The success of pop-up beer gardens like the Spruce Street Harbor Park led the City of Philadelphia to jump into the game

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A meeting this week about the city’s plan to host pop-up beer gardens at up to 18 different parks this summer left many potential operators scratching their heads. A hundred or so owners and managers of various bars, restaurants and hospitality organizations packed into an 18th floor meeting room to hear about the new “Mobile Food & Beverage Garden Program.” But before the meeting concluded, about half the attendees had left.

“This is above my pay grade,” muttered one bar owner as he slipped out 90 minutes into the two-hour information session.

“This doesn’t make sense,” said another who stayed until the end. “Do they want Aramark to run it?”

The answer, according to Bob Allen, the Parks and Recreation director of property and concessions management who was leading the gathering, was definitely “No.”

“We’re not talking about a multi-national corporation here,” he said. However — as became clear at the meeting (and as was already laid out in the dense, 59-page request for proposals issued earlier this month) — the city is looking for one single entity to operate all of the pop-ups.

That means one company, and one company only, will have the responsibility of setting up, stocking, marketing, staffing, securing, maintaining, cleaning and then dismantling all of the three-to-five day installations, which have the potential to land at 18 different locations over the course of 4½ months. All cost and liability will fall on the chosen “concessionaire” (the city’s terminology). The concessionaire will also be asked to pay the city a daily fee for the right to operate the pop-ups, plus fork over a percentage of gross revenue.

What that per diem and revenue tithe will be is up in the air; the city is asking applicants to suggest rates “that make financial sense” as part of their proposals. At one point, Allen tossed out a number of $100 per day as part of a rhetorical discussion on how things would work, prompting someone in the audience to snark: “How about $1 a day.”

‘Why would you blow up your existing business?’

So to recap: It’s a gargantuan project, and one that will take considerable investment of time and resources. It’s also fraught with risk, since there’s no guarantee of sales or attendance, especially at some of the less-central locales like South Philly’s Jefferson Square or Port Richmond’s Powers Park.

“I thought they were looking for 18 different concessionaires,” said the managing partner of a BYOB as she left the meeting. “Why would you blow up your existing business to do this?”

Pop-up beer gardens have become a thriving part of summer in Philly. Last year, installations like Spruce Street Harbor Park, the PHS Pop-Ups and The Oval brought out hundreds of thousands of people, and this year — despite having challenged the legality of some of the other pop-ups around town — the City of Philadelphia is diving headlong into the game. In early February, the Department of Parks and Recreation announced a plan to host a dozen or more pop-ups in partnership with the Fairmount Park Conservancy, each a temporary oasis of food, drink and fun in one of the many parks that dot the city.

The announcement stoked excitement among Philly’s hospitality community, which is full of restaurateurs and publicans eager to dip into the pop-up garden pot. Representatives from Race Street Cafe, Connie’s Ric Rac, Wishbone, Bottle Bar East, Devil’s Den, Jet Wine Bar, Fergie’s Pub, Hai Street Kitchen, Manayunk Brewing Company and St. Benjamin Brewing all attended Thursday’s mandatory pre-proposal meeting. They quickly came to the realization that this far from a turn-key opportunity.

“This seems like something only Garces or Starr might be able to handle,” said one bar owner, shaking her head.

The booze conundrum

Another issue that gave many potential concessionaires pause: Is what the city is asking operators to do even legal with regards to serving liquor?

Pop-up beer gardens became a thing after the Pa. Legislature amended the liquor code in 2012 to make it easier to cater one-time happenings like weddings or charity functions. The off-premises catering permit allows liquor license holders to serve alcohol at up to 50 events a year, but some enterprising folks realized that if you string together those “events” into consecutive days, you could create longer-lasting pop-ups and market them to the general public.

Two PLCB caveats come with that temp permit. First, it allows for only five hours of alcohol service at a time. While Parks and Rec is not mandating a schedule for these new pop-ups, and is asking applicants to propose their own hours, the potential schedule it set out provides for much longer operation: Noon to 10 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and noon to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Second, events hosted with the temp permit are supposed to be for “an identifiable group of people, not the general public.” Past pop-ups, like the ones held by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, have gotten around this requirement by asking anyone who enters the garden to fill out a quick form that makes them a member of an ersatz “club.”

What does the city suggest potential concessionaires do to get around these hurdles? Basically, they have no idea.

“I refer you to whoever your advisor is on liquor license issues,” said Allen. “We are not experts about liquor license laws. We are just putting [the opportunity] out there.” Adding to the booze complications is the fact that bars must apply for the temp permit by March 1, but the Parks and Rec proposals aren’t due until March 31, and it could take the city up to two weeks to make a decision. “The timing is awkward,” Allen admitted.

Partnerships to the rescue?

Still, not everyone present was turned off by the project. If bar owners wanted to form a partnership or LLC so that they could piggyback multiple temp liquor permits on top of one another, the city would be open to that, Allen said, as long as it was just one entity the city was entering into a contract with, because “we also have limited resources.”

And whoever does get awarded the contract — which will be for one year with options to renew for the three additional years — is allowed to hire subcontractors (pending the city’s approval) to help run the various pop-ups, such as food trucks or beer distributors.

The main idea behind the Mobile Food & Beverage Garden Program is a good one. As Liz Moselle of the Fairmount Park Conservancy explained, the pop-ups will encourage residents and visitors to explore and take advantage of the city’s under-utilized and very impressive park system. Hopefully, someone in Philly’s robust hospitality community will figure out how to make it work without losing their shirt.

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...