Merriam-Webster describes an optimist as a person who tends to be hopeful and confident about the future or the success of something. The Urban Dictionary describes it as “someone who figures that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster, it’s more like a cha-cha.”
If that’s the case, then this week’s Portrait must do a lot of dancing. It takes a lot of gumption to stay positive when opening a bar in the midst of a pandemic, but Ken Lowe, Jr. is excited about welcoming patrons into Jocks, his new place on Chestnut Street, however long it takes.
Hi, Ken Lowe, Jr., and congratulations on becoming a new bar owner here in the city. Are you from Philly?
No, I’m actually from the suburbs of Philly, from a little town called Penllyn near Ambler, PA.
Tell me about growing up there.
I come from a small family; I have four sisters. Penllyn was a very small little community. There were literally only two streets leading into the community and two streets out. If you didn’t have a car you weren’t going anywhere because there was one bus, one train and that was it. I spent a lot of my time in Ambler, which was the closest “large” city, so it was a popular spot for school kids.
You’re a junior. Tell me something about Ken, Sr.?
Uh, not a good subject. I attribute my success to my grandfather. He was more of a father to me. He’s the reason why we were able to purchase Jocks.
Was Pennlyn very diversified? I grew up in the suburbs of Wayne and it was pretty conservative out there, [laughing] in other words predominantly white.
It was a minority-majority in our little section, if that makes sense. The township around us was Republican, but our little enclave was the main Democratic concentration in the area. I went to school in Bluebell and it was apparent that certain parents from the ‘other’ side of the neighborhood ran the school. If they said they wanted something to happen, it would happen. There was a principal they didn’t like and I remember overhearing one of those parents saying, “Watch what I do, he’s outta here next week!” and sure enough the following week, that principal was gone.
Wow. That’s a lot of PTA power.
Yeah, and growing up I only had one black teacher in elementary school, none in middle school, and one in high school.
I hear you, I was the president of the Black Student Union and we helped get the first black teacher at Radnor. The school has been around since 1893 and that was the first African-American teacher! So what were you like as a little one?
I was quiet, I kept to myself a lot, but I was always willing to help people out.
Could you have imagined that you’d grow up to own a bar named Jocks?
I’ve always known that I would own a business, actually multiple businesses, I just was never sure what they would be. I’ve always had a bucket list of things I wanted to try. But no, I have to say that I never expected to own a bar this early in life, especially one named Jocks.
Do you have any jock in you?
No. Not at all. When I was young, my mom and grandparents ruined sports for me. My room was filled with football paraphernalia, my bedsheets, and pillowcases, bedspread. I even had custom made curtains that had the logos of every team in the league. So it completely turned me off of any sports. We came into this mid-name change so it was a choice of having to spend more time and money trying to change it again or just going with what was already in place.
You said that you had a number of things on your bucket list, what else have you accomplished?
Currently I am the sole owner of a laundromat in Norristown, I sit as the president of my grandfather’s foundation. I also sit as the general partner of a family partnership, I’m the managing partner for Jocks, and there’s one other thing but I can’t think of it! Oh, I’m the trustee for a few trusts my grandfather left.
Grandpa sounds pretty extraordinary.
Yes, have you ever heard of Lindy Communities?
I’ve heard of the Lindy hop, but not the Lindy Communities, sorry.
Well, he was a partner in a lot of their investment properties. They have several large residential complexes all over Philadelphia and the surrounding counties.
So he’s a real estate mogul!
Yes, for sure.
What traits do you get from him?
I think I developed a lot of his business savvy and ways of dealing with people. How to take care of business and get stuff done, to follow through and try to do things the right way.
What was the first thing you undertook?
My grandfather tried to reconnect me and my dad by starting a trucking business for us to run. I did my best to keep it afloat but my dad ran it into the ground. After that, I took time to take care of my grandmother, and when the opportunity came I bought the laundromat. My grandfather helped me get it flat out, without any loans. We paid cash so there wouldn’t be anything outstanding owed. That was my first big venture and it’s been successful. It’s still doing well, my grandfather passed in June but back in December we started the family foundation/partnership and I took over handling that. And now I have the bar!
Did you have time to attend college?
Not really. I tried doing online college classes but found out that was definitely not for me. So I started the process to go to a brick and mortar school and then my grandmother got sick. She’s the type who wasn’t comfortable with outsiders around so I had to forget furthering my education to take care of her and then my uncle.
And now you have something new occupying your time. Tell me about Jocks and what you’re excited about as a new owner?
It’s all exciting. My friend and I went in on it together and our main objective is to create a diverse space where everyone is welcome. No matter who you are or how you identify or what you’re into, we’re going to have something at Jocks for you. For instance our drag shows, they’re going to have a very diverse cast of performers. We want to capture what has been uncaptured in the past. The attorneys just gave us the green light to try to get the deck open again. We’re really excited about that, and I have a meeting next week with a consultant about renovating our kitchen. We can’t wait to reopen so people can see the changes that we’ve implemented. To see that we’ve listened to the community and are making this a welcoming place.
So the middle of a pandemic seems like a crazy time to buy a bar…
Yeah, we opened in March and 10 days later we had to close because of COVID-19. We weren’t expecting things to be quite as bad as they’ve turned out to be or for it to last this long. We had some concerns that because of a previous owner the staff might not be able to get unemployment, so we transferred our renovation budget to our own private Covid budget to take care of the staff, and we’ve been able to ration it out so that it lasted up until the time the government let us have a partial reopening with drinks to go. Two more weeks and we would have run out of funds, but fortunately we were able to reopen and employees were able to start work again.
