Charlie Thomas (left) and Mike Beder (right) in the Franklin Hotel Bar on Monday, Oct. 16, drinking a Coca-Cola, and a tequila with pineapple juice, respectively.
Calling the Shots
Words by Benjamin VanHoose | Photo by Kassi Jackson
Two of Kent’s most prominent bar owners share drinks to discuss business, competition and keeping up with students’ evolving tastes
BV: What made you get into the bar owning business?
Mike Beder (Water Street Tavern): I came to school (at Kent State) in ’96, and around ’98 I had some friends working at the Robin Hood and they got me a job. I started at the door, then started bartending. I graduated in 2000 and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. A mom and pop place on North Water Street was put up for sale, and I got the owner of Robin Hood at the time and his accountant to be my investors because I was right out of school and didn’t have any money.
Charlie Thomas (Ray’s Place): I guess I never really thought this is the business I was going to get into, but I just kind of happened into it. At the time I took over Ray’s, it was like a chance to work with young people and still be young yourself, you know?
MB: I’d be remiss not to say, before I opened, Charlie gave me about two hours of his time and let me ask every question under the sun. I actually remember a lot of that conversation, believe it or not. It was very valuable.
BV: Do you remember that conversation, Charlie, and did you think Mike would one day be one of your competitors?
CT: I do remember it, and I’ve had two or three over the years, and I did feel it would work out. I won’t discuss another one that didn’t work out, but there was no doubt Mike would.
BV: What attributes make for a successful bar owner?
CT: Everyone’s different. I say, for myself, I’m not the smartest guy in the world, I just really know how to work hard. I think Mike definitely knows how to work hard, but it helps to have some business smarts too. Common sense is very important in this business.
MB: I think people look at bars as endless amounts of fun and not much work, but Charlie understands that a bar is a business, and what we’re selling is like any other product. You make it not about you, but about what the customer wants.
BV: Have you had to adapt over the years to evolve with students’ tastes?
CT: At Ray’s, we’re constantly changing, but we remain the same. You always have to have new ideas and new approaches, but you try to keep the feel the same.
MB: Especially in a college town where students are on the cutting edge of a lot of trends, staying relevant is so important. I mean, I used to know what the Ray’s specials were by checking the newspaper on Thursdays, and now I would be checking Charlie’s Twitter, I guess. I’ve seen places that have come and gone since I’ve been here, and if you don’t change for the times and keep figuring out how your audience wants to be served, that’s when you fall to the wayside.
BV: How often do you interact with other bar owners in Kent, or do you all keep to yourselves?
MB: One of the things that stuck with me from that conversation with Charlie in late 1999 was that competition is a good thing. I’m always looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not falling behind. In terms of getting together, that doesn’t happen. We used to have meetings, but for no specific reason, those aren’t organized anymore. Seems to be pretty friendly wherever you go. An owner or manager will make a point to say hi and see how things are going.
BV: So there’s no monthly brunch sessions where you all get together?
MB: … And fix Bud Light prices? (laughs) No, no. Nothing like that.
CT: I think we all get along quite fine, no jealousy. There’s competition, but it’s friendly competition. You always hope others around you do real well because if they do, you’re gonna do well also.
BV: What’s hardest about the industry or something you didn’t expect to deal with?
CT: In the early days, I might be in a scuffle several times a week or two to three times a night — that wasn’t really what I wanted to get in the business for. It has changed a lot. There’s not the fights like there used to be. They still happen on occasion, but we used to have a lot of skirmishes on any given night, especially on weekends.
MB: Yeah, and I’d add taking care of damage, be it inflicted by customers or just wear and tear on the building. Usually the beginning of my weeks are spent dealing with getting something put back together.
BV: If you weren’t running bars right now, what would you be doing?
CT: Well, I’ll tell you what my mother thought I was going to do: work for some large company. I guess when I first got to college that’s what I thought I’d be doing too. But now, I couldn’t see myself in that business because I like calling the shots. I answer to myself, but I really answer to the customers. People say, “Well you don’t have a boss,” and I say everyone coming through that door is my boss.
MB: I don’t know, I started so young. I came to school an exploratory major and I left with a general studies major, so I didn’t have a plan per say. I was always the kid with the lemonade stand, so I think I would’ve found something entrepreneurial to do, hopefully. Some days punching a clock and not worrying about anything after 5 p.m. sounds enticing, but truthfully, I could never go back to anything like that.
Benjamin VanHoose is the editor-in-chief, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Look for the Fall 2017 issue of The Burr Magazine, on stands Tuesday, Nov. 28.