Local entrepreneur continues to have a “clear” vision for Midtown
Photo By Rick Snizik
Story By Randy Gross
There’s something that can be said about salvaging instead of demolishing. Building up rather than tearing down. Refurbishing and revitalizing. Those are all words vital to Josh Kesler’s entrepreneurial vocabulary, and it’s the way he’s turned those words into action in Midtown Harrisburg – and beyond – that have impacted the local community in ways too numerous to count. It is because of his efforts in transforming the former Stokes Millwork into a thriving restaurant, brewery, and multi-space arts studio and, perhaps even more important, the way that project’s farm-to-table model has helped to stabilize the city’s historic Broad Street Market, that Kesler has been selected as our “Influencer” of the month.
I sat down with Josh at The Millworks (340 Verbeke St., Harrisburg) recently for the following Q&A:
RG: Please take me back in time to your pre-Millworks days: were you born and raised in Central PA? What schools did you attend?
JOSH: I was born in Harrisburg. I went to Central Dauphin East High School. And for college, I went to Lebanon Valley College in Annville. I studied German and Political Science. Those are things that are very useful when you’re getting into the restaurant industry. (he laughs) I joke about the most common majors that we find in the restaurant industry are languages – Spanish, German – and English or Communications. Philosophy is a dead ringer. (laughs) There’s a type of individual that seems to gravitate to food & bev. They’re typically Humanities, like foreign cultures and food … there’s definitely somewhat of a type. Sometimes the kitchen is more of a scientific mind, an engineering mind – like the brewer, for instance, he’s a chemist.
Anyway, I went to LVC … I taught at the Harrisburg Academy for a couple years … then, after teaching, I was also in a band. You know, a life-long musician … my real passion was songwriting and playing in bands. That business is actually a little harder than the restaurant business. (laughs) So that was good training for the business that I’m in now.
So, then I went into real estate for years … buying, selling, flipping, that sort of thing. So, that’s kind of what got me going in the business world.
RG: So, was it in your mind back then that you would eventually own a restaurant?
JOSH: No, definitely not … hell, no. Or, if it did, I was like “Oh, I’ll never do that!” I actually found this building because an architect friend of mine was looking for a new project. I said, “there’s this great old building, I’ve never been in it, but I think it’s for sale.” So, we drove up here, and we came in and looked around, and I just fell in love with this building. And then I started thinking about all the possibilities, of what we could do with it. And the Susquehanna Art Museum was opening that next year … and I had had an idea before of having, like, band studios, common spaces, or whatever, and having a bar attached to it, so it kind of morphed from that. And I thought, well, maybe I could do artist studios. And then I met a local artist, Tara Chickey, and then she and I started putting it together, and she had a roster of artists, and she started showing the space and we got the whole thing rented out. So, after a 2 ½ year renovation, we finally got it open. Within the first 6 months here we realized we had something that people were really interested in.
RG: So, how was it that you were able to eventually gain the know-how – and funds – to invest in projects like The Millworks?
JOSH: I tried to do it on my own, which I was able to slowly get done. You know, I was selling a house here, to fund putting the roof on … and I’d sell another house to get a little bit further. And, once I got it to a point, I was able to bring some bank financing in. Where they could see that “well, now there’s a roof on it, and there’s a floor” and I got it a little closer to a vision standpoint, and then we got the artists on leases … and so, I was able to bring enough to the bank at that point, without any partners.
Sometimes when you have a clear vision of what you want to do, it’s a little easier to just put the blinders on and go. It’s fortunate, at this point, that we’ve been successful.
RG: So … what brought you initially to your interest in helping to revitalize Midtown Harrisburg?
JOSH: This was the first thing that I really got involved with in Midtown, even though my wife and I lived up on 4th street almost 20 years ago. I had sold a bunch of real estate and I was just looking for the next thing that would keep my interest, and that I really wanted to be a part of. And it started all coming together here. The bookstore down the street was already there … and the Broad Street Market … and I thought “is there a better place in our region that you might want to spend the afternoon than this little quadrant.” You know, it has an urban feel to it … and it’s like, there’s diversity in the city, there’s lots of different people and characters.
RG: At the website for The Millworks, in addition to all the cool stuff about reclaiming salvaged lumber and reusing brick from an old farmhouse for the wood-fired oven, the space itself is described as having a “true Bohemian atmosphere.” Do you think of yourself as a bohemian?
JOSH: Yeah, I guess so. In my sort of business role, you just have to be a little more mindful of the organization you’re running, and the responsibilities that you have with it. But I absolutely consider myself a bohemian outside of that role. And I guess that probably means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To me, the connotation is someone that’s interested in multi-faceted humanities, art and music, and food and bev … not very status driven, and pretty chill.
