2018 Readers’ Choice Awards: And the winners are …

By Bill Gelman and Tom Beck


Winning diagnosis

Photos by Mark Carosiello

Face it, going to the auto mechanic can be like a trip to the doctor. You don’t necessarily want to go, but like the human body, car engines, brakes and tires require a little TLC. Frank Saur and his team at 11th Street Auto, 820–22 S. 11th St., seem to have customer service down pat as they are back in the top spot in this Readers’ Choice category.

“I am extremely excited,” Saur said. “I want to thank the customers for taking the time to vote for us. It means a lot.”

The business, which was started by Saur’s father, William, has been around for more than four decades, handling everything from oil changes to brakes repairs to the other maintenance that may come up. Sometimes appointments are scheduled, other times customers come in to deal with one of those “oh no” situations.

“We make sure everything is being done the way it’s supposed to be done,” Saur said.

The 11th Street Auto repair team includes four mechanics, who Saur said do exceptional work.

Taking a car in for service, at times, can be extremely stressful, so when customers drop off a car, he does his best to comfort them like a doctor would when a patient is not feeling well.

“I tell them we are going to figure this out for you, and get you back on the road safely,” Saur said. “We understand the stress that they are under.”

Others times, customers dread the phone call. You know the one in which your car needs … and it will cost …

When it comes time to make the call, Saur, who has been part of the business since 1976, shares all the information with the customer, including any work that may need to be done.

“I tell them, this is what we are going to do and why we are going to do it,” Saue said, “I never push them to make a decision. I always tell them to take all the time they need to think about it.”

Sometimes the car is simply not worth fixing. But if it, Saur and his team will be there ready to handle the repairs.

Foreign Fix, 822 Reed St., pulled into second place, while Pin­nacle Auto Re­pairs and Tires, 1119 Catharine St., parked in the third position.

Readers invested in PFCU

It was more than 65 years ago when Philadelphia Federal Credit Union, which won the Readers’ Choice Award for best bank, first opened its doors in 1952. It initially opened as a credit union for Philadelphia’s municipal employees, but since then so much has changed.

“We’ve grown exponentially now that our charter allows us,” said the credit union’s spokeswoman Karen Eavis. Nowadays anybody can open an account at PFCU as long as you live, work or study in Philadelphia. Or even if you have a family member who does.

PFCU has more than 11 branches, but the South Philly branch — located at 929 Snyder Ave. — has been there almost 10 years.

Eavis says Philadelphians prefer PFCU over many banks because, unlike credit unions, which are nonprofits, banks are profit-driven.

“Credit unions work for our members,” she said. “We return our products back to our members on higher dividends on their savings. We have lower rates on our loans.”

Many people find, according to Eavis, that people find PFCU to be an attractive credit union for low interest rate auto loans and because there are no high fees.

“We’re honored to receive the award,” said Eavis. “it’s nice knowing that it came from the readers. We serve the people in the community.”

In addition to winning the award, the credit union is proud of its commitment to the community. Over the years, it has sponsored various city events such as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby, the Columbus Day Parade and more. Additionally, the organization has helped local young people by putting on financial seminars at local schools.

PNC Bank, 8th and Christian streets, deposited second-place votes while TD Bank, Broad and Jackson streets, convientiantly finished in third.

Feeding expectations

“It’s all about the food.”

Ask Carmen D’Aquilante, owner of Swan Caterers/Waterfall Room, 2015 S. Water St., about what it takes to run a successful catering hall, and that will likely be his immediate response. The food is leaving a lasting impression in the form of a Readers’ Choice Award.

“I am ecstatic because the people chose me,” he said.

Of course he mentioned “the food.”

D’Aquilante does not want one of his customers asking a significant other to go grab a pizza after a five-hour function.

“A lot of guys don’t concentrate on food. They put the makeup on to make it look good,” D’Aquilante said. “You have to be consistent in this business.”

He added quality, quantity and decor as the other important factors.

