We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
In the early '90s, a young man named Mike "Scoats" Scotese showed up at his job as a systems analyst at a large insurance company to discover a third of the management staff had been laid off. Not excited by the prospect of toiling away through middle-age only to find himself out of a job, Scoats decided to invest in his own business. After consulting the classifieds, he found a broker who got him an interest in a Northeast Philly dive bar.
At the time, it was just one of many nondescript taverns on Frankford Avenue, but Scoats realized there was potential to reinvent it into something different. He took out the loans necessary to buy in, and spent a couple of years working side by side with the original owners until he was able to buy them out. In 1996, he officially took over, and opened the Grey Lodge Pub.
His timing was good. The launch coincided with the rise of two movements that would contribute to the bar's eventual success: the Internet and craft beer. Scoats hand-coded what was likely one of the first-ever restaurant websites and became one of the first Philly bars to serve craft beer. He expanded his taps so he could offer products from the spate of fledgling breweries popping up — companies with names like Yards, Dogfish Head, Victory, Weyerbacher and Flying Fish.
Filling the bar with customers was a struggle at first, but by 2005, he was doing well enough to add a full-service kitchen and expand seating to the second floor. The next year, Esquire put the Grey Lodge on its list of the 50 best bars in America, and Scoats was off and running. In 2010, he and partner Pat McGinley took over another Northeast establishment and turned it into Hop Angel Brauhaus, and later this spring, he'll reach settlement on a third (the SawTown Tavern).
Seated beside a poster adorned with hundreds of labels from all over the world, Scoats took a few minutes to recollect how he convinced people it wasn't crazy to pour crafts in Mayfair, reminisce on the start of Philly Beer Week (and his co-invention of the Hammer of Glory), and reflect on the current state of the industry, including why he thinks high prices are antithetical to the character of beer itself.
First, to satisfy curiosity, how did you get to be known as "Scoats"?
It's a nickname that kept finding me throughout high school and college. When I started doing zines and stuff — I used to draw a comic — that was my pen name, and I've used it ever since.
How did you get the idea to make Grey Lodge into a craft beer bar?
There were so many bars here, and this one wasn't doing so great (that's why the owners wanted to sell), so I knew we needed to do something different. Also, Yards had just started up and I wanted to drink Yards at my bar. At the time, it was only available in 15.5-gallon kegs, and I couldn't drink it all by myself before it went bad. So I needed other craft beers on tap to bring other craft beer drinkers here. It grew from that.
What other beers were available back then?
When I first took over, there were four taps, pouring Bud, Coors Light, Miller High Life and Yuengling Lager. I drilled holes in the system so I could add four more lines, and brought on Yards ESA, Yuengling Porter, Pete's Wicked Ale ... and one more that I can't remember. Independence Brew Pub had just started, and so had Victory, and Weyerbacher, and Flying Fish. This bar and those breweries grew up together.
How did you find them?
I figured out who sold Yards — it was Eddie Friedland — and then I started buying other beers from him. I remember him saying to me, "Hey, try this, it's called Dogfish Head." At one point Bill Covaleski emailed me and said, "I think your customers might like our new beer, it's called Hop Devil." And Gene [Muller] from Flying Fish would also reach out.
They reached out to you?
Well, there were only like seven craft beer bars in Philly. Sam [Calagione] used to drive his truck up from Rehoboth, drop off beer with Friedland, and then stop at Grey Lodge to do an event. He was actually still doing events for us way past when I thought he would. Eventually, he stopped, but I was one of the first to buy his beer, and he remembered that. You always remember the people who help you get your start.
How did you get the word out about what you were serving?
I was a systems analyst, so I had been experimenting with web page coding. As soon as we became the Grey Lodge, I had a website up. We couldn't afford a URL, because they were $75 per year, so it lived at www.voicenet.com/~scoats. Back then you had to submit your website to Yahoo manually, and an actual human would look it over to decide if you would be indexed. Who knows, Jerry Yang himself may have decided Grey Lodge was worthy of inclusion.
What was the first big press hit you remember?
Probably a blurb on Beer Philadelphia by Jim Anderson. I sent out a press release that said, "Hey, there's a craft beer bar in the Northeast!" Everyone thought I was completely nuts. But I knew there was demand for it. I mean, Northeast Philadelphia had 400,000 people. That's a good-sized city in its own right.
Was it a success from the start?
In the early days, on a good week, we broke even. On a really good week, we had $5 left over. And you're just thinking, how many great weeks do we need to buy a can of paint? And how many cans of paint do we need to make it look nice in here... I was just rolling along and hoping things would get better, so I could pay my family back.
Things did get better.
After a while, people started finding out about us. In 2005, I finally paid off my 10-year mortgage, and then took out a new loan to expand upstairs. (That's when I brought in my partner, Pat McGinley, with sweat equity.) We put in a new kitchen and started offering a full menu. Then in 2006, Esquire put us on their "50 Best Bars in America" list. That definitely got people to notice us. We were a destination.
