Center City Sips: The Summer of Sips

How a midweek networking event became the region’s biggest party

Photograph by Jeff Fusco

Photograph by Jeff Fusco

It’s the once-a-week frat party you’ve yearned for since college.

Or maybe it’s a bunch of crazy kids terrorizing our taxpayer-funded sidewalks. It’s a boon for Philly nightlife, or the cheapest, worst thing ever, and it’s holding back our city’s refined cosmopolitan rebirth. It’s simply the best or most dreaded part of leaving work on summer Wednesdays.

Love it or hate it, Sips is a phenomenon.

For anyone working, living or playing downtown, in-your-face outfits and sticky mixed drinks have become synonymous with Hump Day in Philly, because that’s when Center City District Sips gets going. For that one night, downtown turns into something unrecognizable, something you’d expect to see at the hotels in South Beach or the bars near Wall Street. The youth! Throngs of thirsty pharma reps, lawyers and just-21 interns pour out of office towers and emerge from train stations and fan out to dozens of beer gardens and bars when Sips declares it drink-o’clock. Nobody cares when the deals actually stop. They keep the party going all night long.

The Center City District conjured up the idea back in 2004, shortly after launching its first Restaurant Week. Originally, the goal was to add a little oomph to the hospitality sector during Shore season, when too many downtown restaurants looked like ghost-town saloons. All a venue had to do was offer food and drink specials, along with a drop-in-the-bucket fee, to become part of Sips nation. “Restaurant Week was so successful, we tried to figure out how we could take that same idea and apply it to a summer, happy-hour-type promotion,” says Michelle Shannon, vice president of marketing and communications for CCD. “It’s surprising even to me that we’ve been able to have this much impact with it.”

So how did a modest get-out-the-dollars campaign explode into a weekly nighttime extravaganza? Well, the city’s influx of millennials over the past 10 years naturally transformed the crowd, says Shannon. In turn, the event kept getting bigger and bigger — from pubs to clubs to restaurants to outdoor spaces like Commerce Square and Comcast Plaza. Today the program runs for 18 weeks, there are 85 participating venues, some holding upwards of 1,000 people. Suburban Station on Wednesday afternoons looks like a pre-game party with a Polo-
preferred dress code. “I talk to people all the time who say they’re taking half days to take the train down to Sips,” says Teddy Sourias, the proprietor of Uptown Beer Garden. “I don’t think it was that way years ago.” In other words: Sips isn’t just colonizing all of downtown; it has its flag firmly planted in the entire region.

And Sips is good for business. “We’re ripping through probably 20 to 25 kegs every Wednesday, and then about 175 to 225 cases of beer,” says Sourias. On a good Friday, he adds, Uptown might go through 10 to 12 kegs. What’s good for one bar is good for the Sips brand, which is good for business throughout the city. “If everyone’s busy, we all feed off each other,” says Sourias. “You offer a couple specials — I mean, why not?”

Center City Sips: Photos

Center City Sips: Interviews

Published as “Sips and the City” in the September 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.