Lori Knauer and Jill Bennett Gaieski figured that, if they were going to bring a wine bar to a dry town, it would be wise to attend Vinexpo New York. So, in February 2018, they had business cards made identifying themselves as the proprietors of a nonexistent business and showed up at Manhattan’s Javits Center to look around.
Three years later, the two resourceful attorneys are proprietors of Village Vine, a 50-seat hot spot in Swarthmore’s tiny downtown area. Now a year old, it’s a smash with locals and those who don’t mind traveling a bit to taste a diverse collection of wines and sample executive chef Chris Galbraith’s small-plate menu. It’s poised to serve in the vanguard of what many hope will be a commercial boom in the borough, which has long clung to its status as an eccentric residential enclave but has recently been flirting with a more updated identity. “There are multiple factions in town,” says Gaieski, who serves on the borough council. “You have one made up of people who want to see progress, and there are some who want things to stay the old way.”
In mid-April, Wallingford-based developer Jason Kilpatrick was dining outside with his family at Village Vine when he glanced across the street at the community garden he’d curated and pondered how perfect the whole scenario was. “Swarthmore is ready to catapult ahead,” he says. “It’s going to move forward. People here want to work together. It’s like being at a dance and hearing the best song—and then the next song begins, and it’s even better.”
Kilpatrick owns 52 property units in town. He estimates that about 40 are residential and the rest are small businesses like Hobbs Coffee, Dance Happy Designs and the Poco Loco boutique. He’s a primary engine in what he calls Swarthmore’s renaissance. Its leaders expect the next decade to bring a burgeoning retail, dining and residential presence. Although the area isn’t big enough to handle a downtown presence the size of Media or West Chester, it can certainly be more robust and energetic.
Unfailingly positive, Kilpatrick speaks about “bending the universe.” He prefers not to focus on anyone who may be upset about the planned growth. Some Swarthmore residents would prefer that things stay the same—dry and quiet. But the number of people who want to see at least moderate change is growing.
“There might be an old guard. But there’s a hip new flavor coming to town,” Kilpatrick says.
Knauer and Gaieski certainly aren’t in favor of stasis. Each halted a successful law career to open a restaurant, hanging with it during the worst of times. A central Pennsylvania native, Knauer spent 10 years working for a firm in Philadelphia, then 20-plus as a corporate counsel for DuPont. Gaieski grew up in Florida. After a stint with the state attorney’s office in that state, she worked for the Philadelphia district attorney and a few area firms before earning a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked as a genetic anthropologist.
The two friends studied at the Wine School of Philadelphia before applying for one of just two liquor licenses Swarthmore residents had approved in a 2016 referendum. They got it in October 2019. It wasn’t easy, but their legal acumen helped. “The bottom line was we just decided to keep going and get the license,” Knauer says.
Like the town in which it resides, Village Vine is eclectic. The walls are covered with paintings by artists of all kinds—some for sale. Gaieski decoupaged the bar with a menagerie of clippings from The Swarthmorean, the town’s weekly paper, creating a discussion topic for patrons. Inside, there’s room for about 35 people, and there are several table configurations on the street outside. Knauer and Gaieski envision Village Vine as a community focal point built around food and wine. “Our mission is to introduce people to lesser-known regions that produce wine,” Gaieski says. “We want to tell the stories behind the production.”
The two women financed Village Vine with their own savings. They want a strong restaurant presence, with tastings, classes and other wine-centered events. “I look forward to doing what we wanted to do before the pandemic,” Knauer says. “We haven’t had a chance to do everything we want.”
And if it happens to mesh with a Swarthmore that features other restaurants and appropriate shopping, that’s great. “But I don’t want a CVS on the corner,” Gaieski says.