We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.
A site on the banks of a rushing river is an ideal location for a water-powered textile mill. For a brewpub, maybe not so much. Manayunk Brewing Company does make great use of its riverside perch in the 200-year-old former factory, with a giant deck that fills up with hundreds of customers during warmer weather. But the brewpub also has to deal with the downside of its waterfront locale: flooding.
And we’re talking serious flooding. The most recent fiasco was in April 2014, when an unnamed storm took everyone by surprise and submerged the dining room floor under 5½ feet of water. Reconstruction took nearly a month, but Manayunk Brewery bounced back stronger than ever, just like it’s been doing ever since Harry Renner 4th and his father, Harry Renner 3rd, launched it in October 1996.
The Renners are no longer around — the elder was killed during a 2001 robbery, and the younger died soon after — but they were lucky to leave behind trusted employee Mike Rose. A longtime friend of the Renners who was general manager from the outset, Rose stepped in after Harry 4th died and became managing partner. He now co-owns the brewpub with Renner’s daughter, Swith Bell.
Rose has made it through his own fair share of trials, from turning around the brewery’s mediocre reputation (the beer is now considered very good) to learning how to walk on a prosthetic after a motorcycle accident (if he didn’t tell you he was missing a leg, you’d never know). Resilience is in his bones, and his determinedly positive attitude permeates the restaurant, which is now a staple of Manayunk’s downtown. Seated at a table in front of the colorful jazz mural by James Dupree, he recently chatted about the ups and downs of the past two decades.
How did you get involved with Manayunk Brewery?
I met Harry [Renner 4th] when I was working at the Catfish Cafe in East Falls, back in 1983 or so, and we became friends. Then I came to Manayunk and worked at Thomas’, which was right across the street from this place. Harry came to me and said he was going to open a brewpub in this old textile mill. I thought he was nuts.
Where did he get the idea?
He got the idea from Pike Place Market, in Seattle. There’s a farmer’s market on the top floor, and the ground floor is a brewpub. With his father as partner, Harry opened the market first — he had around 30 or 40 vendors operating — and then he was ready to do the brewpub. But he didn’t know much about restaurants, he’d never run one before. So he lured me in. We opened in October of 1996. We’re looking forward to celebrating our 20th anniversary soon.
Was the restaurant this big from the start?
Not really, because we didn’t have the outside. Right now, we seat 250 in our dining room and another 250 on the deck. At first we just had a little patio, but I said, “Let’s go out on the river!” Harry didn’t think we could get approval, but I told him no one could say no if we didn’t try. We pushed it through, and now we have this gorgeous outdoor space.
This spot is prone to flooding; has the deck ever been destroyed?
No. We actually put it in right after our first big flood, which was caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. We overbuilt the deck to make sure it would withstand bad weather; we have around eight pilings more than we’re required to have. And after each storm, we have a team of engineers come out to certify it.
How many bad floods have you had?
We have plaques on the wall showing the high water mark from the worst: Floyd, Irene [in 2011] and the 2014 storm. There are around four more I can think of that flooded the dining room with 8 to 18 inches of water, but after Irene, we installed floodgates, so those smaller ones shouldn’t happen anymore. However, when you’re in a 200-year-old building, there’s always new places for water to leak in.
How long does it take to rebuild after a flood?
In 2014, it took us the whole month of May, so we lost out on a lot of business — all the graduations take place then, and Mother’s Day, and we had to cancel two weddings. We don’t want that to happen again, so we’ve taken precautions. Everything down here can move upstairs. The shelves behind the bar are removable. The bars themselves are concrete. We didn’t re-carpet the floor. The furniture is all movable.
The establishment has been through a lot. Like the murder of Harry Renner 3rd. Were you around that day?
Yes. Mr. Renner and I would have lunch every Saturday, and we did that day in September 2001. Then he would usually go to the bank. I don’t know if someone was watching our routine or what. It definitely wasn’t an inside job. Anyway, around quarter to 8 that night, a friend of Harry’s came into the restaurant and told me the lights were still on in the office, which was at the other end of the building. I knew immediately something was wrong. I ran down there, and sure enough... I thought at first he had had a heart attack.
But he had been shot.
Yeah. It’s like, why did they have to do that? He was 84 years old, and the safe was already open, there’s nothing he could have done to stop them. They didn’t have to do that. That’s what really hurt me. It’s like, OK, I gave you the money, now get out and go do your business. But you know what? That happened, and it’s sad, but people don’t really talk about it anymore. What everyone knows about is the floods. They come in and take photos next to our high water plaques.
Has your food changed much since you first opened?
There’s probably four or five items still on there from the original list. Our ribs, which we smoke in house. Our mahogany wings. Our brisket sandwich.
And you also have a sushi bar, now?
Yes, 13 years now! We never thought it would work. That space, right at the entrance, we used to have a rotisserie there. It was a really fancy rotisserie, open flame, no doors. But we started getting some negative feedback, because people would have to walk by racks of whole chickens before sitting down to dinner. We moved it to the back, and put in dueling pianos there for a few years. But then Sushi Eddie showed up, and asked if we would be willing to do sushi. His sushi is really outstanding — he buys all his own fish, and touches every roll that goes out. He’s never missed a day in 13 years.
Who’s in charge of the beer? Who does the brewing?
I’m always involved in what’s going on in the brewery, but I’m not a beer geek. Do I know the brewing process? Yes. Do I brew? In the 19 years I’ve been here, I’ve probably only been back there to help three times. It’s just not my thing. Over two decades, we’ve only had around six head brewers, so that’s not too bad. Evan Fritz is our head brewer right now.
Does most of the revenue come from the restaurant or the brewery?
The restaurant, for sure. But in the past five years, the brewery has really kicked it up a notch. We’re producing great beer. We got into canning, and distributing; we self-distribute. We’re probably in around 80 different bars right now. The craft beer market has gotten so crazy. People just don’t want to drink what they drank yesterday. And the young folks, they’re so creative. We just came out with a peanut butter porter, which is excellent. Within a day, the staff had come up with the idea to mix it with our Schuylkill Punch [a raspberry ale] and call it PB&J. So we’re putting that on the menu.
How many employees do you have now?
Around 100, it’ll go up to around 130 in the summer. I like for everyone to be involved, and they have to come with a positive attitude. We really bond when we have to rebuild after a storm, and we’re all in it together. I don’t consider myself the boss. I'm still acting manager here five days a week. I have a passion for this place. We grew this business from nothing to a $5.5 or $6 million business. I'm very proud of that. I don't flaunt it, but aside from my children, that's my biggest accomplishment. It's a good feeling. I wake up feeling like I'm a 24-year-old kid every day.
4120 Main St., 215-482-8220
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday-Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday