Last call for Brockport bars
Why some local bars have managed to stay in business while others have not.
By Carrie Watt, Max Riley, Melvin Horsford and Shay Gauthier
BROCKPORT, N.Y. — If you visit Brockport during the day, you are likely to see college students on their way to class, a family or two leaving Perri’s Pizza and a few squirrels scurrying about.
Once the sun sets, the Village of Brockport is hardly recognizable.
College students are now on their way to the bars, families are tucked in their beds and the squirrels have made it back to their nests.
Bars like The Red Jug Pub and Barber’s Grill and Tap Room are preparing for the swarm of students who come nightly to join the locals for a couple of drinks.
Today there are a total of seven taverns in Brockport. As a college town, the lack of bars does not leave a lot of options when it comes to places for college students to go for a late night of partying.
Claudia Wolfe is a senior at The College at Brockport. She says that the shortage of bars is strange for a college town.
“It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I’ve definitely learned to love it but it’s definitely different from other colleges I’ve visited,” Wolfe said.
Barber’s Grill and Tap Room located on Main Street in Brockport may have the key to success in this town as they have been open since 1929 and are showing no signs of slowing down. Barber’s has a family feel which seems to keep customers coming in the door.
Gwen Leonardi is a manager at Barber’s and has seen how the business has grown over the years.
In the 1990s, Leonardi lived in the apartment directly above Barber’s. While the bar was and still is her place of employment, the regular customers make the job feel like a second home.
“Our regulars have been here probably as long as I have. There’s a certain comradery and family feel between the regulars. If someone’s not here, everyone gets worried,” said Leonardi.
Many bars have come and gone in Brockport, but a few seem to have figured out the right balance between keeping the locals happy and the students thirsty. This means that the regular customers may vary in age, but they continue to come in for a drink.
“When I first started here there were four beers on tap because that’s what the system allowed. Now there are 36,” said Leonardi.
It’s not just about the beers though. The people in the community turn these small businesses into staples for the area, and for that reason Leonardi does not think Barber’s will ever share the same fate as the bars in Brockport that have closed.
Barber’s success is also due in part to the way that they have remained consistent.
“Everything’s pretty much the same. If you came to school here 40 years ago and you want to come in and have a Balboa (a popular sandwich they offer at Barber’s) you’re gonna’ get the exact same sandwich you had 40 years ago,” said Leonardi.
Wolfe says even though there are not a lot of bars, they all serve their own purposes. Some serve food, some have pool tables or dart boards, some have dance floors, and some have outdoor seating, but all of the bars have their own unique qualities.
“If it’s a Sunday during the fall and I want to go watch football and eat chicken wings, I’m going to Barber’s,” Wolfe said. “If I wanna’ go to brunch with my friends and get mimosas, that’s what Custom House is for. But if I want to go out late at night, listen to loud music, dance and see a bunch of people, I’m going to Red Jug.”
The Red Jug Pub opened in Brockport during the summer of 2016. Since then, it has turned into the place to be after dark on the weekends for the college students.
“I feel like Red Jug has kind of got its own culture behind it,” said Red Jug Manager Jordan Messimer.
Messimer says Red Jug does a great job of incorporating specials and themes into their day-to-day business.
Monday through Friday they have happy hour where all beers are “buy one get one.” They serve dinner on Fridays, and what seems to be the town favorite is the custom t-shirts.
Though college students appear to control the atmosphere in Red Jug on the weekends and some weeknights, the business sees itself as being larger than just the college students.
“We’re not just a college bar. We do everything we can to accommodate and reach out to the community as a whole,” said Messimer. “We try to do the best that we can to reach out and try to congregate locals for daytime business, but it’s hard to beat the stigma of the college bar.”
The Red Jug is working to change its image to attract a wider audience. Messimer and his coworkers have come up with more community centered plans to attract more locals. According to Messimer, business would not be the same without help from local customers.
One of the ways The Red Jug is trying to reach out is putting on an event for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation this fall. The not-for-profit organization funds research for childhood cancer cures. The event, which will take place Sunday, Nov. 3, is a way Red Jug hopes to give back to the community and show appreciation to customers.
With both Barber’s and Red Jug maintaining their status as two of the best bars in the area, there are new faces and businesses that hope to one day compete at that same level.
The Rooster Pub and Pizza opened just one month ago on August 16.
Mark Gaisser is one of the owners of The Rooster and believes the hard work that his colleagues and himself have put into the business will pay off.
“You can’t open a restaurant without your thumbprint on it,” said Gaisser. “There’s over 80 years of business experience. We’re locally owned. When we built the bar, our agreement was that everybody who worked on the bar had to live in Monroe County. Everything was money spent in this town.”
They also believe the key to staying relevant in the community is by playing a role in it.
“We sponsor a lot of softball teams, little league teams, parties, and Brockport High School,” said Gaisser. “When we were developing pizzas we brought in Brockport High School’s football team and for a month they taste tested our pizza.”
The Rooster will have to find the balance between college students and locals like both Barber’s and Red Jug have.
That is not to say that every bar in Brockport needs to accommodate both customer bases.
Bill Gray’s Brockport Tap Room has been opened for almost seven years now and has a different crowd coming in every week.
“We definitely are not a college bar. At the very beginning we were expecting to be hit very hard by the college kids, we were actually trying to be put on some bus line so that students would have a safe way of getting here. But then we were kind of not in their area. I think they’d rather walk or have a very short drive,” said Bill Gray’s General Manager Peter Dundon.
While Dundon says that changing the tap lines and food specials regularly and being open to customer suggestions has played a big part in the success of the bar, he credits a lot of the success to his employees.
“I think [our] staff is amazing. They’re very personable, they have a great rapport with the guests.”
Dundon had been working at Bill Gray’s for seven years when the Tap Room first opened and saw an immediate increase in sales.
“We’ve seen a huge spike in sales since the beginning, but that happened really fast. It didn’t take years to triple this. It doubled within three months. By six months we were doing almost three times that,” said Dundon. “We were averaging a total of 15,000 dollars a week,” Dundon said. “[With the addition of the Tap Room] we’ve done 15,000 dollar Fridays. We went from 15,000 to, I’d say our average is around 47 to 48 [a week].”
Over the years, Bill Gray’s has seen bars come and go in the community.
“College bars are just like you’re fighting for every dollar and you’re hoping the kids don’t do any damage. And then they’re going to order the cheapest beers. They don’t respect the area as much,” said Dundon. “Many bars were admitting minors and they got caught. They weren’t respectful of laws. If you’re going to let in minors like that, you’re definitely not respecting the area.”
Despite the lack of traffic they see from college students, the Tap Room plans on remaining a dominant force in the bar and restaurant business in the area for a long time.
“We’re still a place where you can go for a good, clean time,” said Dundon.
Regardless of the crowds that visit them each week, each of these bars have found a way to stay in business and hope to keep it that way.
Brockport may not be the bustling bar hub it once was, but whether you are spending the day in Brockport or exploring what the night time has to offer, there will always be good people, fun places and cold drinks waiting.