Ephream Amare Seyoum (left) and a staffer at Pentridge Station's main bar

Ephream Amare Seyoum (left) and a staffer at Pentridge Station's main bar

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

How to open a Philly beer garden without pissing off the neighbors

The crowd at Pentridge Station is more diverse than you might expect.

Ephream Amare Seyoum (left) and a staffer at Pentridge Station's main bar

Ephream Amare Seyoum (left) and a staffer at Pentridge Station's main bar

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
danya

On weekends in West Philly’s Cedar Park this summer, there’s a new pop-up beer garden. Called Pentridge Station, its claim to fame is minor, but noteworthy:

Nobody is mad about it.

Stop by on a warm evening and you’ll walk into a crowd more varied in race, age and background than almost any other establishment in the city. Longtime area residents chill next to Ubered-in visitors from Center City. Young couples sip craft beer while older ladies tilt back cups of rosé. There’s a hip food truck at front where half the menu is likely to be vegan, but also an auto body garage down the street selling what might be the best jerk chicken in the city. Accents flying through the air range from South Philly brogue to Jamaican lilt.

“I have never seen such a diverse clientele,” said Nate Bell, a longtime Philadelphia bouncer who works as the Sunday ID-checker and security guard at the vacant lot-turned-destination. “Really, we get all kinds of people in here.”

Nate Bell works the gate on Saturdays

Nate Bell works the gate on Sundays

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

That’s in stark contrast with several of the other pop-ups that have proliferated across Philly’s outlying neighborhoods over the past few years. Beer gardens have been called out by civic associations as emblematic of gentrification and protested by activists as insensitive to their surroundings.

How did Pentridge Station’s operators break the mold and create a spot everyone embraces?

Per owner Jeff Lutzner, all it took was listening to his daughter.

Turning trash tickets into good clean fun

Though Cedar Park has been undergoing a demographic shift and recently became majority caucasian for the first time in decades, per Philly Mag, Lutzner (who is white) has lived there for 30 years.

Around 15 years ago, he and a friend started buying real estate in the neighborhood. They acquired a set of lots on the 5100 block of Pentridge Street, but weren’t quite sure what to do with them. An urban farm was discussed at one point, but the nonprofit behind the project insisted on a 10-year agreement, which Lutzner felt was too long a commitment. So the land sat there unused — on a strip filled with abandoned cars and empty storefronts — and accumulated trash.

Play games or chillax with a hookah

Play games or chillax with a hookah

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

“It was basically being used as a short dumping site,” Lutzner recounted, “and we would get fined for it.” He erected a fence around the property, but it didn’t do much to stop the garbage pileup. Then there was the grass and weeds that sprouted everywhere, which incurred more fines.

“At one point, the Streets Department guys wrote us three tickets a day — for trash on sidewalk, sidewalk overgrown and lot overgrown — for each of the six adjacent lots for a whole month,” he said. “The tickets were $75 each. We had close to $10,000 in fines.”

So this spring, he decided he had to take action. Enter his daughter, Jocelyn DeGroot-Lutzner.

“Pop-ups are popular,” the 26-year-old told her dad. Not only did she have personal experience bartending, DeGroot-Lutzner noted, she could bring in even more expertise via her boyfriend, Ephream Amare Seyoum, second-generation owner of veteran Baltimore Avenue restaurant Dahlak.

Together, the trio hatched a plan.

Homespun food truck is a regular at Pentridge

Homespun food truck is a regular at Pentridge

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Convincing the neighbors

They’d obtain the required catering permit under the Eritrean-Ethiopian restaurant’s existing liquor license, and bring in local food trucks. They’d create a relaxed environment that had something for everyone, from a playground to a dog run. They’d set up with a wide variety of seating areas, bring in local food vendors, and arrange a scheduled of varied outdoor activities and entertainment, including lots of live music.

“We wanted to have a really nice beer garden, but without the ‘bro’d out’ feel,” Lutzner explained.

In March, they pitched the concept to the Cedar Park Neighbors association — and weren’t shouted down. There was at least one person at the meeting who stated she didn’t want drinking near her home, according to West Philly Local, but the CPN eventually came out in favor of the pop-up, and sent a letter to Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell endorsing the proposal.

DeGroot-Lutzner and Seyoum also went to personally meet with the councilwoman, in whose district the site falls, and got her to sign off on the project.

All that was left was to obtain the proper licenses and certificates — no easy feat; per Lutzner, “No one at L&I knows anything about what you need to open a pop-up garden, nothing” — and build the thing.

Old, young, black, white, human, canine — all are welcome

Old, young, black, white, human, canine — all are welcome

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

‘What fun is all about’

Because Pentridge Station’s layout is so casual and spacious, you can’t tell at first glance, but a good deal of work went into its construction.

The entire 7000-square-foot area is covered foot-deep in a blanket of wood chips, keeping any stray debris that might be buried below ground far from customer feet. The envisioned play area contains not just a slide but also a swing, and the dog run is fenced in so pets can roam semi-free. The main bar, which serves beer, wine and cocktails, has a walk-up window but also space for indoor seating. A central canopied gazebo provides breezy shade, and a small stage with an awning lets DJs and musicians jam in comfort on hot, sunny days.

During the buildout, Lutzner did notice some raised eyebrows — “the locals saw a couple white guys setting stuff up [and got worried]” — but once the pop-up actually opened on June 23, it was accepted relatively quickly.

“Guys on the block of Pentridge were looking at us a little cross eyed when we started,” he recalled, “but now they come a couple times a week.”

Pentridge Station regulars

Pentridge Station regulars

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Many of Dahlak’s regulars (of which Lutzner is one) have also now become beer garden customers. Last weekend, a trio of them were sitting beneath the center canopy, while at a different cluster of chairs was a man named Trevau, a three-year West Philly resident and native of Jamaica. It was his first visit to the spot. “I heard about it on Facebook,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect, but this is niiiiiice.”

Nearby was a 20-something woman named Hilaria Goodgame, sipping drinks called “Bojo Breeze” with a female friend. “We’ve been here a few times already,” she said. “I love that there’s kids and all ages. It’s really great for bonding with families — which is what fun is all about.”

Don't miss the jerk chicken sold out of a garage down the street

Don't miss the jerk chicken sold out of a garage down the street

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn