Could people be lining up again for cheesesteaks at Fourth and South Streets by Memorial Day 2023?
“I have to put a line in the sand somewhere,” Jim’s South St. Steaks owner Ken Silver said Sunday, two days after a fire sent 125 first responds to the landmark and put him and his 33 employees out of work at the height of the summer business peak.
The damage from the fire, believed to have started in the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system, was not as bad as feared, Silver said. I have credited firefighters, who remained on the scene for 10 hours dousing hot spots.
» READ MORE: Two-alarm fire damages Jim’s South St. Steaks
City inspectors found the four-story, century-old building to be structurally sound, he said, moving up the timeline for reopening.
On Friday afternoon, Silver had vowed to rebuild, even as he feared that the building would be a total loss.
Water and smoke damage to the Art Deco interior was extensive, but impossible-to-reproduce memorabilia on the first- and second-floor walls — including poster-size photos of Kobe Bryant dunking over the Sixers and a scene of long-ago South Street —were spared.
“My files were intact,” said Silver, 58, who operates the business that his father, Abner, cofounded in 1976. “The receivable bills [were there]. It could have burned the bills up, right?”
Next door at Eye’s Gallery — the Latin American-themed boutique that Julia Zagar opened in 1968 with a facade decorated with mosaics by her husband, artist Isaiah Zagar — damage could close the business for a year. Three full-time employees and two part-timers had worked there.
“It’s devastating,” Julia Zagar said Sunday. “There’s four to five feet of water in the basement,” which was part of Eye’s sales space, she said. Soot covered merchandise, business records were damaged, and a “very potent” smell permeated the whole building, she said.
When Eye’s returns, “it will be a whole different place,” said Zagar, 82. “Back then, we were hippies making things out of found objects,” she said. “We’ll find our way back.”
A GoFundMe for the Jim’s workers has been created at https://gofund.me/5d67ca38. Through additional wages, “we’re going to take care of them and make them whole,” Silver said. “We’re not a big business. We’re a family-run, tightly knit group.”
A GoFundMe drive for Eye’s Gallery to support recovery efforts has been created at https://gofund.me/37e72a9f.
A temporary Jim’s location could be set up in a nearby storefront, Silver said. He said he has heard offers of support from the local business community.
Fresh food, including 3,000 pounds of beef stored in Jim’s basement freezer, will be trashed. A pallet of canned foods and dry goods that Tilotta’s Provisions had delivered Friday to Jim’s sidewalk was given to Ishkabibble’s, a nearby sandwich shop, Silver said.
Silver spent Saturday at MilkBoy, the bar-restaurant across the street, to await city inspectors and to greet well-wishers, including John Foy, a founder of Bridget Foy’s restaurant two blocks away. An electrical fire in 2017, whose origin appeared similar to Friday’s blaze, destroyed the restaurant. Bridget Foy reopened in December 2020 after it was rebuilt.
Silver watched as a stream of limo, Uber, and Lyft drivers pulled up outside of Jim’s to drop off customers — many from out of town — who had not heard about the fire.
“There’s this family from the Middle East who always comes to us as soon as they land,” he said. “Their reaction was heartwarming,” he said.
The business traces its founding to 1939, when Jim Perligni (by some accounts spelled Pearligni) opened the store at 62nd and Noble Streets in West Philadelphia. The business was sold in the mid-1960s to William Proetto.
In 1976, Abner Silver, a lawyer who had done work for Proetto, joined him in opening the Jim’s at Fourth and South Streets, then Philadelphia’s Fabric Row. South Street was literally at a crossroads in the 1970s, as plans for a crosstown expressway had been scuttled shortly before and businesses catering to young people — such as JC Dobbs and the TLA — were moving in.
The location was a natural for cheesesteaks, a tourist favorite, thanks to Pat’s and Geno’s in South Philadelphia.
Silver, who also had a shop called Abner’s at 38th and Chestnut Streets, assumed sole ownership of what is formally Jim’s South St. Steaks & Hoagies after Proetto’s death in 2011. Shortly after, Silver’s son, Ken, took over the business as his father was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He died at age 79 in 2015.
The Proetto family operates the Jim’s Steaks location in Springfield, Delaware County.