Being a catering hall, the Swan Caterers team is ready to do whatever it takes to meet his customer’s needs. It includes preparing ethnic Chilean dishes for a Chilean customer who was getting married there. When asked about the food at a tasting, D’Aquilante was told “This is better than the food I get back home.”

The Waterfall Room, complete with a dance floor, has a capacity for 225 guests, and can be set up for weddings, reunions, anniversary parties, corporate events, as well as just about any other occasion people are looking to host. There is additional tent space complete with hardwood floors and chandeliers, and is available March through December.

The Swan Caterers success story is one that has been going strong for 52 years, and was started by Carmen’s late father, Frank D’Aquilante, who opened the original Swan Caterers at 1500 W. Shunk St., and the space remains available for functions today. Carmen started in the business at age 12.

“My dad would tell me “you are as good as your last function’,” D’Aquilante recalled. “I didn’t understand it at the beginning, but I caught on fast.”

Swan Caterers/Waterfall Room remains a family business with Crysta, his daughter, serving as the banquet manager and Frank, his son, handling the bar. D’Aquilante’s other daughter, Joy, fills in when needed. D’Aquilante also noted his 94-year-old mother, Flo, still gets her two cents in about the business.

Galdo’s, 1933 W. Moyamensing Ave., threw a second-place celebration while the IATSE Ballroom, 2401 S. Swanson St., danced the night away in third.

Still got the groove

When some people hear the word “dance,” they immediately respond “no, thank you” or just walk away in fear of making a fool of themselves. Jason Douglas, however, is one of those people who has no problem hanging on the dance floor. Same with the hundreds of students a week he sees at Jason Douglas DanceAdelphia, 1100 Snyder Ave.

“Dance is really sports with theater added to it,” he said.

But whether they are parents or students or the grandmother who comes in from Ocean City, N.J., Douglas is leaving a lasting impression in the form of the Readers’ Choice Award for dance studio.

“I am very grateful,” Douglas said of the award. “We are constantly trying to change with the times.”

It includes adding a Ninja Warrior obstacle course inside the gym following the popularity of the hit NBC reality show “American Ninja Warrior.” The class stresses upper body and core strength, including jumping the right way, climbing tires and going through them. While Douglas enjoys the training part, he has no intention of trying out for the show.

“No, I am cool with that,” he said with a laugh. “That’s got to be your whole life. You’ve got to eat, sleep and drink that.”

DanceAdelphia is his life. It’s a business mother and grandmother started more than 60 years ago, and he is just building upon what they started. Besides teaching classes, Douglas takes a personal interest by preparing children for life.

“I stress body language. What you say with your body is how you come off to people,” he said. “Kids get things so instantly that if they don’t get it right away they get frustrated. I try to give the kids hope to never give up.”

Many of them are preparing for the June extravaganza taking place at the 2300 Arena, 2300 S. Swanson St., as there simply is not enough space in the studio for family and friends to attend the show. Douglas noted it is getting to the point that DanceAdelphia is outgrowing the place it has called home for the last 21 years. Talk about changing with the times.

Dance Unlimited, 1200 Wharton St., did a second-place dance, while Pennsport School of Dance, 1632 S. Second St., and All That Jazz, 1239 W. Ritner St., tapped in a third-place tie.

Over the moon

Photo provided by Moonstone Preschool

There is no doubt South Philadelphia has its share of children — thousands of them. Before they enter the public or parochial school system, parents enroll their son or daughter in a daycare/preschool as an introduction to the learning world. With so many options to choose from, picking one can be a difficult task, but Moonstone Preschool, 750 S. 11th St., is the Readers’ Choice winner.

“We are so happy and honored to be named the top daycare/preschool by readers,” Shannon Roscoe, director, said. “Many of our families live in South Philly, and we love being part of the community.”

Moonstone has a lot to celebrate this year, as February marked its 35th anniversary. It was founded by Sandy Robin, and has always called South Philly home. Previous locations included Bainbridge Street and 9th and Catherine Street before settling into its current spot. Roscoe, who has been with the Moonstone family for more than 13 years, said their approach to learning makes them different.

