Dream Makeover

Monday, February 23, 2015

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquierer

Take SEPTA's No. 34 trolley along Baltimore Avenue to 47th Street, and it will deposit you at the doorstep of Lee's Deli, home to such unusual creations as the Game Over Cheesesteak (chicken topped with shrimp and broccoli or spinach) and Tanzanian Fries (an East Africa-inspired omelet stuffed with fried potatoes, cheese, green peppers, and onions, and topped with hot sauce).

You also will witness a 22-year-old business in transition, changing in response to a West Philadelphia neighborhood itself taking on a new look as young professionals and families move in.

And if you introduce yourself to owner Insuk "Scott" Lee, behind the counter six days a week since he opened the corner eatery in 1993, you will experience a South Korean immigrant's abundant gratitude and joy in fulfilling his American entrepreneurial dream.

"It's the land of opportunity," Lee, 51, said of the country he has called home since arriving in 1989 in search of adventure, business opportunity, and better education for his three sons.

Those boys are Andrew, now 24 and working at an investment bank in New York; Eddy, 21, an economics major at Harvard University; and Alex, 19, studying nursing and business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lee credits them, and his wife, Hyesung "Grace" Lee, a pharmacist in South Korea, with helping him reimagine the family business. But perhaps the greatest sacrifice - though he insists it was more an honor - was Eddy's. He took a semester off from Harvard in the fall to help his father with the makeover.

"I spent the time doing what I always dreamed of doing - working alongside my dad, making sure I not only achieved my dreams, but my dad achieved his dreams as well," Eddy said on a recent weekend trip home. "Of all the things I accomplish, I feel this ranks at the very top."

Scott Lee, who lives near Villanova, looked around in awe at the chic red-and-black decor that replaced what Eddy described as a "kind of ugly" green and pink. What were plastic windows are now glass. An indoor air-conditioning unit replaced wall and window units. There's a new floor, too. Outside, a modern projecting sign replaced a vintage Coca-Cola wraparound.

"A miracle," Scott Lee called it. The credit, he said, goes not only to his family but to "Mr. Jon Potter and Patricia Blakely."

"They did things to make this happen," Lee said. "This is not my moment. This is their moment."

Potter is economic development manager of the University City District, a partnership of individuals, institutions, and businesses devoted to the neighborhood's vibrancy. Blakely runs the Merchants Fund, which offers grants to small businesses.

The Merchants Fund provided $10,000 for the interior upgrades at Lee's. Outside improvements were funded in part by the city Commerce Department's Storefront Improvement Program, which was offering a 50 percent reimbursement up to $12,000 for a corner property when Lee was approved, said Potter, the relationship manager for the facade program in the University City District.

Lee said the renovations totaled $20,000, with awnings expected in the summer.

"Family-owned companies are a vital asset to our neighborhoods and corridors," Blakely said in an e-mail. "An almost 30-year-old company willing to upgrade its interior, make its menu responsive to the new and changing neighbors is a no-brainer for TMF. Now you can get a tofu hoagie and a cheesesteak at one location!"

Actually, the aesthetics are catching up to the menu, Potter said.

"With the previous look, no one would see his business and expect a vegan cheesesteak inside," Potter said. Now, "I have vegetarian friends who come in from out of state and that's one of their go-tos," he said.

Drawn in by the new look for breakfast were Lynn Anderson and her children, Ibrahim, 8, and Phoenix, 6, of West Philadelphia.

Even though she's been a takeout regular at Lee's since before her children were born, Anderson, a social worker, said, "I never came to sit in. It's nice to have some place in West Philly where we can sit down and eat and be comfortable." She also cited the restaurant as kid-friendly and affordable.

The restaurant might never have gotten to its new look. Three years after the spot opened, a transformer exploded just outside, disrupting electricity for prolonged periods and closing the sidewalk out front for about a year.

"I was thinking, 'Should I keep doing this, or move to Canada, or work for somebody else?' " Lee recalled.

He ultimately obliged the motto he's lived by: "Never give up."

Diane Mastrull, Inquirer Staff Writer


View "Dream Makeover" at philly.com