So what things do you have going on right now at Jocks?
We do have our kitchen open so you can order out. Our Soul Food Cafe starts back up this Saturday and as I mentioned, we have drinks to go.
What specialty drink should I order?
If you’re hot we have the JocksIces, which is basically a water ice or slushy with a little kick of alcohol. We have drinks like Liquid Marijuana, Jocks Punch, and our Passion Fruit Henny.
What else is happening?
We have what we call the Side Walk Cafe, because of our size, we have very limited seating but at least it’s something. Our Facebook page is very active as well. We’ve been also been having fun doing drag shows online via our FB page. Our media manager Jonathan has been doing a great job with keeping people engaged. We have a whole events team and we’d done all we could do as far as getting things in place to make sure everyone’s safe for when we can reopen and I wanted to do something to keep our morale up so we decided to do a digital show. We started with one a week and soon we’ll be doing three shows a week! We’re doing Madhouse Mondays which is being produced by one of my drag parents, Sir Donyx who is planning on doing something really different, something alternative. We want to have a platform for alternative drag in the city. It’s one of the reasons I purchased the bar, so I can have the control to make sure that different voices are given a chance. Iris Spector and Vinchelle do a show called “Turn Out Tuesday” which originally started at Boxers and we’ve kept it going. And I think the new show is going to be called, “Green House” but I’m not sure. We have “Jocks Live” and “Juice Joint” DJ Jams and all sorts of fun.
How old were you when you came out?
I was in 6th grade. I told my sister and she eventually told my mom. It was at a time when parents really didn’t understand it so she thought there was something wrong with me and took me to see a therapist and all sorts of other stuff. It took a couple of years for her to come around, but once she did it was pretty smooth sailing. It was weird, middle school and high school were difficult, for an opposite reason. I’d assumed in things like gym class that because I was gay, the other guys wouldn’t want me around, so I stayed on my own in the corner, but in my senior year, I found out that the guys didn’t have a problem with me being gay, but they were afraid that I might misinterpret a comment or something so they kept away because they were afraid of saying the wrong thing. Years after I left school, I found that a lot of them also came out at a later date.
(ASH: you can cut out this following grandfather question. SEAN: leave in for web)
Did you ever tell your grandfather?
I realized that my grandfather knew but he never really talked about it. When he got older, at the end he developed dementia and that’s how I figured out that he knew. For some reason he thought my business partner was my boyfriend, I have no idea what got into his head. Even when I introduced him to my actual boyfriend, he would be like, “So where’s the other guy?”.
Outside of work, what do you do for fun?
Right now my 3 main things are doing my drag. I find it’s a real escape to be someone different, to have a whole separate alter-ego. I like to hang out with my friends, and I try to spend time with my sisters and nieces and nephews and check on my mom when I can.
What type of journalist would you be? Opinion, investigative, food critic?
Investigative, definitely. I like a mystery.
Had any celebrity encounters?
My cousin is actress Holly Robinson Peete.
Married to former Eagles quarterback Rodney Peete! No wonder they tried to get you interested in football! What clubs were you involved with in school?
I mainly did Key Club. I was the president junior and senior years. It was a service organization that was the high school division of the Kiwanis group.
What are the last two books that you read?
Both by Whoopie Goldberg, one was, “If someone says, ‘You Complete Me. Run!” I think the other one is, “Is it Just Me or is it Nuts Out there?” I used to have her poster in my room among all the football posters.
What got you interested in drag?
When I was younger I watched, “To Wong Foo with Love” and loved it. I wanted to try drag but I was worried about how people would react and if they would accept it. But one day I decided to go for it and the response from my family, both male and female family members, was amazing.
And who is your alter-ego?
Strawberri Tang, she just likes to have fun. And a good cocktail. She loves to lip sync and tries to dance.
What’s her best song?
Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing”.
Good song. What was the hardest part of getting Jocks up and running?
The stigma. Right off the bat, I needed a logo so I told the designer that I wanted something with rainbow colors in it. I didn’t say anything about a flag, I just wanted some colors of the rainbow in the design. Because it didn’t have the Philly flag stripes, people jumped all over it and assumed it was a white owner, and posted a lot of negative comments. Once my picture was posted, that stopped most of that, but then when it was posted that the place was black and gay owned, someone posted something to the effect of, “well, with a black owner you know it’s going to get shut down because black people don’t have a good history of doing things the right way and above board.” I thought, listen, if you saw the bill from my attorney, you would know that everything is above board and up to code and speed. We have no intention of getting shut down. It can be discouraging but we just push through and keep driving.
What helps you keep going?
Honestly, the staff. Keeping a happy staff is what drives me, because I have a theory that it’s a circle. My philosophy is that a happy staff creates happy customers, which makes them want to spend more, which puts more money in my pocket which I can then turn around and spend on the staff to keep them happy. Hopefully it works!
I always knew I wanted to own a bar someday, but having a place in this location, right in the heart of the Gayborhood is beyond a dream come true. And we can’t wait to be able to reopen even in a limited capacity and do our best to make this a great place for everyone!