“We engage students in an art-based, thematic curriculum,” she said.

Library and storytelling, music, art and language are the different areas. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences serves as their guide, “in that we believe each child has preferred ways of learning.”

Robin, an artist and early child educator, has played a role in the success story, too, by developing a program that fostered the love of learning.

Roscoe is looking forward to what future years of Moonstone’s success story may bring.

“Having been part of the Moonstone family for more than 13 years, I have witnessed the magic of Moonstone firsthand,” Roscoe said. “I am so proud to be carrying on Moonstone’s tradition of learning, and I look forward to the next 35 years.”

Alphabet Academy, 1510 E. Passyunk Ave., and Forever Young, 1125 W. Moyamensing Ave., finished second and third, respectively.

Flowery delight

The floral industry is a packed market in South Philly, but only one business can be crowned South Philly’s favorite. This year, it’s The Petal Pusher, 2515 S. Broad St., taking first place for florist.

“I am so excited,” said owner JoAnn Vacca. “That’s so nice. It’s an honor after all these years to still be recognized.”

When Vacca says “all these years,” she’s not kidding. The business was started by her husband, John, in October 1969.

“Then we got married the following year,” she said.

John and JoAnn are true locals as well; they live above the store.

At The Petal Pusher, there are many services to choose from. The florist does weddings, funerals, everyday flowers, balloons, fruit baskets, breakfast baskets and more.

“My husband does a lot of speciality pieces. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats he’ll do everything in flowers.”

The store is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

Vacca thinks the store’s outstanding customer service is a large reason why it’s become such a beloved aspect of the South Philadelphia business community.

“Being attentive to [customers’] needs and trying to help them with what they want” are the key examples, Vacca said. “We always try to give everything the personal touch and try to be reasonable and friendly — along with being creative.”

Because the nature of the business involves so much creativity, Vacca says she and her husband try to stay ahead of the curve — another reason why customers keep coming back.

“I’m very overwhelmed,” Vacca said of winning the award. “It’s so nice. It’s a big honor.”

Ten Pennies, 1921 S. Broad St., blossomed in second while Betty Ann Italian Market Florist, 902 S. 9th St., was looking rosey in third.

Alive and well

Photo provided by Brian Dnonelly

When talking about life, you never hear about a person living to be 120 years old. In the business world, 120 years and counting is considered extremely successful. Ironically, we are talking about the funeral home business, more specifically Murphy Ruffenach, Brian W. Donnelly Funeral Home Inc., 2237–41 S. 3rd St. Families in need following the loss of a loved one have called upon owner/funeral director Brian Donnelly and his staff to help them get through their grieving period. We are talking some 200 funerals a year. The vote of approval has come in the form of a Readers’ Choice Award.

“I am really happy and excited,” Donnelly said about the win. “I am proud to be in this position. I think it’s a great thing that we are doing.”

Donnelly has been involved with the funeral business since age 14 when he was a student at St. John Neumann High School, formerly at 25th and Moore streets. He opened his first funeral home in 2002. Murphy Funeral Home dates back to 1897 and went on to become Murphy Ruffenach Funeral Home in 1994. The current business name was established in 2013. Clients come from all over the city and suburbs, including Northeast Philadelphia, Langhorne and Levittown. The results have come in the form of getting new calls from customers. In the end, whether a family decides to honor a loved one via burial or cremation, it’s all about honoring that person’s life. Murphy Ruffenach, Brian W. Donnelly Funeral Home helps with providing grief support resources. Like other businesses, it’s about keeping up with the times.

“I never thought the business would change as much as it has in the last eight to 10 years,” he said.

Donnelly, who is involved with the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Festival, Whitman Council and Shooting Stars Fancy Brigade, is very excited about the future as his two sons, Jonathan, 18, and Shane, 14, currently are helping out at the funeral home and are preparing for a future in the business.

Monti-Rago Funeral Home, 2531–35 S. Broad St., and Pennsylvania Burial Co./Baldi Funeral Home, 1327–29 S. Broad St., were honored in second and third, respectively.

