It’s all wrapped up in The Creamery, a beer garden and gathering place that has ‘expanded the draw’ of a historic community
What’s your pleasure?
• A place to sip a glass of wine or throw down a mug of your favorite craft beer while listening to local musicians after a long work week.
• A place for the kids to climb and play, or enjoy ice cream at a pint-sized picnic table.
• A place for millennials to get a workout with a couple of hours of axe-throwing.
• A place for friends and families to challenge each other to a few games of bocce or cornhole, or find a table to play pre-digital favorites like Parcheesi and Connect Four.
• A place awash in history that helps a small town define its vision for the future.
No, it’s not five separate sites. It’s The Kennett Creamery, the family-oriented beer garden that has set down its roots as the first go-to venue in what local officials hope will become a well-defined arts and cultural district on Birch Street in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
The Creamery is largely the vision and brainchild of Mike Bontrager, a business whiz who started Chatham Financial in his home and built the company into an international financial derivatives advisory and technology company with more than 2,500 clients.
Back in 2002, when he was looking for a site for Chatham to expand, Bontrager stumbled upon the Birch Street site, an abandoned mushroom cannery whose first life was as a manufacturing facility for condensed milk. He passed on the property then, but returned nine years later with Sandra Mulry, a friend and collaborator on numerous community service projects.
“To me, it was just a derelict building,” Mulry says.
“The mushroom people had built [outbuildings] around it, so it was hard to see,” Bontrager adds.
He saw enough potential in the site to go ahead with the purchase, but the property remained idle for four more years, until a study commissioned by Historic Kennett Square, the town’s Main Street business redevelopment organization, recommended repurposing the old industrial buildings along Birch Street as a “maker district,” replete with galleries, craft shops, cafes and restaurants.
Not Chuck E. Cheese
In 2016, after ripping out the extraneous structures, Bontrager and Mulry opened The Creamery as a pop-up beer garden. It was an immediate hit with local residents, and it has been growing ever since. It’s a hit because it’s different.
“We’re not Chuck E. Cheese, we’re not a bar, and we don’t want to be either,” Mulry says.
“The Creamery is a unique story,” says Nate Echevarria, economic development director of Historic Kennett Square. “They took an old historic building and turned it into an experience.”
It started as a warm-weather venue, open Thursdays through Sundays. Now, with the completion of an indoor space last fall, it operates year-round. And there’s truly something for everyone—from the children’s garden through the bars that serve beer, wine and premade mixed drinks; from games to music to places to just sit and relax; from pizza to barbecue to food trucks.
New additions this year are the Chop Shop, a 12-lane axe-throwing venue, and, showing a commitment to local entrepreneurs, a space for Philter Coffee, a popular café in Kennett’s business district.
Spread over about 20,000 square feet, with about 2,000 square feet indoors, The Creamery has an occupancy limit of 750 and “we can be very full” on nice summer weekends, Mulry says.
“Some stay for an hour. Some stay the whole afternoon,” she says. And, of course, the evening crowd can be quite vibrant, especially with the live music Friday through Sunday.
“We feel this can be the new community gathering place—a place you can go with your kids, with your dog,” she adds.
Bontrager recalls the opening of the indoor venue last November, the night before Thanksgiving, and the observation of a Kennett High School teacher who turned out that evening. “He said, ‘It’s like a giant Kennett reunion. So many kids from college, they’re here. And their parents are here too. You get to see not only your friends, but your kids’ friends. Where else can you get that?’”
Creating what amounts to a unique multigenerational playground is integral to The Creamery’s success.
Part of Bontrager’s motivation—but hardly the only part—was to make Kennett appealing to the high-energy, tech-savvy millennials he hires at Chatham Financial, many of whom might prefer to build their careers in urban areas with dozens of nightlife options.
“I want to create more opportunities for them, but not exclusively for them,” he says. “Kennett will never be New York. Kennett will never be Philadelphia … but we want Kennett to be a place where young adults can say, ‘I don’t want to live in New York. I don’t want to live in Philly, but I could live here and love life.’”
Bontrager also drew on the experience he and his wife, Dot, had of living for a couple of years in Zurich, Switzerland.
“In Germanic areas, the beer garden is a community place. That’s pretty typical,” he says.
A “community place,” of course, tends to be in the center of something, and Birch Street isn’t quite there yet. The south side of the street, opposite The Creamery, is lined with older single-family homes. The north side is dominated by older industrial properties, some still in business and others awaiting a repurposing.
Practically next door to The Creamery, closer to the downtown business district, is the just-opened Braeloch Brewing. It’s also a rehab project, housed in what was originally a trolley barn built in 1903. Don Robitzer, a Wilmington real estate developer who lives in Kennett Square, knew about the town’s comprehensive plan and saw “a municipality that has a road map [for the future] and was willing to help guys like me.” After buying the property, he was introduced to Kent Steeves and Matt Drysdale, who were looking for a site to locate a brewery.
