It’s been a long dry spell at Smokey Joe’s historic bar on 40th Street these past four months—no crowds gathering for Sink or Swim Wednesday nights; no green tea shots tossed back to mark 21st birthdays. In fact, no students at all to carry on the beloved traditions of the “Pennstitution.”
The only constant at this old–school saloon throughout the pandemic? Kenn Kweder’s weekly live performances.
Smokey Joe’s stopped pouring on March 15 due to the closure of all non–essential businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus.The bar is such a campus landmark that when somebody began a fraudulent Smokey Joe’s GoFundMe campaign, it raised over $800 in just 24 hours before the owners, the Ryan family, demanded GoFundMe remove the page.
Smokey Joe’s has even given out its own “diplomas” to Penn’s graduating class every year since 1953, a tradition that was disrupted due to the coronavirus chaos. The diplomas for the Class of 2020 are waiting in a stack behind the bar for when recent graduates visit next.
Equally as well–known as Smokey Joe’s is Kenn Kweder, who has played at the bar every Tuesday night since January 1991. Even during the national shutdown, Kweder still plays his regular gig at Smokey Joe’s in a one–man arena: the show is broadcasted through Facebook Live.
While Smokey Joe’s reopened with exclusively open–air seating on June 12, as Philadelphia entered the yellow phase, the bar remains vacant inside—with the exception of Kweder’s weekly appearances.
Nobody else has been through the bar’s doors since Smokey Joe’s temporary closure in mid–March, besides the owners, Paul Ryan Sr. and Paul Ryan Jr., and the few kitchen guys kept on payroll to fulfill takeout orders.
Smokey Joe’s manager and bartender, Nina Martin, arrived for her first day back to work on June 12. She had zero income since March 15. Although Martin applied for unemployment benefits in early April, she had yet to see any money when she returned to work in mid–June.
Martin has called Philadelphia’s Office of Unemployment Compensation repeatedly to find out about the delay. She said she called "3000 times." After more than two months, her call was answered for the first time in early June. She was told that she had checked “no” when she should have checked “yes” on one of the application’s many questions, so it needs additional review.
“I’m just kind of like in the land of financial purgatory,” Martin said.
For Kweder, however, this is the first time he has ever qualified for unemployment benefits as he is a self–employed musician. He describes the weekly unemployment check as an “almost miracle.”
Kweder, who usually spends most of his time on the road, is getting familiar with his home and catching up on movies like The Godfather.
“And you know what’s really funny? The funniest thing? The funniest, funniest, craziest thing about all this? Is that for four decades I was never home after 8pm,” Kweder said. “I’m finding out what a couch is all about.”
As his nights look very different from his typical rockstar lifestyle, so do his performances at Smokey Joe’s. There is no alcohol and no crowd, but there is music—and an eerie quietness.
“Noise is kind of like Xanax or something. You need it,” Kweder said.
Instead, Kweder boosts his energy by imagining that there are 10,000 people around him. This is what he calls the “Kweder method.”
As he performs on Facebook, viewers can request songs in the comments. He has noticed the names of Penn alumni he has not seen in over a decade pop up on the screen—an online Smokey Joe’s reunion for all.
Kweder loves to keep in touch with his Penn fans. Over the years, alumni, such as graduate Alex Bregman (C '08), have even hired Kweder to play at their wedding’s afterparties.
As undergraduates, Bregman said he and his friends treated Tuesday nights like Fridays, hanging out at Smokey Joe’s with Kweder. “Other than my friends and my classes, it’s the thing I remember most,” Bregman said.
In March, Bregman and his fraternity brothers from Kappa Sigma asked Kweder to perform at their Zoom reunion. Kweder set up a private concert to play for them from Smokey Joe’s outside of his typical Tuesday gig.
During quarantine, Kweder has also been hired for Penn students’ graduations and birthday parties.
While the virtual Smokey Joe’s experience has proven popular, it remains unclear what the bar will be like this fall, when customers will hopefully be allowed back inside. Ryan Sr. assumes everyone will wear a mask, but beyond that he does not know what the future CDC regulations will entail.
“I’d be hard–pressed to separate two college students six feet apart,” Ryan Sr. said. “They don’t come here for the drinks. They come here to meet people.”
Until then, Smokey Joe’s will stay open with reduced hours this summer, which is always a slow time. About 30 customers showed up on opening day on June 12.
The bar makes its profit during the nine months when the students are on campus. Since classes went remote in mid–March, the bar lost approximately one–third of its yearly earnings.
“It’s going to be a big hole,” Ryan Jr. said. “We’re going to be digging ourselves out of this for a year or two to come.”
For now, Smoke’s, as undergraduates call it, will only be open to locals Thursdays through Sundays. Kweder, however, will make sure the show goes on every Tuesday night.