Happy Birthday, McGillin's!
How a Philadelphia Institution Prepared for its 150th Anniversary
For 15 decades, McGillin’s Olde Ale House in Philadelphia has poured brews, served patrons and supported the community. It’s safe to say the owners know a thing or two about hosting a great promotion. After all, no one stays in business long enough to mark a 150th anniversary without that skill.
To mark the bar’s sesquicentennial, hundreds of Philadelphians descended on the ale house for a birthday celebration at its Black-Tie Beef & Beer event.
The anniversary promotion was not taken lightly — planning began two years ago (but bar manager/owner Christopher Mullins, Jr. admits he’s been thinking about it for four years).
What goes into planning such a successful event? Nightclub & Bar took a peek at Mullins’ “diary of a promotion.”
Set date: June 6, 2010, selected to coincide with Philly Beer Week; also it’s a Sunday, so there’s less business and less risk to shut down for a private event.
Develop theme: Black-Tie Beef & Beer, the brainchild of one of the bartenders.
Plan an attraction: Contact Budweiser to request Clydesdale horses.
Set headcount: 250 to 300, including media and high-profile guests like state representatives and the governor.
Discuss details: Need to rent a tent for outside, find space for horses, design a menu (carved prime rib at a carving station) and plan live music.
Follow regulations: Request permits to block off a portion of the street as well as for outside beer and liquor service.
Contact brewers for sponsorship: Invite 29 regular brewers; focus on craft beer to go along with Philly Beer Week.
Confirm culinary choices: Meet with kitchen staff to finalize menu.
Secure setting: Determine size of tent and secure the rental.
Alert brewers: Send out an e-mailed letter to participating brewers (20 agreed) with updated information.
Notify media: Public relations team to contact key media and bloggers.
Order attire: Staff needs McGillin’s uniforms from the 1930s, plus commemorative ties, white aprons and armbands.
Settle on décor: Need to find old photos of previous owners and blow them up into life-sized cut-outs; also order cut-outs of Presidents Obama and Lincoln to mark the presidents in office at the time of opening and today.
Reach out: Post a “save the date” announcement via Facebook and send to e-mail list on March 1; send formal/mailed invitations to high-profile guests and family and friends.
Obtain last-minute permit: Need a place to park three tractor-trailers for the horses and a new permit from the city.
Post schedule: All employees must report at 7 or 8 a.m.; former chefs are on alert to come in for backup food prep.
Make staff assignments: Take some staff off service to handle tickets; one staffer to handle needs of dignitaries.
Add on a contest: Decide to implement a $50 prize for best-dressed guests.
Create contingency plan: In case of rain, move inside and cancel horses.
Check the list: Constantly update guest list to make registration smooth; ensure all preparations are set for VIPs.
In review: Meet with chef to discuss presentations, platters and placement.
Prep time: Chefs and employees prep for event while still executing orders on a busy Saturday night — exhausting!
June 6 - The Big Day
Washing up: I arrive at 6 a.m. to power-wash and scrub entire road, end to end. Five people are on-hand to clean the street and inside the bar from last night.
Under the big top: We don’t have the street completely power-washed before the tent rental team arrives; have to work around them until they finish. When they pop the tent up, we realize the wet ground soiled the ceiling of the tent, so we have to power-wash the ceiling...
Check the weather: Tornado warnings. Move all tables, chairs and registration stations under the tent.
Cake time: Coordinate pick-up of two full sheet cakes for the event.
Flower power: Need four people to handle the delivery and placement of flowers and plants.
The main event: Eight Clydesdales are on site, while life-size cutouts of Ma & Pa McGillin (who opened the tavern in 1860) and Henry Spaniak & Joe Shepaniak (my ancestors, brothers who bought the bar in 1958) stand at the entrance. Guests arrive for the open bar, food stations and live entertainment, including a bagpiper and live Irish music.
Weather update: Never saw a drop of rain, but we were ready.
Best-dressed award: Two people won, and a brewer got an honorable mention for coming dressed entirely in hops.
Bar opens: Bar reopens to the public at 8 p.m., just in time to watch the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup.
Follow up: After guests leave, I personally thank staff and discuss any issues. We compensate them well for a great job. I would not change a thing next time.
The reaction on guests’ faces let me know we didn’t need much follow up. I plan on talking with family members who co-own the bar and core staff, but for now, we are ready to start cleaning up. NCB