Philip Smith believes on-premise success in the beer business can be as easy as finding opportunity in a parking lot. Located in the parking lot of the Downtown Home & Garden store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Bill’s Beer Garden is a pop-up venue that’s now in its fourth season. Smith, the beer garden’s general manager, says the concept has been well received. “It’s brought a lot of excitement to the area,” he adds. Bill’s Beer Garden is open every year from St. Patrick’s Day through Halloween.
Seasonal beer gardens like Bill’s are increasingly popping up in cities across America—with locations ranging from river waterfronts to hotel rooftops—driven by the popularity of local craft beers and outdoor dining and socializing. Smith notes that Bill’s was created to evoke a traditional European beer garden. “It’s a place where you can sit side by side with strangers at communal tables and feel comfortable,” he says. Bill’s has a full liquor license and can accommodate up to 350 people at a time. The beer garden offers 10 draft brews ($5 to $11 a pour), as well as about seven different bottled and canned beers ($4 to $18). Guests are also encouraged to bring in items from food trucks located in an adjacent courtyard.
Pop-up and seasonal beer gardens have become a popular attraction in Philadelphia. FCM Hospitality–owned Morgan’s Pier—which operates from late April through late fall—opened four years ago, and owner Avram Hornik says the response has been strong. Located on the grounds of a former restaurant overlooking the Delaware River waterfront, Morgan’s Pier can accommodate up to 500 guests and often turns tables four to five times a night. The concept offers 14 draft brews and about 15 canned options, all priced from $4 to $7, and plays host to a different chef each year. For the 2016 season, it’s Jim Burke, formerly of New York City’s DB Bistro Moderne. The venue is also offering monthly craft beer tastings ($10 a person) led by local brewers.
Brendan Hartranft, owner of the Memphis Taproom in Philadelphia, had an adjoining dirt lot rezoned, paved and spruced up five years ago to make way for an outdoor beer garden. “It’s a great way to expand to an outdoor area without having to double the expense of operating an indoor restaurant,” he says. Rather than add a second kitchen to the 85-seat space, a food truck serves hot dogs and offers about 10 different beers ($5 a 16-ounce can).
In California, the Andaz San Diego Hotel launched a pop-up beer garden on its roof in February. Scheduled to run through July, the beer garden is “something fun for locals and hotel guests,” says Chris Wingerberg, the hotel’s director of sales, events and marketing. The outdoor space boasts sweeping views and serves five draft beers, priced from $8 to $14 a 12-ounce or 16-ounce pour. It also offers German-style snacks like pretzels and schnitzel.
“Restaurants are very capital-intensive, and operating in an outdoor space can be done for a fraction of the cost,” Hornik of Morgan’s Pier says. Memphis Taproom’s Hartranft adds that seasonal venues can give bar owners a leg up on the competition. “Our beer garden helps ensure that our guests aren’t frequenting other establishments,” he says. Andaz San Diego’s Wingerberg notes that the beer garden has led to longer stays at the hotel.
Smith of Bill’s Beer Garden believes that the seasonal concepts will endure. “There’s a difference between a beer garden and just outdoor seating,” he remarks. “A beer garden is about a shared space—a shared community you’re serving.”