When summer splashes into the city like ice cubes in a Bluecoat gin and tonic, Philadelphians have serious decisions to make: John’s Water Ice or Rita’s? Ocean City’s boardwalk or Wildwood’s? July 4th fireworks at the art museum or the waterfront?
And every Wednesday at 5 p.m., Center City residents and workers, tired and thirsty after a long day of number-crunching or paper-pushing or whatever else they do to keep clothes on their backs and beers in their pint glasses, must choose: A Sips bar or Not A Sips bar?
Sixteen years ago, Center City Sips was launched by the Center City District (CCD), the business improvement district credited as a driver of Philly’s evolving downtown renaissance. The gist is this: Each Wednesday in the summer, bars and restaurants around Center City offer deep discounts on happy hour drinks and appetizers. Hard to argue with that, right?
But as the promotions have grown in popularity, Center City Sips has become a controversial topic among some groups. The promotion has garnered a reputation among some Philadelphians as a haven for hard-partying young people who drink a lot and don’t always behave so well. In 2017, a fight broke out at a Sips event at the Comcast Center and was captured on a video that rapidly circulated online, causing some critics to call for the end of the promotion all together.
That didn’t happen and two years later, CCD has worked to tame the image of Sips, which remains popular with a certain subset of Philadelphians. This year, 86 restaurants are participating.
It’s easy to find customers who live for summer Wednesday nights, and to find those who won’t set foot in a participating establishment until a fall chill is in the air, but the Inquirer Opinion Department wanted to hear from the people behind the scenes of Center City Sips. Two restaurant industry insiders tell you how they really feel.
For about 13 years, I was a bartender. I even tended bar for a couple years after Casey Parker and I opened Jose Pistola’s because I liked it so much. We both did. My favorite shift was Wednesday night. It had it all: A fun happy hour crowd full of regulars, a busy dinner rush, and a never-ending parade of industry buddies. Hump day was the highlight of my work week.
A couple months before our first full summer at Jose Pistola’s, word got out about a Center Citywide happy hour. We were still a new business so anything that would attract new customers was a no-brainer. Early on, we seemed popular with art kids, restaurant employees, and for no good reason, attorneys. For a reason we couldn’t explain, we were missing the young professionals, the Center City shirt-and-tie crowd. Because of this, we signed up to participate in Center City Sips.
Remember my beloved Wednesday night bar shift? The first-ever night of Center City Sips was the last Wednesday I ever bartended.
About 15 minutes into it, I got into an argument over $3 of condiments on a $2 taco. Ridiculous substitution “requests” flooded the kitchen for two hours. Minor changes are fine but at some point, treating your quesadilla like a Build-A-Bear is an insult to our kitchen.
We learned an important lesson that day: The problem of having things like $2 tacos isn’t the hit to your profit margins, it’s attracting the dreaded 21- to 25-year-old professional male. Aside from the Department of Health, these are the worst people to be in the building.
Trust me, I know. I was one for about five years. I don’t blame them. It’s a very frustrating time of life. You’re broke, overworked, and no girl with any sense will date a guy in this age group. This makes these bros order shots of Fireball rudely and miss toilets from point blank range. Keeping these guys out is key to our business, which is why our Miller Lites are about to be $6.
Jose’s might have stuck with Sips if it seemed like it drummed up return business, but the kids were just there for the mandatory deal. I get it: All I did at that age was bounce around for specials, too. Center City is expensive. I figured they saw we offered $18 tacos during normal hours and that kept them out until they got promoted a couple times.
After the first year, we never participated in Sips again. It just wasn’t worth it.
Since our one-year run ended, we’ve become a bit of a haven for those trying to avoid Sips. We’re packed every time so we are honestly grateful that it continues to exist.
Sometimes, we even feel a little bit guilty because we profit off everybody else having to deal with the chaos of Sips. We should probably chip in a little something to it every year. (Ha, I’ll get right on that.)
Long live your crazy happy hour, kids. We love Center City Sips, just not in our building.
Joe Gunn owns Jose Pistola’s in Center City and Sancho Pistola’s in Fishtown with his partners, Casey Parker, and Adán Trinidad. The group also owns, with Adam Anderson, Pistola’s Del Sur in South Philly.
When Center City Sips began in 2003, I was a bartender at Finn McCool’s. Back then, I saw how Sips carried us through the slower summer days.
Now as owner of Finn McCool’s, we’ve continued to participate annually. As my partners and I opened more restaurants and bars in Center City, we continued to participate in the annual summer promotion, and as Center City’s outdoor bar and restaurant scene continues to thrive, we are happy to continue to welcome guests into our businesses on Wednesday evenings.
Center City Sips keeps our bars full and our staffing up midweek during the traditionally slower summer months.
With five participating restaurants — Finn McCool’s, BRU, Tradesman’s, Uptown Beer Garden, and Blume — Sips has become an essential revenue generator when large percentages of our regular clientele take their spending dollars to various vacation destinations. Sips keeps our business thriving in the summer.
When debating whether to open Uptown Beer Garden in 2015, Sips played a big part in our decision-making. We were able to confidently invest the time and money into a new business, because we knew from experience that a reliable promotion like Sips would make a new outdoor establishment successful. While Uptown is our most notable Sips location, bringing in large, vibrant crowds week after week, our other restaurants see a larger percentage of food sales during Sips versus any other weekday evening in the summer. While the initial Sips discounted price points bring customers in the door, these patrons typically stay after the promotion ends and turn into future repeat customers.
Whenever a promotion such as Sips gains popularity, there is bound to be criticism.
Some negative press in the past has focused on a few rowdy beer gardens. At our restaurants, we understand the logistics of hosting one of the most popular Sips locations and are extremely mindful of crowd flow and safety. We employ a security company to help double-check IDs and make sure the crowds are safe and peaceful. Along with most outdoor venues in Philadelphia, we require sign-ins and membership for customer entry in an effort to, again, aid in crowd control and patron safety.
When I hear criticism about Sips, I always remind people that big beer gardens and outdoor venues are only a small percentage of the 80-plus bars available to happy hour goers through Sips. There is a Sips location for everyone — whether it be a small quiet restaurant or an outdoor venue with a larger, party-like atmosphere.
Beyond the financial gain and exposure garnered through the promotion, bars and restaurants that participate in Sips are engaged in the idea of participating in a citywide initiative to enhance the experience of living and working in Philadelphia. At the end of the day, a thriving food and bar scene benefits everyone and without Sips, summertime sales in the city would be an entirely different conversation.