Catching a pop-up beer garden before the keg is tapped

Zoe Castelo (left), holding her two-month old daughter, Katie, visits Liz Oswald at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Pop Up Garden, 1438 South St. State law lets the beer gardens serve liquor on a $500 catering permit rather than a $90,000 liquor license.
Zoe Castelo (left), holding her two-month old daughter, Katie, visits Liz Oswald at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Pop Up Garden, 1438 South St. State law lets the beer gardens serve liquor on a $500 catering permit rather than a $90,000 liquor license. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: August 25, 2014

A day in the life of a Philadelphia pop-up beer garden begins hours before the suds start to flow.

At 11:30 on an overcast Sunday morning, Jason Blacketer was doing battle with mulberries, clearing the spiky orange-reddish fruits that had fallen from a giant tree in the once-fallow lot tended by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society at 15th and South streets.

Blacketer wiped the remnants of the early morning rain, from the tables and chairs. More unwelcome weather was forecast. "Hope it won't come," he said. "Rain is bad for business."

At the back of the lot, Stas Botsaris stirred a pan of pulled pork in his food truck, Phoebe's Bar-B-Q. Each day a different food truck pulls up to the park and complements the Jamaican Jerk Hut, which is anchored in back and completes the island theme.

About half a dozen beer gardens have popped up this summer, most courtesy of a loophole in Pennsylvania law that lets their operators serve liquor on a $500 catering permit instead of a $90,000 license.

Four state lawmakers have protested, demanding that the State Liquor Control Board put an "immediate stop to this practice." Other politicians have lined up behind the seasonal outdoor tappies, arguing they bring civility and boost business in once-forlorn spaces.

For now the state seems agreeable to letting the gardens grow, and waiting for the legislators to decide in the fall whether the rules need refining.

Hard to find anyone at 1438 South St. who was complaining.

"I think this beer garden is a great institution," said Botsaris, the barbecue man. "Just look how beautiful everything is."

The lot is an oasis amid the red brick and gray streets, shaded by tall palms and multi-colored parasols. Wood chips provide soft footing for dogs who are welcome, as long they're on leash and properly curbed.

The first customers on this day were Steven Blank and Daphna Shaw. They placed an order for "Mad Love," beef brisket topped with mac and cheese.

"They should pop these places everywhere," Blank argued. For him, he said, it is not all about the beer. "They could serve lemonade and I would come. People come for the social atmosphere."

Or to find inspiration. Hernan J. Rivera and Marisol Rodriguez lounged on a wooden benches, cocktails and cellphones in hand. They were snapping photos of flowers.

"We want to beautify our home," he said. "They have had some really good ideas. It is amazing what they have made out of this place."

Rivera used to live in the neighborhood. It's nicer now, he said.

Lauren Vidas, chair of South of South Neighborhood Association, says every business owner she had spoken to has seen a bump in business thanks to the garden - particularly on week nights, which can be slow during the summer.

The story of the PHS pop-up gardens in Philadelphia began four years ago. Drew Becher, PHS's president, often walked by an empty spot on 20th and Market Street, wondering how to spruce up the shabbiness.

He and his team started a new initiative, planted trees, brought in some offerings from the Flower Show garden - 6,000 people came. The next year, when a new spot at 1905 Walnut St. was developed, 7,000 came.

Last year the society decided to offer food and drinks. From March until October 2013 about 28,000 visitors attended the place on 313 S. Broad St. They loved it, said Alan Jaffe, communications director of PHS, and complained when it closed. When it reopened in February just for a snowy weekend with heated tents and cold beer, 3,000 people returned.

This year, the new beer garden is breaking all records: It has just been opened for about a month and already 22,000 people have come.

While the beer starts flowing on weekend days at 2 p.m., the taps don't open until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. As a result, on weekdays the garden seems to be part nursery school, part reading room.

"We also get a lot of the lunch crowd and nannies," said Patricia Sills, the park's caretaker.

Weekends, people take more time.

On a recent Sunday, Alisa Greenfield leaned back on a seat watching her 5-year-old daughter, Linzi, play with the iPhone. "A good place to hang out in the middle of the city," Greenfield observed. And yes, people might have a beer or two, "but I haven't seen people getting really drunk. Otherwise, I would not come with my daughter."

About 4:30 p.m. the rain arrived. A few people left. Most did not abandon their beers. Raheem Williams didn't seem to notice the drizzle. The big man stood at the South Street entrance of the beer garden, his T-shirt identifying him as part of the security team. Patrons must be 21 to enter.

"You know," he said, "most people are relaxed." The only problem is smoking - being outside and having a cigarette seems natural for some people. But it's against the garden's rules.

The park had an international feel. Lilly Vogel held hands with her husband, Regis. She's from China, he from France. Sitting outside with a beer or a cocktail is part of the culture in Paris, he said - so much that people sit at sidewalk cafes in frigid weather, warmed by giant heaters and mugs of mulled wine.

As evening approached, 150 academics dropped by. They were in town for the Academy of Management conference. The Casey Alvarez Band played chill-out music, and the place got so crowded one had to squeeze one's way through.

"I love it," offered Dorte Salskov-Iversen, a Danish communications pro. A beer garden in Philadelphia "is real globalization."

But every party must end sometime. At 10 p.m. the bartender closed the tap. The bar's white shutters dropped with a bang, Thirty minutes later, the guests were gone and the staff was busy dumping trash and tidying tables, cultivating the garden for another day.



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