English and ending up staying, she used to have a bakery in Brazil, a dream she wanted to fulfill on American soil.
Prior to getting the spot along the avenue, Cepeda built her business online for three years, as well as selling at farmers markets. She explains that Kouklet’s difference in its application to other businesses who wanted the same space was the fact that it would bring more diversity to the region. Expressing what Brazilian confectionery is and her culture are Cepeda’s mission with this opportunity. Finding her own space allowed the business to expand and so far, she says the experience has been great.
“People are very receptive and open to trying new things and learning about where those foods come from,” Cepeda said. “I’m in love with the area and I was really lucky to find this place available online.”
The past, present, and future of these women who ventured into the business world and made East Passyunk their backyard continue to mingle and grow together. The doors opened by Colleen and Jennifer DeCesare more than 15 years ago and reinforced by Ganas and Montebelo along the years, are still welcoming in new women to the area.
“It was about time to show what we can do,” Cepeda said. “It’s amazing to see women coming together to help each other, expressing their ideas and taking risks — because opening a business is a lot of risk.”
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