COVER PROFILE: Through Hell and High Water

Mar 28, 2017 0 comments
COVER PROFILE: Through Hell and High Water

By Leo Dillinger

Photography by Susan Beard Design

Bruce Cooper woke to an alarming phone call around 4 a.m. on Friday, July 15, 2016. In his 29 years of owning a restaurant, Bruce had never received such shocking news.

“My tenant called me and said there was water shooting out of the sidewalk,” Bruce said. “Then, the fire department called. It’s never a good sign when they say they need to get into your basement. All I could think was ‘Holy crap. It’s more than like a foot of water.’ I walked across the cement out front and the sidewalk felt like it was going to collapse beneath me.”

A massive water main break left his building without power, a restaurant covered in water and mud, a flooded basement, and a façade on the verge of caving in. Bruce had no other option but to indefinitely shut down Jake’s & Cooper’s Wine Bar due to circumstances beyond his control.

“I came in and looked at it, and it was pretty emotional because you have no clue what’s about to happen in your life,” Bruce said. “You just think to yourself, ‘This could be it.’”

Even though seven months of closed doors was difficult for both his staff and customers, the incident gave Bruce the opportunity to take a step back from the day-to-day of running a restaurant and make some changes he felt were long overdue. After some reassuring calls from his insurance agent and the strenuous process of cleaning, redesigning, permitting, and construction, Bruce and his team are finally back up and running as they approach their 30th anniversary on Main Street.

Bruce has worked in the food industry since 1969, starting out setting up tables for banquets and meetings while attending high school in Syracuse, NY. After graduation, he went on to earn a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY in 1974. Bruce spent a few more years working at a hotel in downtown Syracuse before relocating to Philadelphia and taking a job in the doctors’ dining room at Lankenau Medical Center in 1977.

While at Lankenau, Bruce researched numerous available properties and collected ideas from the finest dining establishments around the Philadelphia area in hopes to conceptualize a restaurant of his own. Eventually, he managed to stumble upon a space at 4365 Main Street and after nearly a decade at Lankenau, Bruce gave notice and opened “Jake’s Restaurant” on Black Monday, November 19, 1987.

“When I opened, it was a simple recipe—just open a restaurant that people come back to over and over again,” Bruce said. “And that’s sort of what has happened. It was just something I wanted to do and that I loved doing.”

Even though he was the new kid on the block back then, Bruce saw the success of Jake’s take off in an instant. Some staples like crab cakes, salmon, and cake pudding have been on the menu since the very beginning with minor alterations due to their popularity. But even in his early moments of prosperity, Bruce had already set his sights on expanding his business to the neighboring property at 4367 Main Street.

For years, he chased down the owner and made offers to rent or buy the space. Bruce likes to refer to it as “the largest game of chicken I’ve ever played.” It wasn’t until 2008 when Bruce had finally made a suitable offer and purchased the property to begin his second project: Cooper’s Brick Oven Wine Bar.

By that time, the restaurant industry had changed dramatically in the two decades that Jake’s had already been open. Bruce recognized the fine dining days of old with white-linen tablecloths had transitioned into a much more casual atmosphere. Bruce wanted his second project to reflect just that. When Cooper’s opened over Labor Day weekend of 2008, it was treated as a totally separate entity to the longstanding Jake’s with a unique layout and menu of brick oven pizza, light bites, and small plates.

“I was going to turn it into a gastropub or something like that because the costs of running a small business were getting greater and greater, and my prices weren’t going up,” Bruce said. “Everything has gone up since I first bought Jake’s—health insurance, electric, water. The price of a salad and an entrée haven’t gone up like everything else. So my options were to either enlarge or scale down.”

Before the end of 2008, Bruce discovered some of Cooper’s customers wanted to order entrées off of the Jake’s menu while Jake’s customers were eager to try the pizza and small plates from the Cooper’s side. He ultimately decided to fuse both restaurants together by cutting an archway into the wall between buildings to form Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar. To this day, Bruce still has steadfast customers who refuse to sit on the Cooper’s side, and some who refuse to sit on the Jake’s side, even though it’s all the same restaurant now.

Bruce has managed to master the art of adapting to the times while maintaining a consistent product. For the grand reopening, he and his team revamped their wine list to feature all hand-selected, organic small batches at very affordable prices. He unraveled a new happy hour menu with specialty items only available during those hours. Bruce is also excited to showcase his new brunch items, seasonal entrées, and small plates for the spring.

“I try not to be trendier than my customers because then I’m only hurting myself,” Bruce said. “Understanding what they do and what they’re looking for is the single most important thing.”

What makes Bruce such a successful entrepreneur is how his passion for cooking has transpired into a greater compassion for both his employees and patrons. One of Bruce’s longtime employees, Abdoulaye “Chef T” Soumah, has worked at the restaurant since 1999. As an immigrant from Guinea in West Africa, Chef T came to America to start a better life. Though he hardly spoke English at the time, Bruce gave him a chance to prove himself as a dishwasher. Sure enough, he did just that—so much so that Chef T climbed the ranks from dishwasher to prep cook, to line cook and finally, a Chef de cuisine. Though the last 18 years haven’t been an easy journey for him, Chef T attributes much of his personal success to his boss and friend.

“Bruce is a wonderful man. He’s like a godfather to me,” Chef T said. “He always helps me no matter what the situation and he always puts the customer first. Every day that I tell God, ‘Thank you,’ I tell Bruce Cooper, ‘Thank you,’ because he gave me the opportunity to have my American Dream.”

Manayunk can attribute much of its success to Bruce as well. He served on the board of the Manayunk Development Corporation for 25 years with the last six years (2010-2016) being President. He was vital in overcoming the days of the infamous Manayunk restaurant moratorium and helped reach an agreement with the neighborhood that paved the way for new businesses to open in Manayunk. During his time in Manayunk, he’s witnessed the baby boomers come and go, the slow rise of Generation X’s presence and leadership on Main Street, and now a brand new crop of millennial entrepreneurs looking to make a name for themselves in the neighborhood he’s thrived in for nearly three decades.

“When I come down here in the morning, it feels like my home,” Bruce said in a solemn tone. “Thirty years in this neighborhood is a very long time. I’m here more than I am at home. There are a lot of neighborhoods that have been up and down. This is still one that’s been strong for a long period of time. Not many places can say that.”

After the long hiatus, Bruce, Chef T, and the 25 employees who work at Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar are thrilled to be serving the community once again. For the first time since the merging of Jake’s with Cooper’s in 2008, Bruce feels like he’s opening a brand new restaurant. What’s more impressive is that after 29 years on Main Street, Bruce has endured through the good times and the bad—and still retains a passion for his craft.

“I still love doing it,” Bruce said. “I hadn’t stopped thinking about work even when I was closed. I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to work the next 10 years, because I thought I would be done at 60, but I wouldn’t even know what to do. I’d wake up and go, ‘What do I do now?’”

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