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Dawson Street Pub: From biker bar to craft beer pioneer

We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.

Dave Wilby was studying hotel and restaurant management at Pennsylvania State University in 1988, hoping to land a corporate job that would allow him to travel. Then his father, Ed, a Navy Yard worker fearing layoffs, bought a bar in Manayunk as an investment property and asked him to run it. Manayunk was a rock-solid, blue-collar neighborhood in those days, but the corner bar that had been there since the end of Prohibition, Uncle Charlie's, had developed an unsavory reputation.

Now, more than a quarter-century later, Dawson Street Pub enjoys a place in the city as one of the leaders in the craft-beer movement as well being as a drop-in for all sorts of people: neighborhood adults and families, college students, music lovers, and fans of barbecue.

Would Wilby do it all again?

How did you get into the business?

My father said, "If I invest in a property, do you want to take over management?" What 20-year-old is going to say no to somebody buying a bar? We wanted to stay in the neighborhood. I grew up in Roxborough. My dad's originally from Port Richmond. We kind of wanted to stay in the neighborhood because we saw what was going on on Main Street. We didn't want to lease a business. We wanted to own a property. We couldn't afford anything on Main Street. We were looking at things in the neighborhood that would, we felt, as Manayunk grew, we would be within the area of growth for the hospitality industry. We looked at about six places, and this building seemed like it had the most potential as far as the bar itself goes but, also, the upstairs is basically a five-bedroom house, which was converted to apartments. We cleaned up the apartments so we had rental units that would basically cover costs if business was off. That worked out pretty well.

How was the transition from biker bar to legit neighborhood tavern?

It was a little rough at first. The bikers, especially the ones that were originally from the neighborhood that had hung out here for years, kept giving me the attitude that, "This has always been Uncle Charlie's. It's always going to be Uncle Charlie's." I made it clear that it was going to be something else.

Basically, the previous owner really didn't police the bar very well. There was a lot of drug dealing going on. There were a lot of fights. It was Wild West kind of stuff. I just cracked down on people's behavior. I made them feel uncomfortable - the opposite of what you really want to do in the hospitality industry. Cleaning the place up got rid of a few. Cracking down on people's drug dealing and other nonsense got rid of some more. Then when the crowd was really thinned out, but we weren't getting any new business from the neighborhood, and the college kids were still afraid to come in here, I stopped selling Budweiser.

Then we closed for a couple weeks and did another repaint. That pretty much got rid of the last of the bikers that were hanging here. At the same time, I went out and I poached a couple bartenders from some other neighborhood bars that had a younger crowd and more of a college crowd. That started bringing in some different people.

The other thing we did is we catered to other hospitality industry, the servers that worked in the neighborhood. A lot of the bars and restaurants on Main Street would close at 10 or 11. We always stayed open till 2. We picked up a lot of business from people in the industry.

The neighborhood didn't change that much at first. This neighborhood actually wasn't that bad - just the bar was like the one bad part of the neighborhood. What we had to do was try and find a way to convince the people that lived here that this wasn't the same bar that they were afraid to come to, that they could actually come to the bar that was in their neighborhood. Right around the time that we really had cleared the bikers out was right when the craft beer scene in Philadelphia started to take off. That was the big turning point for us as far as changing the crowd from bikers to professionals and college students. 

How many beers do you have on tap?

Right now, we have 15.

Still no Budweiser?

We did start carrying Bud Light in bottles eventually. We went for about 15 years without carrying any Bud products or Coors Light or anything like that.

When we first started transitioning to craft beer, most of the beer scene in Philadelphia was imports. We really had to look for American microbreweries. We did take advantage of the import scene that was going on. We were doing a lot of Guinness, of course, and Young's from England and Paulaner from Germany. We tried to focus on imports that were not stuff you would find at mainstream bars. We actually were the largest Young's draft account in the United States for a little while and '95 was when Yards first went on the market. We sold their first keg.

What's the scene like now?

It's still a good mix of college kids, professionals anywhere from late 20s, early 30s, up until people in their 50s, I would say. We have a pretty diverse music scene here. When we first started having music, it was mostly covers. I was in a band. My band played here. Friends of ours' bands would play here. Then I started recruiting local, original, like, singer-songwriter acts. ... Grape Street Pub had a great open-mic night that had been going on for a while. I used to go down there and listen to some of the acts and approach them about playing here. That's kind of how we got the original music scene started here. We pick up other music, if somebody's traveling or it's a friend of somebody.

Our client base has grown into the neighborhood the same way the neighborhood has changed from single families into more rentals. The neighborhood kind of stabilized. Now, we're seeing a little bit more of a resurgence in the single families over the last, like, three or four years. Unfortunately, that kind of seems to be getting pushed out by the way that the developers are developing any properties. They're pushing more for rentals and less for single family. There's a little bit of a struggle in the neighborhood with that. We're walking a line. We're trying to cater to both.

If you come in here during happy hour a lot of times, there's people from the neighborhood with their kids taking advantage of the happy hour prices and hanging out. Then, during open-mic night on a Wednesday, it's mostly younger musicians, college age, and then a few of the older veterans from the music scene hanging out later.

Let's flash back. Let's say your dad hadn't said, "We're going to go buy a bar." If you could change the past, would you have still done this?

It's really hard to say. If I wasn't presented with the opportunity, I obviously wouldn't have done it. If I had given it a little more thought, and I had been a better college student, I probably would have said no. Looking back on it, I think the smarter decision would have been to say no. If you asked my dad, he probably wouldn't have gone through with it, because we butt heads about the way I do things. He was a little bit more conservative about the way he wanted to run things. He didn't like the risks that I took as far as switching over to all craft beer and things like that. I'm not unhappy with the decision I made. It's been a pretty good life. I know a lot of really great people from the industry and from the music scene. People that work here tend to stay here for longer periods of time than you would think. I have several former employees that were here for over 10 years. I was best man in two of my former employees' weddings. I built some pretty really great, long-lasting relationships with people that I met through this. [He's a big booster of the Dude Hates Cancer, which raises money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.] I'm not at all unhappy that I made that decision. But looking back, if I was a little bit smarter when I was 20, I probably would have said no.