As Paul Ryan (C '09) set up his room in Kings Court English House on move–in day his first year, his father said the words that would set the stage for Paul's four years at Penn.
“I need you to bartend tonight.”
That was the first night that Paul worked at Smokey Joe’s Bar—endearingly nicknamed "Smokes'" by many—marking his initiation into the family business. He bartended at Smokes' throughout college and then, after briefly working in New York and elsewhere for a bit, moved back to take on the position of general manager at Smokes' and the other three bars his family owns in the Philadelphia area.
“My biological basis of behavior degree really went far,” he jokes on the phone with me from a booth at their bar in Manayunk. “My parents didn’t talk to me for two months after I told them I wasn’t taking the MCAT."
Paul explains that when Smokes' was established in 1933, it was the 96th liquor license granted in Pennsylvania after the Prohibition ended. Paul's great–grandfather was an immigrant from Ireland who owned taverns across West Philadelphia. Being raised in the bar business, Paul’s grandfather, also named Paul Ryan, bought Smokey Joe’s in 1952.
“The story goes that my great–grandfather told my grandfather, ‘You’re dumb for buying a bar on a college campus. College kids don’t drink; you’re not gonna make any money,'" Paul says. "And apparently the first week that they were open, my great–grandfather went down to see it, and my grandfather had all of these kegs lined up outside of the bar. My great–grandfather saw all of the kegs and was like, ‘See! You’re not even selling anything.’”
But the told–you–so moment backfired when Paul’s grandfather responded, “No, these are the empties.”
Thus, the Smokes' we know and love was born.
The bar was passed down from Paul’s grandfather to his uncle and his father, and now Paul and Pat Ryan have taken over operations. Upon being asked if he plans to pass it down to future Ryans, Paul responds, “Who knows. My wife and I don’t have any kids yet, but if my future children would like to do it, of course.”
Paul’s grandfather was young and newly married himself when he took over the bar. He wasn’t much older than the college students living in the area, leading him to hire Penn football players and fraternity boys as employees.
As a function of Smokes' being practically on campus and most of their employees being students, it instantly became “The Pennstitution,” and has been a beloved place to enjoy a night out ever since.
“It became the scene, and grew from there and became ingrained within Penn culture," Paul says. "If you’ve ever been in the bar, all of those pictures up on the wall are of people who worked at [Smokes']. We have an identity, and we’ve embraced it. We love being a part of the Penn community, and we hope that they love having us."
His dad’s famous quote is that Smokes' is "the neighborhood bar, where the neighborhood changes every four years." Paul describes and marvels at the many ways that the Penn community has changed in the time that he’s known it, and even since he graduated from Penn just over ten years ago.
For one, there is much more competition in the area in terms of liquor licenses, new bars, and new restaurants, which Paul and the Smokes' family see as a great thing. “We love it. People don’t realize that when there are more options for students on campus, they stay on campus instead of going downtown or elsewhere,” he says.
However, not all of the changes in recent years have been positive for Smokes'. The pandemic proved itself to be a significant hurdle, but after pivoting and changing normal business operations to comply with COVID–19 regulations, Smokes' was able to bring in business—albeit less than in other years—throughout the pandemic. The Smokes' team recognizes that it could have been a lot worse for them, and they are grateful for the support of loyal patrons as they've navigated this challenging time.
Paul describes another negative change that has occurred in the past several years: “[Smokes'] has a lot of history that Penn students these days don’t recognize as much as earlier generations [did]. For example, we’ve never had a problem [in the past] with people stealing photos off the wall. And recently, in the past few years, that’s become a problem—guys ripping photos off the wall and then stealing them. I have respect for the history and the people who’ve come before me. Everyone has stories to tell about that place.”
Paul fondly recalls a moment that he realized this fact—that Smokes' is special to people outside of his immediate family. While living in his first–year dorm room, he learned that the parents of the girl that lived across the hall both went to Penn. The girl's mother had been a waitress at Smokes', and her dad was an athlete at Penn–Smokes' was where they met.
Paul describes the community that appreciates and loves Smokes' as an extended family that goes back several generations, and will continue for generations to come. President Gerald Ford said it best in his 1975 commencement address: “[Penn consists] of 16 institutions of higher learning and personal enlightenment–17 if you include Smokey Joe's.”