Warby Parker is finally opening a physical location in the city where it was born.
And when the trendy eyewear company, which was born over a few pints of Yuengling at a Walnut Street bar, opens the doors to its first Philadelphia storefront at 1523 Walnut Street at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28, it will be a striking symbol of how much the street has changed.
A decade ago, Walnut was known for its “Restaurant Row.” Now, it’s mostly high-end fashion and retail, with astronomical rents few independent restaurants could afford.
So we’re full circle here: A style-forward eyeglass company conceptualized in a now-closed Walnut Street bar is moving into a now-closed Walnut Street restaurant.
The shop is in the space that for 43 years was home of Le Bec-Fin (and was also briefly a restaurant called Avance, which flopped in stunning fashion, struggling to keep up with a reported $28,000 monthly rent). The long-rumored Philly locale is part of a multi-city expansion that complements Warby’s lucrative online business with brick-and-mortar outlets, but it’s also a coming home: The company was brought to life just a few block west, during a happy hour session at Roosevelt’s Pub.
“The transformation of that stretch of Walnut…is probably a good thing for the city,” said Warby co-founder Dave Gilboa, before adding a caveat: “But it has to be balanced. You don’t want it to be all be corporations coming in and pushing out stores with character.”
That confluence is one of the things Gilboa likes best about Philadelphia.
“I think Philly still has the right mix of small-scale unique stores where you can find interesting artisan items married with the convenience of being able to go to an Apple Store or a Zara,” he said.
Although he’s now based in NYC — where he lived before attending Wharton — Gilboa had a Center City apartment in Philly when he was getting his MBA. It was at school that he met his co-founders.
“Rosie’s,” as everyone apparently called the pub formerly at the corner of 23rd and Walnut, was a big hangout for the Penn grad crowd. “It was on the way to campus, and all of us lived within a few blocks,” Gilboa said, noting that co-founder Andrew Hunt lived in the top floor of that very building.
The genesis of Warby Parker actually started in a Wharton computer lab. But Hunt, Gilboa and their two friends Neil Blumenthal and Jeffrey Raider were so excited about their idea that they didn’t want to stop talking about it when they left for the day. So they adjourned to their home away from home, Rosie’s.
Over Jack Daniels for Raider and Yuenglings for the rest — “When in Rome, right?” said Gilboa, who loves that it’s the oldest brewery in America — the pals spent several more hours of that autumn 2008 night discussing the idea.
“The initial meeting [at Roosevelt’s] was probably a couple of hours,” Gilboa recalled, “and then we went back to our respective apartments around 11 or midnight.” Two hours later, Blumenthal “fired off a multi-paragraph email” with followup thoughts, and Gilboa responded within minutes with his own lengthy missive. All four of them stayed up through the night, then spent hundreds of hours together over the next few weeks to hash out the plan.
Were some of those post-concept meetings at Rosie’s too? Without a doubt.
Then came time to leave Philadelphia. The business idea was to let people order prescription eyeglasses online at low prices and choose from a selection of fashionable frames, and the founders soon realized they had to take it to New York.
“All the key editors, photographers, stylists, they’re all in NYC,” Gilboa said. “But I can’t think of a better place to have started our business. Access to the entire Penn community, the vibrant faculty and student community across Philly, that was key.”
Appreciation for Philadelphia is one reason Warby has had a mini showroom here for years, set in a corner of the Art in the Age boutique in Old City.
“We thought, given that’s where our business was born, we should look into it,” Gilboa explained. That shop will stay open, he confirmed.
Customers visiting the flagship, which is outfitted with mosaic-patterned floor-to-ceiling windows, dark walnut shelving and tiled terrazzo floors, will be able to buy frames in an exclusive set of hues.
Appropriately, the exclusive Philly frames are from the Roosevelt Collection, named in tribute of that original pub.