When I entered the Feve and walked upstairs on Tuesday afternoon, the second floor was empty. In lieu of half-finished well drinks and hovering college students, fifty or so food menus sat out to dry on the bar’s countertop. They had just been soaked in disinfectant to be used later that evening. Although there was no one present in the bar, signs of life were abound: boxes of beer with shipping labels yet to be unpacked, condiments stacked neatly on tabletops, and limes set aside to be cut for the rims of glasses.
Such rituals begin at 3:30 p.m. each weekday afternoon when Brad Mitchell and Josh Wilson arrive to work. At present, Brad and Josh are smoking a cigarette on the back stairwell leading up to the Feve’s second floor, one of several smoke breaks they’ll take between now and 2:00 a.m. when the bar closes.
I had approached Brad the night before, after hearing about renovations made to the Feve in 2012 that expanded it from a dimly lit “dive bar” to the two-story restaurant Oberlin residents and students know today. However, when I asked Brad if he would be interested in talking about the Feve’s development as a bar over the years, his answer surprised me.
“Oberlin College students are getting richer and richer,” he said. “Students aren’t chugging Black Label [beer] or throwing back shots anymore. They’re coming in for flights and craft beers.”
After Brad told me this, I scheduled an interview for the following day and went home to research the demographics of college students admitted to Oberlin College and its peer institutions. With 70 percent of our students coming from the top 20 percent income bracket, 37 percent from the top 10 percent, and 9.3 percent from the top one percent, there are few who will deny the financial privilege granted to many Oberlin College students. Far less discussed, however, is whether Oberlin College is admitting a higher concentration of wealthy students and whether our wealthiest students are actually becoming wealthier over time.
As it turns out, what Brad noticed in the drink orders of Oberlin College students has statistical backing. According to a 2016 report issued by The New York Times on economic diversity and student outcomes, over the past twenty years, Oberlin College’s concentration of students from the top ten percent has increased from 40 percent to just under 60 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of students from the bottom sixty percent has decreased from just over 20 percent to approximately 15 percent.
Additionally, in April of 2007 the Higher Education Research Institute released a forty-year analysis of incoming freshman classes, which found that “in the last 35 years, college student parental income rose from $65,700 to $76,400 (inflation-adjusted), representing a 16 percent increase, while national income rose from $44,900 to $47,800 (inflation-adjusted), representing a 6.5 percent increase.” That is, the parental income of incoming freshman outpaced the national income by more than two-to-one.
This suggests that Oberlin College is admitting slightly more wealthy students who are becoming slightly wealthier over time. But is this trend significant enough to account for a dramatic shift in student drink orders and behaviors over the past decade at the Feve? As I learned, what Brad noted has less to do with a shift in parental income, and more to do with the Feve’s emergence as a two-story restaurant after a construction project in 2012.
When Brad and Josh enter through the back door of the Feve’s second story, they continue their conversation without seeming to notice me sitting at the bar with a “Feve Brunch” coffee cup and reporter’s pad in hand. They talk with a familiarity that I would later learn comes from Brad and Josh’s having met when they were 17 and 12 years old, respectively.
As Brad puts it, he roomed with Josh’s older brother while the two of them attended culinary school. “We were good buddies. I actually bought him his first beer,” he tells me. While Brad went on to manage several restaurants in the greater Cleveland area, including a catering company of his own and the City of Oberlin’s own Agave Taqueria, Josh’s brother decided to stay local and work in the kitchens of Oberlin’s Black River Cafe and the Feve. Josh began bartending at the Feve with his brother in 2006, and Brad came on board as the Feve’s “new guy” two-and-a-half years ago in 2014.
For now, I sip coffee, take notes, and watch as the pair prepares for a Tuesday night happy hour special, the Feve’s “third-busiest evening” of the week. They walk from one corner of the bar to the other, attending to tasks without any identifiable form of communication about who needs to do what. Eventually, Brad stops at the bar and tells me that I’ll have to interview Josh and him while they finish setting up for the opening of the Feve’s upstairs at 5 p.m.
“It’s not a big deal, I can prep this place in my sleep,” Josh says. “Actually, I’ve got it down so much that sometimes I wake up to nightmares of mixing long islands.”
I start by asking Brad and Josh about their perceptions of the current generation of Oberlin College students, and I’m pleased to learn that the backpack I walked in with doesn’t hold them back.
