As with most old-world broods in South Philadelphia, Sunday night at Palizzi Social Club, the private establishment along S. 12th St. is for red gravy, Brasciole, spaghetti with crabs and time with family.
On particular Sunday night found this sentiment especially true for Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney, the first ladies of Philadelphia’s restaurant scene. The couple of 18 years who own and operate much of the dining establishments in Midtown Village always wanted to start a family since the earliest days of their relationship. In July, the duo made it happen with the adoption of their baby girl, Harlow.
So, on a hot summer end-of-July night at Palazzi, Chef Turney, the organizational whiz that is Val Safran and baby Harlow, very possibly the youngest person to hold membership privileges at the South Philly Social Club, dined opulently with their pals.
“We wanted a chill place that still felt a little classy, especially since we will probably spend the next 10 years at Chuck E. Cheese for parties...we figured we better make this a good one,” Safran joked of her Palizzi dining experience. “It was perfect. Great food, lots of friends and family, and it was just easy. We spent so many years working so hard that we just want things to be easy. So we showed up and the staff took care of everything. Harlow just got passed around from one person to the next. Everyone was so excited to see Harlow, and she had a good time, too.”
After the opening of Bud & Marilyn’s four years ago, we knew we needed to stop and make no new business-related plans for a minute. Our lives had been consumed by all of these existing businesses and we needed to get some perspective on life.”
– Val Safran on the decision to adopt her daughter with partner Marcie Turney
The hard-working Midtown entrepreneurs behind Safran Turney Hospitality who opened up that section of Center City with spots like Jamonera, Grocery, Bud & Marilyn’s, Barbuzzo, Little Nonna’s, Marcie Blaine Artisanal Chocolates and Lolita chose to add a child to the fray, but find the addition anything but complicated. This notion is made obvious by the announcement of upcoming culinary projects like the Philadelphia International Airport iteration of their cozy Bud & Marilyn’s along with their brand new Loveluck restaurant and bar inside LOVE Park's vintage "flying saucer" Welcome Center building.
“We’ve worked very hard for very long with little thought of anything else but business and food,” said Turney on a Sunday morning, prepping for a day’s hang with Harlow. “It’s our time now… for a family.”
Working for this moment
How they got to maverick mega-success status is what made them famous. Theirs is a Center City romantic bliss and self-sufficient story, starting first when Turney and Safran met in the restaurant scene, fell in love in the restaurant scene, and opened their first little store, Open House at 107 S. 13th Street in 2002. Open House arrived at a time when the block was still mostly porn palaces such as the XXX rated Sansom Cinema since replaced by Michael Schulson’s Double Knot and the still ready for sex toy emporium, Danny's Midnight Confessions.
Famously independent with no partners beyond themselves – and no one else’s money to influence or override their decisions – Turney and Safran moved fast and furiously on smartly renting restaurant real estate throughout Midtown Village. The Mediterranean Barbuzzo, the modern Mexican Lolita and the Spanish wine-and-nibbles bar Jamonera line the length of 13th Street, while their homey take on Italian-American fare, Little Nonna's, is but a few blocks away on Locust.
“This area has been very good to us,” Safran mentioned on the occasion of finding, nabbing, and opening the jewel in the Safran Turney Hospitality crown, Bud & Marilyn’s, their retro-American comfort food kitchen on the corner of 13th and Locust. Along with a food market, Grocery, they also opened Verde, their Marcie Blaine Artisanal Chocolate spot, all on the same block as the original, Open House.
Yet, in still, pause for celebration also provided perspective.
“We got a little caught up in the opening of new businesses every few years,” noted Safran. “After the opening of Bud & Marilyn’s four years ago, we knew we needed to stop and make no new business-related plans for a minute. Our lives had been consumed by all of these existing businesses and we needed to get some perspective on life.”
Before that perspective went into full effect, the pair purchased four empty properties along East Passyunk Avenue between Reed and Wharton Streets, mere yards from the Cheesesteak Vegas of Geno’s and Pat’s Steaks. The idea behind the purchase was for several, separate restaurant and retail concepts – none of which have even been fully considered as the couple have bigger, literal and figurative fish to fry.
Then, Turney and Safran purchased their three-story living loft just blocks aways from their Midtown strip of 13th St., closer to Chinatown, and brought in Kate Rohrer – the designer of Bud & Marilyn’s – to create a unique environment for the pair and the little guest they would welcome.
