Every day, McGillin’s Olde Ale House co-owner Christopher Mullins Jr. walks to work from his home near Dickinson Street in South Philadelphia.
It’s a long commute by foot to reach the historic pub at 1310 Drury St. in Center City and it’s great exercise, but it also gives Mullins a chance to gauge the ever-changing climate of the city during the pandemic.
The establishment itself has been through tougher times, as Mullins is a third-generation owner who listened to old stories of McGillin’s surviving Prohibition under previous owners by serving food and ice cream to stay in business in the 1920s and ‘30s. COVID-19 has presented new challenges in current times, but the oldest continuously operating bar in Philadelphia has found a way to stay afloat during a tough stretch for restaurants and other establishments.
“Historically speaking, McGillin’s has been through a lot worse than this,” Mullins said. “When Prohibition hit, they thought back then that it was only going to be weeks or months because who would tolerate Prohibition? But that lasted 13 years. In the grand scheme of things, McGillin’s survived a 13-year shutdown, so six months, we can handle, I think.”
Like every other establishment in the city, McGillin’s was forced to temporarily close during the pandemic, marking the first time since Prohibition that drinks were not served at the historic landmark in the shadows of City Hall.
But Mullins, who co-owns the bar with his parents Mary Ellen and Chris Mullins Sr., has persevered, despite the shutdown happening on the eve of the busiest day of the year.
“It couldn’t have come at a worse time — March 16 — the day before St. Patrick’s Day,” Mullins said. “It’s the biggest day of the year for us. We were very careful doing all the things we were told to do. We had a guy roaming through, sanitizing all the tables and reducing our capacities and we did what we needed to do, hoping a shutdown wasn’t going to happen. But by the morning of March 16, we realized we were heading towards a shutdown, so we closed. It was shocking.”
Instead of trying to squeeze out a small profit or at least compensate for lost revenue by selling six packs and takeout via curbside pickup, the bar opted to remain closed.
“When people started doing takeout, we passed on that,” Mullins said. “McGillin’s is all about the experience, the ambiance and the atmosphere. We could have done beer and wings, but would it be worth it? We decided to stay closed until the city and state allowed at least 25 percent occupancy, which it did on Aug. 21.”
The city now allows 50 percent occupancy, but McGillin’s errs on the side of caution by allowing only 35 percent due to its layout, which usually includes a lot of standing room. Polycarbonate Plexiglas dividers were installed between tables indoors, and much of the action remains outdoors with a lot of renovations and reorganization focused on accommodating outdoor guests.
“The vast majority of people still want to sit outside, and I don’t blame them,” Mullins said. “We really focused heavily on outside. Both floors have been open on the weekends, and they are full but it’s not the crazy, bumping McGillin’s experience. It’s much more tame. And that 21- to 28-year-old crowd that you hear is breaking all the rules, we’re not seeing that here. We’re getting a whole lot of cooperation. It’s been really good.”
The bar has acknowledged, but has yet to truly celebrate its 160-year anniversary this year, for the reasons you might expect. The bar has been owned by just two families in its existence, and Mullins’ parents bought the place from his grandfather in 1993, marking the third generation of the family to own it. Since then, Chris Jr. started working there in 2006 and became co-owner with his parents. He was there for the big celebration 10 years ago, when McGillin’s turned 150. This year’s milestone was still special but stayed low-key.
“It wasn’t going to be anything major,” Mullins said. “150 was the big year for us. Even though 160 years is a major milestone, it’s an odd year. We had some smaller events planned and a new book made for 160 years. We had been in discussion with some brewers, but then when COVID hit, we said let’s put the brakes on it. We would have started planning for a few events right after St. Patrick’s Day, which never happened.”
As the holiday season approaches, Mullins and the gang are preparing for what they hope will be a busy and safe time. Preparations for a “Winter Wonderland” will begin next week, as about 15 people will help decorate more than 3,000 lights, 350 ornaments and 150 bows, as McGillin’s transforms into the North Pole.
“We always try to do it the first week of November,” Mullins said. “And this year, I think it’s more important than ever. People need to feel that nostalgia and merriment and all the good vibes that come out of the holidays.”
Outside will be naturally chilly on most nights, which is something the staff has been doing its best to prepare for.
“The challenge will be outside,” Mullins said. “There’s going to be a point where no matter how many space heaters we get, and no matter what we do to keep the wind and cold away, it’s going to be uncomfortable. Although our customers are diehards. It takes a lot for them to stay away. Hopefully, it won’t be as troublesome as we expect, but it’s something we’re trying to mentally and physically prepare for.”