Students Shane Silverman ’24.5, Student Government Association Feb senator, and Marc Chu ’24 hope to bring a student-run bar to the Middlebury campus this spring. With the guidance of Executive Director of Food Service Operations Dan Detora, Silverman and Chu are outlining logistics and anticipating administrators’ concerns for the project. As Chu is abroad this spring, Silverman plans to present their preliminary proposal to Vice President for Student Affairs Smita Ruzicka this week. If Middlebury approves the initiative, Silverman hopes to begin providing limited or full service soon after spring break.
Silverman and Chu are motivated by a sense that the Middlebury nightlife scene is lacking and that students desire more outlets for their weekend energy. Silverman outlined how dorm parties, social house events and Two Brothers Tavern’s Thursday bar nights do not generate a sustainable nightlife scene — Two Brothers Tavern experiences long lines and many social houses feel a responsibility to host open parties every weekend.
Chu commented on their motivations for creating the bar.
“With more and more social houses’ parties being exclusive to their members and suite parties being limited to close friend groups, we feel that there is no place on campus to meet new people,” Chu said. “We feel that a student bar can contribute to a better, safer and more inclusive socializing atmosphere.”
The student bar initiative is still in its preliminary phase, and Silverman and Chu have yet to formally present their proposal to administrators. According to Silverman, the preliminary phase includes, among other things, securing a location for the bar and coordinating with campus and state partners, including the Vermont Department of Liquor and Lottery. Silverman, Chu and a few of their 21-and-over friends are in the process of becoming certified with the state to sell and serve alcohol.
“We have yet to meet with the administration,” Silverman said. “We're likely going to present a fully fleshed-out plan, including dates, locations, staffing and menu. So from them, it's just going to be a yes or no, or they're going to add some input, and it's going to be a quick change.”
While Silverman and Chu initially considered Crossroads Cafe as the location for the bar, a Vermont law prohibits alcohol from being advertised in places commonly frequented by underage students. Silverman then thought of the Mahaney Arts Center basement cafe space, which is currently used for occasional catering events. Detora commented on this idea.
“[The cafe space] does have a built-in bar and refrigeration,” Detora said. “So from an operational standpoint, it makes pretty good sense there. Now, Shane [Silverman] and Marc [Chu] still have to go through events management to see if it's available and talk to the folks in the building and make sure they're comfortable with it.”
Silverman and Chu’s proposal is not without anticipated challenges. They will have to work with the fact that a large percentage of the Middlebury student body is underage. Additionally, they hope to curate an atmosphere that encourages safe drinking. It is against Vermont state law to provide a service that promotes the rapid consumption of alcohol. Chu and Silverman noted that they are “not going to be putting up beer pong tables trying to get people to drink as much as possible because that is not the service [they’re] trying to provide.”
“It's going to be a challenge for us to figure out how to provide a safe, fun, affordable nightlife experience to all students, while also adhering to state, college and our guidelines,” Silverman said.
According to Detora, there have been student bars in years past. Soon after Detora began working at Middlebury ten years ago, students occasionally served drinks in the game room behind Crossroads Cafe.
“I think what the lack of immediate pushback from staff and administrators shows is how much institutional social knowledge has been lost to Covid-19,” Silverman said. “[A student bar] isn’t a new idea like Marc and I thought it was.”
In spring 2017, students opened a restaurant bar at 51 Main Street, bartending and serving food most Thursday nights under the supervision of Dining Services. However, the waning of enthusiasm for the 51 Main Street bar and the Crossroads Cafe bar, for reasons unknown, eventually led to their closure. Detora expects that Dining Services would play a similar role this time around, supervising but rarely interfering.
“Vermont is very strict on laws around alcohol, so to make sure that we're following all those rules, dining would have to provide overall supervision,” Detora said. “Now, that being said, it's more or less just training. If we see something that's wrong, then it would be up to the students to correct it. Unless it is a very big violation, we wouldn't really be directly involved.”
To obtain student input, Silverman and Chu created the Middlebury Student Bar Interest Poll. When asked to select the three most significant barriers to enjoying campus nightlife from a list of six, 49 students collectively ranked “distance,” “social house atmosphere” and “weather” as the top three. The poll also includes a list of various ciders, beers, wines and cocktails, as well as non-alcoholic beverages like soda, juice, coffee and tea, alongside their proposed prices, and allows students to select preferred options. Silverman and Chu hope to continue taking student interests into account, and they encourage any and all students to take their online survey, which is still available.
If approved, Silverman and Chu plan to call the bar “The Catamount.” Catamount, or cougars, are now extinct in the Northeast, but they once habited remote environments like Middlebury.
“There's a metaphorical value to it, with an elusive cat in the mountains,” Silverman said. “Going out and trying to find a catamount is just as hard as going out and trying to find a good time in Middlebury.”