“We have a lot of businesses with a lot of stuff,” said Safran. “We spend a lot of time in restaurants keeping lots of employees, walk-in refrigerators, office spaces and everything else clean and organized., so we wanted a super calm and clean house. For a long time, we lived in an apartment above Jamonera. We bought our current home a few years ago and worked with Kate, who is now working with us on Loveluck. [Our new house] has a Mid-Century modern feel and it's very edited.”
Safran paused and continued:
“Well…it was edited until we somehow ended up with about a million baby toys, contraptions and everything else that comes along with a baby.”
‘A family to share it with’
As two married women looking to have, hold and raise a child, adoption was always an option for the pair.
“By the time we actually focused on starting a family, we were both beyond our child-bearing years,” said Safran, 44, of Turney, 49. “At one point an attorney told us that another option would be surrogacy because adoption could be a difficult process. This didn’t feel right for us, so we researched adoption agencies and met with Open Arms Adoption Agency. We both felt very comfortable with this agency and believed in their philosophy – open adoption is best for the child, birth family and ultimately our family. We went to numerous orientation meetings and learned everything we could about adoption. Adoption is complicated, but we are confident we can tell Harlow her story and help her understand her story. Now I couldn’t imagine it any other way. Adoption made sense for us.”
How did Safran see a way clear through the noise of business, the constant, minute-by-minute hustle of the restaurant game to make room for a baby, in both her head and in her schedule?
“We are a few weeks out from opening a Bud & Marilyn’s at the Philadelphia Airport and will follow that up with the opening of Loveluck at LOVE Park by the end of the year,” she said. “Every day I ask myself, ‘how are we going to handle this?’ Not so much the management of our current restaurants, but the opening of new restaurants. In the past, we just worked nonstop until everything was set up and running smoothly. Now, with a daughter, we don’t have that option when opening new businesses. And, yes, we do want to continue to grow. So our philosophy is pretty simple – we’ll figure it out. We love working and our businesses, but we also would not be happy without having a family. It would almost feel a little pointless to us to work this hard and not have a family to share it with.”
Harlow was born in Pennsylvania, with Turney and Safran having met her birth mother, an incredibly emotional visit with the mom shortly after Harlow’s birth.
“She was very brave in that she wanted to meet us,” said Safran. “She wanted to know we were real people who promised to love and take care of Harlow forever. We have great respect for Harlow’s birth mother. She made an incredibly difficult decision based on what was best for her child. That is not an easy thing to do.”
Safran and Turney took Harlow home a couple of weeks after she was born last fall – though her official adoption through the courts happened on July 9, 2019, the pair brought her home last October.
It would almost feel a little pointless to us to work this hard and not have a family to share it with.”
– Philly restaurateur Val Safran on the arrival of her daughter, Harlow
“When we got her home, all we did was just stare at her,” said Safran. “It was surreal. This tiny little baby is now your responsibility. I think I immediately started reading an “everything you need to know about baby” book the moment she took her first nap. We had to figure this out ASAP.”
Turney adds that just like her, the now-10-month-old Harlow is obsessed with ultra-sheer office Kleenex, as opposed to the normal things children are attracted to.
“There are toys everywhere, but, I’m OCD, so it’s organized and I clean everything after she tornadoes through the place,” she said.
Following in Turney’s art school footsteps, there are art books and easels that the chef is hoping her daughter takes to. “It’s a nice, open, clean and quiet loft with a deck with a pool on it – she loves the water, even the bath, we can’t wait to get her into swimming classes – which is exactly how we like it. You come home after a crazy day at the restaurant (or six?) and you want to be able to get away from all that noise and mess.”
Beyond just getting away, they actually needed something to move toward, something Safran and Turney believed that they needed in their life since they first became one.
“Truthfully, we worked our tails off for 15 plus years and had our heads in the ground,” said Safran, about allowing the life of children and family to nearly pass them by. “Then somehow both of us ended up in our 40’s with no children and, we needed to start the family planning process ASAP. I truly wish we had started five years ago, quite frankly. It just didn’t happen that way. Is it nice, though, to be financially stable and feel like all of the businesses are in good shape in order to be able to start a family, finally? Absolutely.”
That’s Val, Marcie and Harlow’s story. So far, it sounds like a good one.