Muscling its way into first place

If you peruse the winners of this year’s Readers’ Choice Awards, you’ll find South Philadelphians tend to prefer the small, local, mom-and-pop businesses around the neighborhood. It can be difficult for large corporations to earn the respect of blue collar Philadelphians, but that’s exactly what Planet Fitness, a company started in Canada and headquartered in Hampton, N.H., did.

“With all the competition here it’s a great honor,” said the South Philly branch’s manager Brian Turner. “It’s a great accomplishment.”

The gym located at 2350 W. Oregon Ave. is open 24/7 with only a few exceptions on major holidays. Besides its around-the-clock accessibility, it only costs $10 a month to join, and it’s geared particularly for those who need an extra kick in the butt to get to the gym.

“We’re a very user-friendly gym,” Turner said. “We have free fitness instructors who teach members how to use the equipment and get them started. It’s a huge aspect.”

Not to mention, on the first Monday of every month, members are treated to free pizza and bagels. For just an extra $12 a month, members can get the black card membership, which’ll get you access to massage chairs, tanning beds, 20 percent off Reebok products, half price cooler drinks and more.

“It’s a low-cost gym, Turner said. “We try to make customers feel welcome when they come in, and the staff is very friendly.”

The gym is a relative newcomer on the Philly scene; its grand opening was on Dec. 31, 2008.

Fitness Works Fitness Center, 714 Reed St., ran its way into second place, and Blink Fitness, 330 W. Oregon Ave., lifted its way into third.

The winning look

Diane Bosco continues to enjoy a very successful career of making people look and feel good about themselves. Thirty-one years, to be exact.

The clients ranging from infant to age 94 are loving Hot Waves, 1200 W. Ritner St., feeling good as the location has earned Readers’ Choice recognition as the top hair salon.

“It’s exhilarating because we work very hard to sustain our position in the city to stay current and be a fashion-forward salon,” Bosco, Hot Waves founder and artistic director, said. “Frankly, I couldn’t do it without my staff. I have an amazing team.”

The Hot Waves team consists of nine hair designers and two others working the front desk.

The hair salon business is a highly competitive one, as South Philly residents could easily travel to Center City or South Jersey to have their hair done. Bosco uses the slogan “an uptown salon with a downtown address” to keep the customers coming.

Bosco operated four locations at one time, including one at Second and Christian streets that was open for 19 years. It closed in 2009. The others were in Packer Park and on the beach in Florida — it was literally on the beach. Bosco decided consolidating operations back to the original location was the best for business. Bosco also enjoys sharing her experience and expertise with the hair designers who are fresh out of school. She holds a weekly class that touches on everything from how to hold a comb to being a successful businesswoman. As long as they have the “passion, desire and ability to do the work,” Bosco is ready to share her educational tips.

“It takes time to get to the end goal,” she said,

Outside of the salon, her team will be participating in the Philadelphia Take Steps for Crohn’s Colitis on Sunday, May 20 at Citizens Bank park, 1 Citizens Bank Way. The salon is also doing a special service in which 100 percent of the proceeds will be donated to the cause.

Headhunters Hair Design, 1718 E. Passyunk Ave., styled in second while Magic Shears, 1103 E. Passyunk Ave., was looking good in third.

Putting a ring on it

Sure, the above reference could easily refer to the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, but enough with the football talk. In this case, we’re referring to Armando Rey Jewelers, 816 S. 9th St., the 38-year-old business where customers can come and purchase a ring before popping that all-important question. Rey was happy to hear about his loyal customers voting him as their preferred jeweler in the Readers’ Choice Awards for the second year in a row.

“We are very honored to be selected for the second year in a row,” owner Armando Rey said. “It just means the world to us. We just love our customers.”

Besides doing repairs on the premises, Rey handles custom designs and latest styles. In terms of those engagement rings, Rey said he notices a difference with the way things are done today. Years, ago, he said, the guys would come in, pick something out and just surprise his soon-to-be significant other. Over the last decade, he noted, more and more women are coming into the store to pick out options, so it becomes a semi-surprise.

