It’s a recent afternoon inside the new downtown MilkBoy location, a two-floor space at 11th and Chestnut streets that will be coffee bar by morning, pub by afternoon and music venue by night, and co-owner Tommy Joyner is hustling to get the place in shape to open up next week.
“We’ve been doing some of this work ourselves to give it some heart,” says Joyner, gesturing around. He points at the coffee tables, which he carved out of chunks of oak butcher block and then stained chocolate brown. “When you’re out of money, you find ways to make it happen.”
Upstairs, the stage that’s about to be installed will complete the space’s conversion from its former life as a book and magazine shop into a 200-capacity concert space reminiscent of the old Upstairs at Nick’s (the venue that used to be above Nick’s Roast Beef on Second Street in Old City that closed in 1999). Downstairs, artsy glass garage-door walls that will roll up on 11th Street, hardwood floors discovered beneath six inches of linoleum and restored terrazzo tile obliterates any remnants of the former beauty supply shop.
After almost a year of work, the space is positively transformed—and so is Joyner.
As PW first reported back in March, Joyner and business partner Jamie Lokoff have been wading in shark-infested waters from almost the moment MilkBoy announced plans to expand its brand—music studios and then two coffee shops founded in the suburbs—into Philadelphia.
To recap: U3 Ventures owns the property and is leasing it to MilkBoy through a deal with the city, which offered U3 Ventures a loan pending approval of the tenant in an effort to revitalize a particularly bedraggled strip of Chestnut Street. In other words, MilkBoy was personally approved by the city in good faith as a business that will work to class up the joint.
But U3 Ventures didn’t hire all union workers so, in retaliation, the Philadelphia Carpenter’s Union dispatched a goon squad to MilkBoy Coffee in Ardmore. Since last fall, picketers have stood outside MilkBoy holding signs and handing out fliers enblazoned with spurious statements about Joyner and Lokoff.
The picketers had an impact on the coffee shop’s bottom line, setting profits off by about 15 percent. Joyner and Lokoff had expected some hassle at the downtown worksite, but they hadn’t anticipated guys with Jersey plates to drive out to Ardmore every day, spitting and throwing trash on the sidewalk in front of their business.
Suddenly, these mild-mannered artists-turned-entrepreneurs (both members of a musician's union) were caught in the middle of a public debate about the role of unions in the U.S. After trying to keep it light by responding with funny T-shirts parodying the picketers’ absurd “Shame on MilkBoy” sign, Joyner and Lokoff spoke out, vocalizing the open dirty secret of Philadelphia entrepreneurship—if you don’t hire all union to build in this city you will be harassed, or worse.
Against the backdrop of the union debacle going down in Wisconsin at the time (Gov. Scott Walker passed a budget that included stripping bargaining rights from state employees), the story went viral, saturating local media.
CBS quoted Pat Gillespie, head of the Building and Trades Council, as saying, “The carpenters won’t let up because there’s much more at stake.”
He’s right. They didn’t let up.
Five months later and on the verge of opening the new joint, Joyner wonders if speaking out was a good idea.
“Has it helped me? I don’t know. It helped me feel like I’m not a schmuck. But has it actually helped me? I don’t think so,” says Joyner. “Because honestly we feel like we’re being picked on by a large, highly funded, highly organized organization, not to be redundant. There’s just no way to get back at them because you think you’re getting somewhere, and [then] your place gets lit on fire.”
According to Capt. Jeffrey Thompson of the Philadelphia Fire Department, fire trucks were dispatched to 1100 Chestnut St. at 4:32 p.m. on Friday, June 17. A passer-by had noticed flames and called 911.
“The fire marshal concluded that the cause was incendiary,” says Thompson. “It was intentionally set.” Meaning: arson.
According to the fire marshal report, the fire originated in the center of the floor. The arsonist made a nest of debris, doused it with accelerant and dropped a match.
Joyner couldn’t believe it. “Someone would have to hide in here or have the key and let themselves in,” he says. Luckily, the sprinkler system kicked in right away, so the fire didn’t do any real physical damage; the construction schedule was only set back one day. But it burnt an impression into Joyner’s mind.
“We didn’t really go public with it. It was one of the travails of getting the place open that we chalked up to experience. I talked to union guys afterward and I said, ‘I want you to know, we heard the message. We fucked up. We got it.’ And they were like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no way we’d start a fire.’ I [said], ‘OK, but if there was a message in that, we got it.’”
Trade unions’ traditional war tactics rely on a balance of unabashed intimidation and harassment, murky political connections and public-relations campaigns that cast them as the victims.
The owners of MilkBoy Coffee, opening soon on 11th and Chestnut streets, say that with rates generally estimated to be between two and three times the rate of equally capable nonunion shops, it’s simply cost-prohibitive to hire all-union workers. But that didn't go over well with the Carpenters union.