It’s Five O’Clock Elsewhere
Updated: Sep 27, 2020
Selling beer to college students – seems like one of the world’s easiest jobs, right? Well, it appears that at CBU things are a little more complicated.
When I began writing this story in September, I conducted a series of interviews – first with John Mayich, Director of Student affairs, and later with Matt Boyd, Food and Beverage Service Manager with the Student’s Union, and Jon Patterson, General Manager – also with the Student’s Union. As of the beginning of November, John Mayich is the only one of the three still in his job.
Some backstory, then.
The Pit Lounge and Grill is owned and operated by the Student’s Union, but operates on a liquor license granted to the University. In addition to this, the University administration has traditionally rented the space to the Union for a nominal fee – operating with the understanding that the space would be made available to students for events, study, meetings, and all manner of other student activities. So while the Pit Lounge and Grill technically falls under the purview of the Student’s Union, it relies on the University for its space and its license to serve alcohol – effectively ensuring that its continued operation as such is at the discretion of the University administration. To this end, the Lounge Management Committee was established.
The Lounge Management Committee (LMC) is chaired by John Mayich, Director of Student Affairs, and includes various individuals in the CBU Community who might have a special interest or concern in the operation of the Lounge, including Sonya Spencer, Manager of Security Services, Donnie MacIsaac, Director of Facilities Management, and Jennifer Billard, Student Life and Community Engagement Coordinator. The LMC also includes the Student Union Executive Vice-President of Finance and Operations, Bhreagh Gillis, and formerly Student Union employees Matt Boyd and Jon Patterson. The Caper Times reached out to Mr. Mayich on Monday requesting a list of those currently sitting on the LMC, but as of Thursday afternoon has not received a response.
The LMC is mandated to meet a minimum of two times a year, but may meet more frequently at their discretion. The directive of the LMC is to ensure that the Pit Lounge is operating in a fiscally responsible manner, maintains appropriate insurance policies, conforms to the University alcohol policy, and other items of this nature.
My questions for Mr. Mayich were primarily related to operating hours, drink prices, and the process through which decisions were made regarding the same. When asked about the absence of ‘happy hours’ or comparable drink deals that most bars have, Mayich offered that Cape Breton University is a member of PEP-AH – Postsecondary Education Partnership – Alcohol Harms, which does indeed cite “[a] low price, [a] good deal” among student responses regarding their motivation for heavy episodic drinking (HEC). However, PEP-AH also cites “[to] not pay for drinks at [the] bar” among the motivations for the same behaviour. Mayich indicated that the school was following best practices for campuses attempting to limit alcohol abuse by not promoting drink specials, but conceded that he would be open to discussing the matter in the next meeting of the LMC with reference to low-percentage beverages i.e. beer and wine coolers, or a possible food/drink combination deal.
For the last few semesters, closing time has been 2PM on Friday.
When questioned about limited hours of the bar – specifically about the peculiar 2PM close on Friday afternoon, hours ahead of what has long been considered the most appropriate time for a drink on several continents – Mayich was in agreement that the hours were more limited than he would like. While Mr. Mayich was less concerned with the hours of service on offer from the bar, he indicated that Student Affairs and other departments within the school had advocated for extended hours of the space itself, as a multipurpose venue for student use.
Matt Boyd, then Food and Beverage Manager for the Student Union and de facto Manager of the Pit, indicated that it was not the first time he had heard complaints about the hours. “[I’ve] heard people say that and can see where they’re coming from … We wish we could be open all the time … But we need to know people will be there to support us.” When asked if this was not something of a chicken-and-egg scenario – after all, how can we show support at Friday’s happy hour when it doesn’t exist – Boyd indicated that he had inherited the Pit’s operating hours from his predecessor, and would consider extending them if feedback from the community suggested the support would be there. In order to remain open without operating at a loss, their upkeep largely supported by the University itself, the bartending staff would essentially have to make enough to cover their wages. According to then General Manager Jon Patterson, who cautioned that it was not an exact science given variable prices, a lone bartender would need to sell between 5 and 6 beer an hour – or two pitchers – for the operation to break even.
With it becoming increasingly clear that most of the CBU Community was in favour of extended hours, on September 19 the Pit Lounge announced that it would be opening over the weekend on a trial basis; from 12-5PM on Saturdays and Sundays. While the first weekend was fairly dismal in attendance, Boyd and his staff continued to tweak the hours with additional input from students, and while their social media presence was somewhat lacking (they announced the second Saturday’s 4-9PM hours only the day of) they launched a community survey with the assistance of the Student’s Union to help guide future changes. But the changes did not stop there.
With the legalization of recreational marijuana in Canada and CBU’s transition to a Smoke-Free Campus on October 17th, the Pit made the decision to institute a no re-entry policy for its October 26th Halloween party – meaning that anyone wishing to leave the bar during the 9PM-1AM event would have to pay the $10 cover charge a second time should they wish to return. While this effectively eliminated would-be smokers of both tobacco and marijuana from the guest list, it could not help but to have a further effect on attendance; traditionally many CBU students will host or attend pre-drinks in their residence rooms to avoid spending a lot of money at the bar, and while they may attend the event early to pay their cover charge and receive their bracelet, they frequently bide their time in residence and return to the Pit later, when they can expect bigger crowds. I spoke with John Mayich about the new policy and he informed me that it was implemented without the input of the Lounge Management Committee or any pressure from the University that he knew of.