It took two years to acquire the permits and get the building into shape, and the brewery opened on March 1.
“It was never our intention to cannibalize what they’re doing at The Creamery,” Robitzer says. “We want to be complementary.”
Bontrager agrees. “We welcomed them with open arms. Since they opened, it’s been good,” he says.
While The Creamery is, quite obviously, more family-oriented, both venues are attractive to what Robitzer calls “beer groupies,” who enjoy sampling the latest entries in the burgeoning world of craft beers.
Braeloch, which offers eight varieties of craft beer and ale brewed on site, has a 4,000-square-foot taproom with a 75-foot-bar. The taproom is arranged with booths, community tables and a living room section, creating an environment that parallels The Creamery, though without the kid-friendly amenities.
The east end of the Braeloch building is sectioned off into two bays, Robitzer says. A tea shop occupies one of the spaces and he says he hopes to fill the other with “an art outpost.”
Two doors down from The Creamery, and enhancing Birch Street’s definition as a “maker district,” Echevarria says, is MomPops, a mother-and-son business that makes gluten-free, peanut-free, dairy-free, soy-free, non-GMO, vegan-certified, and kosher-certified organic ice pops. (The MomPops’ plant isn’t a destination, but the product does give seekers of this specialty treat a reason to visit Janssen’s Market in Greenville or Whole Foods in Glen Mills.)
“We’ve got people making all kinds of things here,” Echevarria says.
The growing popularity of The Creamery, coupled with the opening of the brewery, is “expanding the draw” of Kennett Square, and giving visitors additional options beyond touring Longwood Gardens and enjoying the restaurants and boutiques in the trendy business district, he says.
Underlying the work at The Creamery and Braeloch is the Square Roots Collective, a collaboration of individuals, businesses and nonprofit organizations created by Mike and Dot Bontrager to encourage the development of projects that strengthen the community’s social fabric.
In essence, it is Mike Bontrager’s way of giving back to the community where he was able to create a business and scale it up into a global operation.
He leads the collective, with Mulry handling branding and many of its projects. Several team members hold key operational roles at The Creamery.
The collective’s other projects include The Constellation Network, a coalition of church groups that addresses poverty and other social issues, and the Kennett Trails Alliance, an initiative to build and maintain a 12-mile pedestrian and bicycle trail loop through Kennett Township and Borough.
Bontrager, who has underwritten much of the collective’s work, speaks of its projects with an almost evangelical zeal that blends his Mennonite family background and Kennett’s rich Quaker heritage.
“We’ve been blessed in so many ways, not just in Chatham, but in friendships, in the people we’ve met. It’s just incredible,” he says.
“It’s less about development and investment and more about social capital,” Mulry says. “It’s how do we catalzye great things to make them happen?”
In that context, Bontrager follows the same principle with the collective that has guided his success with Chatham. “It’s not how we can make a quick return, but how we can be an agent for good,” he says. “In all the things we have, we have to be good stewards.”
Looking ahead, Bontrager says he and Mulry are always seeking new features that “will give The Creamery a unique sense of place.” But Mulry cautions that expansions–whether it be new attractions or longer hours–won’t occur unless “we can be sure we’re doing it excellently.”
However The Creamery grows, Bontrager and Mulry promise they will do all they can to keep it unique.
“When you go to retail areas in major cities, whether it’s Hong Kong, Los Angeles or Topeka, Kansas, there’s always this sameness,” Bontrager says. “I don’t like this mallification of the world.”
“As we think about our plans,” Mulry says, “we consider what is already happening in town. We’re not trying to compete. We’re trying to add.”
A Little History
The Creamery takes its name from its original use, as home to the Eastern Condensed Milk Co., founded in 1902 by serial entrepreneur Theodore Pennock, a member of one of Kennett Square’s leading families.
Theodore’s father, Samuel Pennock, was a prominent abolitionist in the years before the Civil War, and social reformers like Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony often visited his home at the corner of Linden and Willow streets.
Theodore’s son was Herb Pennock, a left-handed pitcher who was a teammate of Babe Ruth on the New York Yankees. Herb Pennock was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame shortly after his death in 1948. He spent the last four years of his life as general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, then owned by R.R.M. “Bob” Carpenter Jr. of Montchanin. In this role, he gained some unwanted notoriety in 1947 when he opposed the integration of Major League Baseball and warned the Dodgers not to bring Jackie Robinson with the team the first time they played in Philadelphia that season.
Samuel Pennock sold his business to the Mohawk Condensed Milk Co., based in upstate New York, in 1907. The plant changed hands several times over the years, but was used primarily for dairy-related purposes.
Eventually, says Mike Bontrager, current owner of The Creamery, a mushroom farming business purchased the facility and transformed it into a cannery. The cannery lasted for between 40 to 60 years, closing in the early 2000s when its owner moved the business to Maryland.