Was there no food before?
We had a couple of little pizza ovens and we made pies behind the bar, with provolone cheese and sauce on top. They were actually pretty good, if you doctored them up with enough garlic and oregano. But nothing like what we have now. A few years ago our food got really good, I think, thanks to chef Dave Champagne (that's his real name - ironic that he works in a beer bar). He really has the kitchen crew in great shape.
Every Groundhog Day, you host a big event. Where did that idea come from?
My family always celebrated Groundhog Day. For whatever reason, it was a big deal with us. I wanted to do something for it, but 7 o'clock in the morning is not the ideal time to host a beer event. But by 2002, Friday the Firkinteenth was already pretty big. And it was one of those times that there was a 14-month window between the Friday the 13ths. And February 2nd, 2002 — 02/02/2002 — was smack in the middle, and it fell on a Saturday. If you were ever going to do a 7 am beer event, that was the day.
How many people showed up?
Probably around 70 or 80. Now we normally have a full bar for the event, even on a weekday.
Where did "Friday the Firkinteenth" come from?
I remember reading in the paper one year that there would be three Friday the 13ths, and it was at the time Philadelphia was just getting into cask ale. But there's a bit of a learning curve with cask ale. You can't just be like, "Oh, come drink this beer — it's a little warm and sort of flat. Why won't you buy some?" So I decided to make it into this event. The first one was February 13, 1998, and my hope was just to not lose money on it.
You've done 31 of them now; guess you don't lose money?
The best one ever was when it fell in the middle of Philly Beer Week. It was like the perfect storm. I remember Greg Koch [of Stone Brewing] was in town, and his rep brought him by. When he walked in around 11:30, the place was jamming on all floors. It was like a movie, people dancing everywhere, even though it was broad daylight. We kicked all 31 firkins that day. I was a huge day. Unbelievable. It was our best week ever, that one day.
You're on the board of Philly Beer Week. How did you get involved?
The first year, I got a letter asking if I wanted to join the event, and I said yes, because craft beer had been good to us, and I wanted to support it. I think I was asked to join the board in 2010.
How did the Hammer of Glory come to be?
William Reed [of Standard Tap] and I were playing a pirate game on Facebook, I think, and we were chatting about how Philly Beer Week was too serious, how it needed something stupid. It was 2008, so the Olympics were on our mind, and so we came up with the idea of a relay. William thought that instead of a torch, a giant hammer of the kind you use to tap firkins would be funny. I named it, after Woody Guthrie's autobiography, which is called Bound for Glory. Plus, "Hammer of Glory" sounds impressive, and HOG is a great acronym.
Has Philly Beer Week grown a lot, over the years?
I think it had already reached its ideal size by the time I joined the board. I don't think we've grown much — we've right-sized ourselves. It's a nonprofit, so it's not "grow or die." It's more about "be responsible with the money we raise."
Are we approaching a point where there are too many breweries?
Maybe. I mean, there are all these new breweries trying to sell me beer, but I'm not selling any more beer. Then again, there are a lot more bars selling craft beer. It's a situation where you think, "Oh, the last thing we need is another pale ale," and then something like Half Acre Daisy Cutter comes out and its, "Oh, there is room for this one." There's always room for another great beer. There isn't room for more mediocre ones.
How do you choose what beers to stock?
I look for beer that's reasonably priced. In Belgium, all this beer we pay insane prices for here is actually very reasonable, because it's local there. But you have brewers here thinking, "Well, Belgian beers sell at these high prices, so my American beer should be crazy expensive as well." But beer shouldn't be expensive. You shouldn't have to think twice about buying a pint. It's beer; it shouldn't be like wine.
Have you thought about expanding the number of draft lines you have?
We have 10 taps and a beer engine (plus a cider line), and I think that's perfect. When you have too many lines, it's easy to end up with a lot of old beer, or stuff that's not interesting. Then customers come in to drink craft beer and think, "Ugh, this isn't worth it."
Also, as a consumer, you shouldn't have to do a lot of work. When you go into a place that has 100 choices, first of all, you think you're going to see Jesus on the tap list — "There's a beer somewhere on this list that's gonna change my life!" By the time you read through 20 to 25 of them, you're bored, you're crabby and you still don't have a beer. So you settle for something, and then you're angry about your choice. Whereas if you have a great list of 12 ... Sometimes beers here come and go before I even have a chance to try them, which I think is pretty neat.
Was there ever a time you considered closing?
No. As Eminem said, failure was not an option. It was tight for a long time, and then as a business gets older, you have to constantly reinvest. You think you have a nice cushion, then something breaks and you're back where you were 20 years ago. But it forces you to constantly innovate. Philly is such a great bar city, and beer city, that you can't rest on your laurels. There's a lot of friendly rivalry. It's a great city to be in the beer business, because just about everyone is really cool.
6235 Frankford Ave., 215-856-3591