“You hear all sorts of things back here [behind the bar] and people never think we’re listening,” Brad says. “Students talk about studying in Paris, they talk about spending a summer in Japan. From my perspective, to be afforded those opportunities is amazing. But for them, it seems so normal. It’s an entitlement thing.”
Brad goes on to tell me that the entitlement he perceives in contemporary Oberlin College students can be observed in the way that they behave at the Feve. “You’ll get people who seem bothered by the fact that we offer table service. We’re trying to clean the table off, to get things out of your way, and people don’t even want to move a little bit.”
“They’ll stand at the bar trying to get our attention when it’s busy, or tap their credit card on the counter,” Josh adds.
When I ask Brad if he thinks that students’ behavior had more to do with their maturity as teens and twenty-somethings than with a feeling of financial entitlement specific to Oberlin College students, he tells me about his beginnings in the service industry.
“I got my first job while on vacation in Florida. I went to Florida for a month before my freshman year [in high school]. My cousin worked at a restaurant and he got me a job. I had to falsify the documents because I wasn’t sixteen. I had to work while I was on vacation so that I had money to spend. I could only afford the plane tickets, meaning if I didn’t work when I was there, I couldn’t do anything.”
For Brad, it’s less about family values that come with financial wealth and more about the fact that, in his mind, most wealthy students have not held a service position. “I wouldn’t say I learned how to behave at a restaurant because of my upbringing or my family’s wealth. I figured it out real fast because I actually worked in one,” he says.
Josh cites general lack of awareness on the part of Oberlin College students, which has to do not only with a lack of work experience in the service industry, but also that they have less exposure to bars than their college peers in larger cities.
“Kids don’t really know the effect that they’re having with their behavior. They just haven’t learned how to behave in a bar yet so they’ll think it’s okay to tip a quarter on a well drink,” he says.
Josh’s mentioning of tips inspires Brad to come over to the both of us, so that the pair is leaned over either side of me at the bar counter. “It’s pretty common for someone to get a bill with a drink for $3.64 and they’ll just round up to four.”
I ask if the conventional student wisdom of tipping “a dollar a drink” is enough and both Brad and Josh agree that it is, in certain cases.
“We’re obviously better tippers because we know what it’s like to work in a bar, but a dollar tip on a beer is generally all right. For mixed drinks though, I’ll tip a dollar a shot.”
Wednesday evening is one of the Feve’s busiest nights of the week, by nature of a drink special advertising Long Island Iced Teas at four dollars each. Although the contents of the Feve Long Island are standard—vodka, rum, gin, tequila, and Coke—their quantities are less certain. In the year-and-a-half since I’ve been 21, I’ve heard estimates ranging from “there’s no alcohol in this” to “four shots” to “drink two and you’ll blackout.” I indulge myself and ask how much alcohol Josh puts in one of the Feve’s long islands.
“Here’s all I’ll say: I’d tip two to three dollars,” he says.
Brad’s frustrations seem to arise from his perception that although Oberlin College students have more money and are ordering more expensive beverages, they tip the same amount. He criticizes what he perceives as the desire of Oberlin College students to “always seem like they’re helping somebody,” which begs an important question. If Oberlin College students want to help other people, why don’t they use their wealth by tipping better to support service-level employees?
If Brad’s discontent is due to the evident disparity between theory and practice, then Josh’s owes much to architectural and conceptual shifts in the Feve that occurred five years ago, reconfiguring the Feve’s former status as a “dive bar” to a “two-story restaurant bar.”
In early 2012, the Feve’s second story consisted of a thirteen-foot bar, seven beers on tap, and a single bartender. “The bar’s countertop followed this line on the floor, all the way to the back,” Josh says. He’s kneeled down, tracing where the bar used to be on the floor with a finger, and I have to admit, he’s right. The Feve that he’s describing was less than half of the size that it is now and it actually sounds kind of nice. There was no back room, no back stairway, and Josh says that much of the space currently available for dining patrons was only accessible to employees. Frankly speaking, it sounded much more Oberlin.
“It was a dive,” Josh agrees. “I used to come in and work in my underwear.”
Due to the bar’s smaller size, the Feve only hired one bartender per evening. This, Josh tells me, meant two things. First, he didn’t have to split his tips with another employee. Josh reported that before the construction project in 2012, it was not uncommon for a bartender to make the equivalent of a month’s rent in tips during a single four-hour shift. “Monday night was our busiest night of the week. I think we had a dollar-off-drafts happy hour special. I used to make $400 in tips during the first four hours of my shift, and then the next two hours were just profit.”
