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May 18, 2015

Rittenhouse gay bar wins business award, plans food menu

Discreet bar planning small-scale renovation

Stir Lounge Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Stir Lounge, located along the alleyway connecting 17th Street and Rittenhouse Square, won 2015's PNC LGBT Business Award.

Buried in the alleyway of Chancellor Street -- a stretch that quickly emerges as Rittenhouse Square -- is the gay bar no stranger to Philly's LGBT community would recognize, let alone step into. Concealed by a strip of white wall with an entrance path that curves like a highway exit lane, it's not exactly an obvious destination spot for the unknowing passerby strolling past.

But fear not, friends: Stir Lounge is far from seedy and, as of last week, is actually of award-winning status.

On Monday, the bar received the fifth-annual PNC LGBT Business Award, given to LGBT businesses that can provide the most solid plan for how they plan to sustain and grow their business.

”We were really surprised when we won -- I wasn’t even going to go for it really," Holly Johnson, who co-owns Stir Lounge with business partner (and former girlfriend) Stacey Vey, told PhillyVoice. "We were bartending a women in business event for IBA about a month before the business plan was due, and there were people there who said, ‘Why don’t you try for this business award?’ We’d been talking about the concept of adding food to Stir -- appetizers, snacks -- and I was like, ‘Yeah, that would be great.’"

The plan, with the $10,000 they received, is to knock down a wall next to their current kitchen and expand it into a closet space that's currently used as a coat check. By September, she hopes to have hired a kitchen manager and have a menu of bar appetizers that are "upscale" but inexpensive, and non-greasy. She pointed to homemade potato chips with dip as an example, and added that she'd also like to purchase a panini press for the kitchen.

Stir Lounge IBA
Stacey Vey, left, and Holly Johnson, right, pose with their $10,000 cash prize. JPG Photography/ Independence Business Alliance

PNC, a sponsor of the Independence Business Alliance-organized awards luncheon, upped its cash prize this year from $5,000 to $10,000, upon realizing that $5,000 in today's market is not enough to actually create a business plan of very much substance. PNC Investment Director and competition judge David Huting told PhillyVoice that Stir walked away with the money thanks to, aside from its kitchen plan, its committed involvement in the LGBT community (playing host to LGBT-org reception events, particularly). Stir competed with 12 other finalists.

“The interesting thing with Stir, is they applied the first year and did not win, and they came around this year and had a specific plan -- even with a detailed cost of items that they would put in," Huting said. "Reality with that space is, you have a few drinks after work and you get late-night food at Little Pete’s, and with Little Pete’s [potentially] closing, you can keep customers longer if you have food there."

The award is, aside from being a means of expanding, also a testament of how far the bar's come since it opened in 2008 when all eyes were skeptical of how the bar would fare.

“The talk was, ‘It was never going to work – it’s outside the Gayborhood,'" Johnson said. "Honestly, we’ve found that there are a lot of gay people living on this side of Broad Street and it’s a neighborhood spot, and with the hotel and the restaurants around us, we get a lot of industry people coming in after work. It's a nice option for gay people to have that location and get out of the Gayborhood sometimes, and be close to Rittenhouse and everything that has to offer."

Stir, located at 1706 Chancellor Street, replaced what was once The Post, a long-running gay bar of the cheap-booze-and-strippers dive variety that better fit the archetype of the dark-alley bar. What nestled into the space as its replacement was Stir's almost ironically chic interior and clinking martini glasses -- which often contain crassly named specialty cocktails like the "Big Prick."

Stir Outside
The exterior of Stir Lounge, located in a quiet alleyway that funnels into the bustle of Rittenhouse Square.

Johnson cited its weekday regulars -- those who are about 80 percent men, countering the notion that it's a lesbian bar -- as the ones who keep business strong, in addition to patrons of weekly event staples like Stirsday, a popular mixer-like party held every Thursday that lures in all ages and backgrounds with one-dollar drinks.

"I don't know where else you'll go to get dollar drinks in Rittenhouse," Johnson said. "That's definitely helped spread the word."

Long-term, Johnson expressed interest in further expanding by acquiring the second floor -- which she admitted may be a long way off. A purchaser from New York secured the space just three years ago, though it has yet to make use of the space.

And Stir's elusive, somewhat suspicious location? Not a problem, Johnson said -- something to be embraced, almost.

“It’s funny, because we look at Yelp reviews and they're like, ‘We were walking down this alley expecting to find this hole in the wall, and we walked through the door to find this chic lounge atmosphere!’" Johnson laughed. "I think the location really adds to the ambiance."