“We try to help them pick out the perfect ring,” Rey said. “We want it to be something so special that they treasure it for a lifetime.”

He recalled one customer who purchased a ring and left it in the window display, with the words “Will You Marry Me.” Following a nice dinner at nearby Ralph’s, the couple walked by store, and the guy pointed to the window before getting down on one knee. Family members were inside the store waiting. The rings are just one aspect of the business, which is busiest around Christmas time, while Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are a couple of the other jewelry-shopping occasions. In terms of customers, Rey, and his wife, Alice, have reached the point where there are three generations of family members coming into the store. Fittingly, their daughters, Lauren and Deanna, come in and help out mom and dad when they can.

Olivieri Jewelers, 2523 S. Broad St., and Pietro Jewelers, 1501 Packer Ave., received the silver and bronze, respectively.

Fashionable feeling

When it comes to clothing, Deborah Scipione knows a thing or two. A career in the fashion industry has a little something to do with it. In 1992, Chique Bebe specialized in children’s clothing. She kept it opened until 2004, at which point she switched gears and opened Bianca Simone, 1740 E. Passyuunk Ave. Fourteen years later, customers are still loving the fashions as it claimed the Readers’ Choice prize for specialty shop.

The store name’s is a tribute to her late mother, Bianca Simone, whom she lost to cancer more than 16 years ago.

“My mother’s style and character gave me the inspiration for Bianca Simone,” Scipione said. “She was a beautiful person inside and out. I couldn’t think of a better name.

“I knew with her on my side, I couldn’t lose.”

When it comes to ladies clothing, the store has just about every age and occasion covered. Besides clothing options for infants, teenagers and women, it’s the go-to place for Holy Communion, prom, mother of the bride and mother of the groom dresses. With Easter fast approaching, Bianca Simone is ready to help customers look their Easter Sunday best.

When a customer steps into Bianca Simone, it’s all about sending them home looking and feeling good. Scipione uses her experience in the business to meet the needs of her shoppers.

“They will never be disappointed in the service I provide and the quality of my product,” she said. “I would like to thank them.”

Molly’s Books and Records, 1010 S. 9th St., put second place in the books while Di Bruno Bros., 930 S. 9th St., was presented a third-place special.

Super-market moment

No matter where you reside, supermarkets are a necessity. Sure, going out to eat is fun, but having a fully stocked pantry, refrigerator and freezer opens the door to so many more options for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Residents have their preferred go-to spot, but the overall feeling among readers is that ACME is their grocery shopping destination of choice. There is clearly a demand in South Philly with locations at 10th and Reed, 19th and Johnston and Snyder and Swanson. The latter of the trio is the newest, having opened last September.

“ACME is honored to be chosen as the South Philly Review Readers’ Choice winner for favorite supermarket, and is thrilled to continue to bring the very best of ACME to South Philadelphia for many years to come,” said Dana Ward, senior communications coordinator for ACME markets, said.

Like produce, ACME Markets Inc.continues to open fresh locations, but its story dates back to 1891 when two friends, Samuel Robinson and Robert Crawford, opened a small neighborhood grocery store at Second and Fernon streets.

Today, it’s a “one-stop shopping experience” for customers that includes grab-and-go deli items, fresh cut fruits and vegetables, beer and wine, as well as special desserts from the bakery. Shoppers get rewarded, too, via MyMixx digital coupons, MONOPOLY and Sunoco gas rewards.

While each location carries the same products, customers tend to frequent one location. The Passyunk Square-based store was the preferred spot among Readers’ Choice voters. No matter which store shoppers choose, the team is ready to meet customer demand.

“Our store directors are community focused and are continuously working with their neighbors to provide services and product offerings to the unique taste of each community,” Ward said.

ShopRite of Whitman Plaza, 330 W. Oregon Ave., bagged a second-place finish, while ShopRite of Oregon Avenue, 23rd Street and Oregon Avenue, checked out in third.