After the Feve’s expansion in 2012, management now requires that two bartenders work the upstairs bar’s roughly forty-foot countertop at a time. Even on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday nights, the Feve’s busiest nights of the week, Josh says that he makes “nowhere near” rent anymore. When asked about a typical Wednesday evening’s pay in tips, Josh says, “I don’t want to answer that, but let’s put it this way: we’re not hiding an exorbitant sum of money from you.”
“The pay is decent, but it’s not what it could be,” Brad says.
Second, with only one bartender on duty, Josh reports that the bar was busier and more satisfying to work in. “The bar was smaller and people had less space to spread out,” Josh says. “It used to get rowdy, and I prefer that. With thirteen feet of bar, I could do everything all at once. I’d run the train on the bar. It was fun.”
Josh tells me about an Oberlin College commencement week a few years back, in which the Feve briefly revived its 2012 level of rowdiness. “It was so busy it took me 30 minutes to get from one end of the bar to the other. I wasn’t even taking orders, I was just collecting people’s empty glasses on the countertops. I had a stack this high,” he says, extending his arm as far as he can above his head.
“There were 300 people crowded around this bar. I had to grab people by the head and physically move them aside in order to get anywhere,” he says. I’m surprised by the toothy grin on his face as he describes the moment and by how fondly he speaks of what I imagine to be a night in hell for a bartender in his mid thirties.
But Brad agrees: “I wish that we could be commencement-busy, if not every night then at least every weekend,” he says. “If I’m not at work working, I’d rather be at home with my two kids. We don’t get paid to stand here and not pour drinks.”
“I want to have to go and take only two hits of my cigarette on my smoke break because we’re so busy. That’s the goal,” Brad adds.
“Personally, I want to have to smoke one cigarette seven times,” Josh says, laughing.
I ask Josh if he’s ever upset that the Feve expanded from a dive bar into the spacious two-story restaurant with table service that exists in 2017. “Absolutely,” he says without pause. “It’s not a bad bar. There’s nothing negative about it, but it’s not what I signed up for.”
The new upstairs environment actually points to a bigger problem that the Feve management and bartending staff are facing: of how to make the only bar in town a “college bar.”
“People come in, they don’t mingle, they don’t stand, they just come in and sit with their friends,” Brad says. “It’s no one’s fault. There’s a lot of room. There’s table service. It makes sense that people keep to themselves.”
Josh says that the Feve management and bartending staff has attempted to increase student foot traffic in the bar by experimenting with various evening drink and food specials. This year’s include: $4 Margaritas on Monday, an order of tots and a single well drink for $5 on Thursdays, and what I’ve personally found to be the cheapest 28-oz flight of beer for $9 on Sundays.
With the Feve’s current food and drink specials beaming down on me from the chalkboard above, I can’t help but recall a time earlier this year, in which I told Josh that I was upset the Feve had gotten rid of its old, five-dollar Thursday-night special, affectionately called “Beers and Brats night.” The idea was you get a beer on tap and a brat for $5. I had just turned 21 and everyone was talking about it, which I naïvely assumed meant everyone was buying it.
He told me that the beer and brat special wasn’t sustainable because the entire upstairs staff was leaving with Ziploc bags full of brats each evening: “If three people come in and are into it, that’s great,” he says. “But that’s just three people. It’s not enough to keep a special going.”
Josh says that specials often don’t have their intended effect of drawing more students into the Feve, and I have to admit that he’s right. After a year of drinking—and sometimes eating—in the Feve, the bar’s more inventive specials are often an afterthought that come to mind when I’m already two beers into the night and realize I need to eat something salty if I’m going to make it to my 9:30 a.m. class the next morning.
Given his thin, neatly-trimmed beard, visible tattoos, and clothing style reminiscent of the students I see walking around campus, I had always assumed Josh was in his mid-twenties. So when he I learn he’s 33 and doesn’t “know what twenty-year-old students want,” I’m not able to hold back my surprise. “What?” he asks, noticing a look on my face. “Did you think I was in my late thirties? Oh god.”
According to Josh, the entire Feve bartending staff is older than thirty, which makes it hard to know what students want, and even harder to ask. “When I started here, I was 22. I was in better communication with the students because part of my job was to party with them and get to know them,” he says. “But now it’s not about having fun with the people in the bar… It’s about giving them what they want and making a living.”