RG: You’ve been a good friend to local farmers, and also to Broad Street Market (and even serve on the Market’s board of directors). How important do you think it is to have strong “farm-to-table” connections within the local community?
JOSH: You know, I think it’s been very impactful. At this point, we’re over 2 million dollars of food purchases from local farms in our 5 or 6 years of operation … I think it’s made a real impact, and I think it’s really interesting to see how connected that economic chain is, from the consumer who comes in, through the restaurant, back to the farmer. But I realize that all of that impact comes from the customers and the consumers coming in. Without them wanting to make the impact that they want to make, none of that works. It doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t work for the farmer … really, at the end of the day, it’s about that in the end. We’re thankful that that demand has been here for us, and that we’re able to pass that through to the farmers.
RG: You’ve also committed yourself to helping to promote the local arts scene, and The Millworks even has spaces devoted to local artists and craftspeople. How would you describe the local arts community to someone visiting Harrisburg for the first time?
JOSH: What I hear a lot from customers coming in, or people that I’m talking to, they say “I never knew there were so many artists in Harrisburg.” That’s what I hear most often. So, I think there’s a vibrancy to the arts community in Harrisburg that people might not be aware of if they’re not from Harrisburg. And, over the last 10 years, I’ve seen a lot of artists and musicians starting to gravitate to the city … because it’s a great place to live and it’s relatively affordable compared to some larger markets.
RG: In 2019, you opened another restaurant, The Watershed Pub, in a place you and your family had lived in for almost 10 years, Camp Hill – and kudos to you for once again preserving the architectural distinctiveness of the building, plus using “sustainable sourcing” for all the seafood. Do you foresee any additional plans for the Camp Hill area?
JOSH: At this point, from a population base, I’m not seeing much more development going on. I mean, we love The Watershed Pub, it’s a great building and a great community. But we don’t have any future plans for expansion in Camp Hill.
RG: And now, you’re also developing the property at 1400 North Third Street in Harrisburg. The last I heard, the exact plans were a little sketchy, and you were hoping to partner with a chef. Are your plans anymore “set in stone” at this point?
JOSH: The plans are still pretty fluid, and I don’t have too much more to report on that. More than likely, it’s going to be toward the end of 2022 before something’s going on there. Just with the labor market being what it is, and obviously this Covid thing kind of crept back in on us, so that makes you just hit the pause button. You need some surety. But I think that’s going to be a great long-term, viable project. Great location. But I don’t want to push it too fast or bite off more than we can chew.
RG: Like many restaurants, The Millworks was hit hard by Covid, and even closed temporarily. Have things returned to normalcy, or semi-normalcy at this point, and have you been able to bring back the majority of your staff?
JOSH: Between the two places, we’re around 90 people now. We were around that number just at Millworks prior to [Covid]. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re at about 70 percent capacity, from a revenue standpoint and operational hours, that sort of thing. All things considered, we’re in super great shape, knock on wood, I’m thankful every day. But you have to recognize the challenges that are still there. I’m really happy where we are, but also looking forward to being a little more profitable.
RG: I know that it’s not always easy for people to pat themselves on the back or “toot their own horn.” But there’s no denying that you’ve played a huge role in helping to not only revitalize Midtown Harrisburg, but also bring a diversity of people together to enjoy great food and art. What would you say has been your biggest impact on the Harrisburg community – so far?
JOSH: So, if I reflect on it, there were certainly others before me … the [Midtown Scholar] bookstore, and H-MAC, and Susquehanna Art Museum … but I think my greatest impact has probably been helping to stabilize the Broad Street Market. That had real impact on the community. Think how critical the market is to Harrisburg and the Midtown. Look at the polarization in politics, and the sort of wanting to remove ourselves into our groups. The Market is such a mixing bowl. All kinds of income types, all kinds of ethnicities, and it’s fun. It’s a real treasure. Not just on the food level and the grocery level … it’s a meeting place.
And I think doing The Millworks and having customers come to it, I think that greatest impact is adding to the growing confidence that other people are saying “hey, I could go into Midtown and invest some money and it’s gonna work out.”
RG: With that said, any other big plans or projects on the horizon for Josh Kesler?
JOSH: I’m just trying to help create that feeling that this is a great daytime destination. Come down to the market and kick around and do a little shopping … eat some good food, and find a good barbecue joint, and have a good beer over at Zeroday. I love that vision, and I’m just going keep chipping away at that for the next couple of years.