Philadelphia wildfire: Unhealthy air threatens Center City Sips business
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Philadelphia wildfire: Unhealthy air threatens Center City Sips business

Nov 04, 2023

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Center City Sips is looking at an ominous start this year due to the wildfires in Canada, with the Philadelphia Health Department issuing a code red late Wednesday morning over the potentially hazardous air quality.

"Of course it had to happen on Sips day," said Teddy Sourias, whose Craft Concepts Group owns several of the venues participating in the summerlong happy hour promotion.

Luckily, Sourais said, he recently had several new high velocity fans installed at Uptown Beer Garden at the corner of 15th and JFK Streets, one Sips’ more popular destinations. He was speaking with Billy Penn when he learned city health officials were recommending people postpone or cancel outdoor events.

"I’m hoping this doesn't last long," he said, adding that guests who want to head indoors for the deals can hit up one of his other participating bars, like Finn McCool's, Tradesman's, and Sueno.

That solution doesn't help Sips participants where al fresco drinking and dining is the main draw.

"We’re primarily a seasonal outdoor company," Avram Hornik, owner of the recently-opened Walnut Garden and several other venues, told Billy Penn. "Obviously the safety of our staff and patrons is always our first priority."

If the air quality was at a level deemed dangerous by the city, he said he’d close the Rittenhouse beer garden for the evening — but either way, he expects the smoky haze might keep customers indoors. "Certainly, it's going to affect business," he said.

"I had one of the first sidewalk cafes in Philadelphia," Hornik said, recalling the difficulty he had obtaining a license for his Old City establishment Quarry Street Cafe in 1994.

Attitudes have changed, and now outdoor dining is extremely popular in Philly. Will it stay that way? He's not so sure.

"This is not unfortunately a one-time experience we’re going to have," Hornik noted. "With the effects of climate change, this is something we’re going to have to be aware of and deal with going forward."

Matt Pagano, who owns Pagano's Market and Bar at the Commerce Square plaza at 20th and Market streets, is dubious that Sips’ crowd of "young professionals" will take the health department's recommendation to stay inside.

He’d close if city officials told him to, he clarified, but overall he's exasperated.

"I don't know what to tell you. These are very sensitive times, very delicate times," Pagano said. "It seems like every time we turn around there's some kind of obstacle getting in our way of trying to create commerce."

It was no less than "a miracle" his establishments survived the past three years, Pagano said.

"We’re small businesses; when you lose that day's business, you’re not getting it back. It's gone," he said. "It's been three years of ‘Another bad day, another bad day, another bad day.’ And it comes to a point where you’re just like, when is enough enough?"

In the end, there is no mandate for venues to shut down. The Center City District is leaving it up to individual bar owners to decide what to do.

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"CCD Sips will continue this evening but all participating bars and restaurants, particularly outdoor venues, are encouraged to proceed as they see fit in the best interests of both their business and their customers," Giavana Suraci, CCD marketing manager, told WHYY news.

Could officials have done more to prepare business owners?

Sourias, of Uptown Beer Garden, said he spent the previous evening at a Phillies game, where he noticed "a big haze across the entire stadium, almost like a fog machine in a nightclub."

"Everyone's been talking about the air quality for the past few days and it's been a conversation," Sourias said. "It's not a secret."

Some Sips venues have taken it on themselves to communicate health concerns to their customers. On its social media, Walnut Garden posted a health advisory recommending those sensitive to the smoke wear a mask or consider visiting a different day. Similarly, staff members with health concerns were given the option for a shift change.

"The nature of the restaurant industry is that people who choose to go into it are very adaptable to the situation and that's what we’ll do," Hornik said. "We’ll adjust, we’ll adapt, and we’ll make things work."

Billy Penn intern Deesarine Ballayan contributed reporting.

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Ali Mohsen is Billy Penn's food and drink reporter. More by Ali Mohsen

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