More recently, the Feve sponsored a student-led initiative called “Saturdays at the Feve” in which the upstairs dining area was transformed into a club with live music, dancing, and drinks. I wasn’t able to attend the event, but I remember sifting through Instagrams and Snapchat Stories before falling asleep that night and thinking how similar the Feve looked to bars I had been to in Los Angeles and New York.
According to Brad, the Feve was packed. In addition to approximately 50 people being kicked out, “there were maybe forty people on the back stairwell, with more on the sidewalk out front,” Brad says. “We needed more staff because people were just walking out with drink cups.”
Again, I assume this to be a night in hell for two thirty-year-old bartenders who are liable for underage drinking, for customers who were served too many drinks and go on to drive home, and for a small business financing the loss of property.
For these reasons, I’m not expecting what Brad says next: “It was probably one of my five favorite nights. Ever.”
He goes on to add that despite the number of people who turned out for the event, sales and tips were pretty similar to a standard Saturday evening. For those who haven’t yet made it to the upstairs of the Feve on a Saturday night, there are usually a handful of people, most of which are there to eat dinner. As Josh put it, “Usually we just stand around.” It was unbelievable to think that the bartenders standing before me could have left those two renditions of Saturday night with the same amount of money.
Even so, Brad thinks of the evening as a necessary change of pace for the Feve. “The sales were average, yeah, but it’s something nice to do for the students, to give them that atmosphere,” Brad says. “There’s potential to do more stuff like that in the future if students want it, but we’re going to need to prepare more ahead of time. There’s talk of wristbands, a five-dollar cover charge for those under 21, and obviously more staff.”
He tells me that he’s meeting with Derek Martin and Quin Butler, the fourth-year students who organized Saturdays at the Feve, later in the evening to plan for future editions of the event. When I interview Derek and Quin the next afternoon, they tell me that Brad was the “ideas guy” behind the event and had been trying to make something it happen for some time.
“On Saturdays, the Feve is empty because of the house party scene. Brad wanted to try and bring that scene to the Feve,” Quin said. “Last year, parties happened next door in the apartment above Subway. Why not above the Feve? It’s good for the students and the bar makes more money.”
Derek tells me that there are five more Saturday-night events lined up between now and the end of February, with the next one scheduled for November 18.
Something about Brad’s investment in Saturdays at the Feve interests me, specifically that despite grievances over parental incomes, poor tips, and a general lack of respect, Brad and Josh are evidently still invested in making sure that Oberlin College students enjoy themselves at the Feve. Somehow, it doesn’t feel as simple as the fact that happy students tip better.
As I collect my things to go, I ask Brad and Josh why they’ve continued to work at the Feve—Brad for two-and-a-half years and Josh for eleven—considering the obvious frustrations of catering to generation after generation of college students. One at a time, they tell me more or less the same thing.
“My favorite thing is when you actually connect with somebody and get to know them. Even when they go away and come back a few years later, you’ll still check in and have a real conversation,” Brad says. Talk of leaving and returning gives me the impression that he’s talking about students, but I can’t be sure. Then he says it: “There are a few students who I talk to. We check in every few years.”
“One of the main draws of working here is that you’re able to shape and influence kids,” Josh says. “It’s being able to tell someone something that they’ll go back and remember. He tells me that it’s pretty standard, on reunion weekends and during commencement week, that Oberlin College alumni will approach him to apologize for how they behaved when they were students in the bar.
“For a lot of students, this is their first bar. It’s a ‘starter bar.’ It’s where you learn to behave,” Josh says. “For example, if someone’s being an idiot, I’m going to tell them ‘You’re a fucking idiot. That might sound harsh, but it also might save them from getting thrown out of a bar or beat up at a bar down the road.”
After talking with Brad and Josh for an hour-and-a-half, I left the Feve with this impression: that, at a point, it’s not about the money. It’s not about Oberlin College students getting richer over time, and it may not even be about them getting richer over time and still tipping the same. It’s about mutual respect. Respect is deeply rooted in money—in the way that Oberlin College students tip and the way that they treat service workers—but it’s also rooted in communication and supporting a local business whose highest priority is to give students what they want.
In other words, if students want to see the Feve grow, all they need to do is pull up a stool to the bar and speak up.