When I spoke with Mr. Boyd earlier that month, we discussed whether or not a prohibition on drink deals and happy hour specials was really an effective harm reduction technique. I argued that by keeping prices above what the average student could afford, not only was the Pit losing out on potential revenue and leaving the space chronically underused, they were also ensuring a majority of students would continue to drink and party in their residence rooms. In PEP-AH’s report on heavy episodic drinking, one of the key messages identified is that “Pre-drinking, or drinking before going to a larger party or bar, appears to be riskier due to the uncontrolled environment,” and again, CBU is a member institution of PEP-AH; these conflicting values indicate there is more than one interpretation of best practices regarding alcohol abuse on campus. The most commonly cited worry around drink deals is an increase in heavy drinking and resultant drunkenness, but Boyd admitted that with all his bar staff required to go through SmartServe training, in theory no patron – student or otherwise – should be able to reach that point in their evening while at CBU’s lone watering hole. It becomes a question of whether a residence assistant and two security guards are able to ensure student safety across 100+ closed doors better than trained bar staff, similar security, and a diverse crowd of patrons occupying an open, public space.
The Boo Bash still being advertised outside one entrance to the Pit, on November 29th.
Whether because of these changes or in spite of them, Matt Boyd is no longer in his position as of October 26th, the day of The Pit’s annual Halloween party. It is around this time that Jon Patterson, General Manager of the Student’s Union, also left his post – comprising 50% of the Student Union’s full-time administrative staff lost at the same time or within days of each other – suggesting a probable connection between the two. In the course of investigating their departure I reached out to Dawn MacDougall, Executive Assistant of the Student’s Union, who directed me to Student Union President Parteek Brar. In a brief interview Brar said that he could not comment on recent personnel changes, or whether or not the two were connected. Brar would tell me that the University had given notice that it would be renegotiating the terms of The Pit’s lease agreement, and that initial discussions indicated renewed attention would be given to hours and the availability of the space for student use. President Brar hinted that an announcement would be made in late November regarding future arrangements for the business, and that he was confident that both the Student Union and University had similar aims and that a favourable agreement could be reached.
The policies and procedures surrounding the termination of a full-time Union employee are not often consulted – MacDougall indicated that it was not a situation seen frequently. While the University supports several Union organizations – such as the CBU Women’s Centre – to the tune of approximately $38,000 annually through funding requests, their involvement in personnel decisions is circumscribed to several interview boards, and even then by invitation only; they would not be involved in the decision to terminate a Union employee. The general understanding is that the Student Executive would make the decision to fire an employee, with or without cause. Each full-time Union employee signs a contract which includes a clause stating that they may be let go in lieu of notice at any time. The circumstances surrounding the departure of Jon Patterson and Matt Boyd remain unclear.
Presently the Pit Lounge is operating without a Manager and with assistance from the Student Union Executive and other Union staff. Since October 26th the Student’s Union has advertised about ten separate events at the Pit over social media (many of them related to the Men’s and Women’s Soccer Teams); comparatively, the Pit’s Facebook page has not made a post in 6 weeks, suggesting that what operational autonomy remained to the bar left with Mr. Boyd. From my conversation with President Brar it is unclear whether the positions of Food and Beverage Manager and General Manager of the Student’s Union will be replaced or whether their responsibilities will be folded into other positions yet to be determined. For the time being Bhreagh Gillis, Vice-President of Finance and Operations, is assisting with the operation of the Pit, while Alex MacNeil, Student Union Finance Officer, has taken over some duties associated with Caper Convenience.
One concern that seems contained to former students is that the Pit Lounge would be sold, or more properly speaking, their space taken over by an outside party. Student employee AJ Leblanc shared a post on Facebook on October 23nd detailing recent changes to the Pit with the hopes of spurring current and former students into action, a post shared 53 times. Leblanc also mentions a petition, a measure he put on hold pending negotiations this November. An employee of the bar commented on the post, expressing that the ongoing situation was being handled with an eye toward discretion, and indeed that has been my experience in researching this article.
In what appears to be a minor moment of crisis for the Pit, currently operating without a manager and with what appears to be a short or perhaps non-existent handover from the outgoing one, the Pit remains committed to its extended hours – these are, however, subject to the availability of current bar staff. With negotiations between the Student Union and University ongoing, it’s possible we will see a return to business as usual, perhaps with some changes to hours and job titles. If it’s a question of third-party ownership or drastic changes to future operations, the wider community and students in particular will be left to wonder why they were not included in the conversation. With President Brar’s expectation of an announcement coming any day now, let us hope we can raise a toast to the Pit’s bright future, and not drown our sorrows somewhere with more accommodating hours.