How do you give new life to a bar scene infamous for drunk college kids? Manayunk may have stumbled onto an unexpected answer: Add more booze.

But this time, make it classy.

Manayunk Cocktail Week, which kicks off its second year on Nov. 6, is the latest promotion thought up by business leaders trying to revitalize retail in the once booming Northwest Philly neighborhood — and it appears to be one of the most successful yet.

During last year’s event, overall sales at Bourbon Blue jumped 22 percent over comparable days, according to owner Brendan McGrew. At the Goat’s Beard, revenue was up “at least 20 percent” year over year, per partner Stephen Delong. And Chris Barnes of Lucky’s Last Chance saw his sales boosted by 16 percent during the week.

But for proprietors who’ve been battling the “cheap college pub town” reputation — which may have been true at one point but hasn’t actually been the defining vibe of Main Street in several years — the best news of all was that the crowds flocking to take advantage of the drink deals were of all ages and income levels.

“The atmosphere and vibe on almost every night was electric,” says McGrew, who estimates the people who stopped to sip at Bourbon Blue ranged from their late 20s to late 40s.

“We even saw 50- and 60-year-olds coming out for whiskey tastings,” says Jane Lipton, executive director of the Manayunk Development Corporation, the business organization that spearheaded the promotion.

“How many districts do a Cocktail Week?” she asks, and then answers her own rhetorical question. “I don’t think any of them do. But it worked great.”

Death by moratorium

Main Street in Manayunk, 2016
Main Street in Manayunk, 2016 Credit: Danya Henninger

For Lipton, making Manayunk upscale again isn’t just a job. It’s a challenge she takes personally.

From 1987 through 2000, the Main Street antiques and collectibles shop she ran with her parents offered a prime vantage point to watch the area surge — and then become a victim of its own popularity.

“In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Manayunk was the belle of the ball,” Lipton says. “Then came the restaurant moratorium.”

In 1997, City Council enacted a ban on new restaurants along Main Street. The ban was a response to restaurateurs who claimed they were losing business because the tiny strip didn’t have enough parking to accommodate the hordes of customers descending on what were considered the hottest dining rooms in the city.

But the moratorium didn’t actually do anything to create new parking spots. And just then, Center City began its own renaissance, aided by the enactment of a 10-year tax abatement for new construction. On top of the general fall-off after 9-11, Lipton explains, the combined factors spelled doom for Manayunk as a high-end restaurant destination — even after the moratorium expired in 2002.

‘2 beers and 2 slices of pizza’

The scene at Mad River
The scene at Mad River Credit: Facebook/Mad River

“So Manayunk changed,” Lipton says. “It began to find this niche as a college town. Which, from a business perspective, brings its own set of problems. Mostly that 40-year-olds don’t want to be where 18-year-olds are.”

Lipton was hired by the Manayunk Development Corporation to try to turn things around in 2008. It was an uphill battle.

“It’s not that we didn’t want the young people, but they were coming with $15 in their pockets to buy two beers and two slices of pizza,” she says. “In late 2009, right after the major recession, Main Street had 33 empty storefronts.”

So Lipton put a team together to energize the three-quarter-mile downtown. Since Manayunk only has around 6,000 residents, the 150 or so businesses in the district are highly dependent upon local tourism. The commercial district is pretty much equidistant from Center City and the western suburbs, so there was a huge market to be tapped — if the team could figure out how to lure them in.

“We put together so many different events, to reach a wide demographic,” Lipton says.

With a seven-person staff, the MDC helped organize the Eco-Arts Festival, the StrEAT Food Festival and Halloween, Valentine’s Day and winter holiday promotions. It puts out a quarterly magazine and leased and operates four major parking lots downtown. The MDC was also instrumental in the fight to keep the International Cycling Classic in Philadelphia.

‘Better than Restaurant Week’

Sophisticated drinkers are taking advantage
Sophisticated drinkers are taking advantage Credit: Facebook/

The hard work appears to be paying off. Lipton estimates that the number of empty storefronts on Main Street has dropped by more than half, to around 15. Her goal: Get it to zero, or as close as possible.

Last year, Derek Davis (of now closed but longtime Manayunk favorite Derek’s) came up with a new idea.

“He walked in and said, ‘Jane, I want to do a cocktail week.’ He went to one in Arizona or somewhere,” Lipton remembers. “I looked at him and said, okayyyyy….”

That was September 2015. One month later, Lipton and her team had entered into a partnership with booze distributor Breakthrough Beverage, signed on 20 bars and restaurants, and coordinated more than 100 events to take place over the course of seven days.

And the first annual Manayunk Cocktail Week was a huge success.

“Crowd volume was awesome,” says Delong, of the Goat’s Beard. “It made the early and later part of our day busier. Guests were really stoked on the different daily specialty cocktails and events we held.”

“We had raves across the board,” concurs Barnes of Lucky’s Last Chance.

Overall, “it was as good or better for business as our Restaurant Week,” Lipton declares. “We can’t wait for another year.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...