Northwest Philly couple seeks to fund Mt. Airy cafe dream with pop-up shop

Pedestrians strolling through Mt. Airy’s downtown may have recently noticed an eclectic new tenant occupying 7122 Germantown Ave.

A pop-up shop today, the S.O.N. A.R.T. Gallery and Gift Shop aims to eventually morph into a vegetarian eatery.

That is the unconventional plan behind the Art and Sol Uptown Food Bar. Germantown artist, Amir Lyles and his life partner, Naeemah Patterson, hope to raise enough funds to start the restaurant by selling his art work through the pop-up boutique.

The shop fills a seven-month vacancy in the heart of Mt. Airy’s commercial corridor. Though a prime location, the commercial space has a troubled past. Three eateries — Black Olive, Perry’s Private Plates and Calypso — have gone bust in as many years at the site. And just after moving into the space, plans to officially open were delayed when a frozen pipe in the empty apartment above burst and caused flood damage.

Lyles says that setback, prior tenants’ misfortunes and the hard work that lies ahead aren’t worrying the couple. In fact, they have signed a two-year lease. 

“Everything else I’ve ever done has been hard. This is what I like to do and I can’t run from this any longer. If I’m going to do this, now’s the time,” says Lyles.

Combining creative pursuits

A self-taught artist who uses mixed-media to create collage and stencil paintings, Lyles says he believes word sound has power and finds inspiration in lyrics and snippets of passing conversations. His work draws influences from reggae, jazz and hip-hop music.

Lyles is also a self-taught chef, cooking up vegan grub for 15 years.

He says choosing which of his two creative passions to pursue as a lucrative vocation has been a dilemma.

Lyles mostly sells his work at art fairs, but he and Patterson also host art shows at their house. At those events, he serves up his home-cooked vegan fare, garnering prods from visitors to open both a restaurant and a gallery.

Physically showing his work always resulted in increased sales, so having a private gallery has long been a goal, says Lyles. But a desire to cash in on people’s willingness to spend money to eat each day is what led to the concept of Art and Sol Uptown Food Bar.

Food will be the primary business, with Lyles’ art showcased on the walls.

Art and Sol

Though Patterson has an associate degree in hospitality management and Lyles has done some catering, the couple has no restaurant experience.

They envision the small, intimate space to echo the atmosphere of their home. The Uptown Juice Bar in Harlem, a favorite eatery (Lyles is a Harlem native) will also serve as a model.

Food offerings will mostly be take-away, with some seated counter space for onsite dining. An ever-changing menu of vegetarian comfort foods will feature only a few short-order staples (like veggie burgers) and be limited to first come, first served.

“When it’s done, it’s done,” Patterson says.

Funding a dream

With only a pop-up shop, the couple just started this month to raise the money needed to rebuild the property’s kitchen plus pay for safety certifications and licensing. They have a spring opening in mind for the eatery.

The pop-up shop’s wares consist mostly of Lyles’ paintings and art prints, ranging in price from five to a few hundred dollars. There is also an assortment of fashion and beauty merchandise sold at clearance prices, and surplus from past vending events and a store Lyles’ brother once operated which closed.

Lyles says the fundraising target is $60,000. Raising at least $30,000 will definitely allow Art and Sol to get up and running, but raising more will provide a security fund for maintenance and unexpected costs.

Admittedly, that goal cannot be met with the pop-up shop alone. However, they do have potential co-investors lined up who are waiting to see the fundraising effort get off the ground before kicking in, according to Patterson.

Using an online crowdfunding platform, selling items through other venues like eBay and seeking out assistance through the city’s Commerce Department are avenues they intend to explore, but have yet to do.

“Right now, word of mouth is the biggest support,” says Patterson.

Until the food bar becomes a reality, the couple will continue showing and selling Lyles’ work and host tasting events for folks to sample the food they hope to someday sell.

“If it doesn’t work, I feel I have my art to fall back on,” says Lyles.

The shop will officially host an open house event this Friday, Jan. 23 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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