The students behind the bar

Todd Needle/Daily
90-95 percent of the Rick’s staff are students, according to Engineering senior Mike Oles, a Rick’s employee. Buy this photo

By Matt Slovin, Managing Editor
Published November 5, 2013

In Ann Arbor’s most notorious basement, known for its sticky dance floor and neon, liquor-infused shark bowls, LSA senior Ben Gyarmati does his homework.

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It’s a far cry from the Shapiro Undergraduate Library. But for Gyarmati, Rick’s American Café, where hours later patrons will flash credit cards and dollar bills, doubles as a study space.

As one might imagine, it’s not the most productive of environments.

“It’s a very hard place to get work done,” Gyarmati said. “Especially when the DJ comes in and starts playing techno with no lyrics.”

For most students who venture to the basement of 611 Church Street, where Rick’s is located, studies are the last thing on the mind. But for those like Gyarmati, a bartender at the bar, downtime at work means a chance to catch up on reading for class. And while some students opt for more traditional part-time jobs — like retail jobs or University Housing positions — others are drawn to gigs at bars.

The ‘social aspect’

To Engineering senior Mike Oles, who also works at Rick’s, work rarely feels like work.

“A lot of other jobs are like, ‘Oh crap, I have to go to work,’ ” Oles said. “But I don’t dread it. Work is fun for me.”

Part of what makes the shifts so enjoyable for him is the ability to socialize on the job. Once Oles has completed his duties, which include bussing tables and running the dishwasher, his supervisors are generally OK with him chatting with friends.

The camaraderie among co-workers has been instrumental to the college career of Gyarmati. He transferred to the University from Michigan State University after the first semester of his freshman year, which caused him to “miss the pivotal time of meeting people in the dorms,” he said. His job at Rick’s has allowed him to find a close-knit friend group.

Weekends spent behind the bar instead of ordering drinks is also a plus for Rick’s employees.

Gyarmati said he prefers bartending to the three bouncer positions at the bottom of the Rick’s staircase because “it’s more lucrative.”

With the amount of time employees spend at Rick’s on the clock, one would think they would stay away in their free time. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Oles cites the half-off employee discount as a reason to visit the bar on nights off.

“I go into the night thinking I’m going to stay away, but monetarily there’s no reason to stay away,” Oles said. “And it’s fun to see the staff.”

Students policing students

The indignant customer who has had a few too many shark bowls might not realize it, but it’s possible the bartender who cuts him or her off could be in their chemistry lecture. Oles said 90-95 percent of the Rick’s staff are students either at the University or Eastern Michigan University.

“Sometimes you get people who say, ‘Oh, you’re going nowhere in life because you work at Rick’s,’ ” Oles said. “But I don’t think they understand that I’m also a student.”

Oles added that he can laugh off the disrespect, which usually comes from patrons who are being kicked out — something he said happens once or twice each shift.

Gyarmati believes customers would be more polite if they realized he’s a classmate of theirs. In his experience, the hardest ones to deal with are outside of the bar.

“It’s understandable in some aspects. It’s a long-ass line out in the cold,” he said.

“When you’re bouncing, you’ll get treated like shit by a lot of people,” Gyarmati said. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh sweet, you work minimum wage at a bar.’ But I’m also getting a University of Michigan education. It’s not like this is my life.”

Stories to last a lifetime

Life at Rick’s for Oles and Gyarmati comes with endless tales of patrons’ drunken debauchery.

One night, Gyarmati watched a fight break out on the sidewalk outside of the bar, and he sprinted in to break up the scuffle.

Gyarmati pinned one of the unruly customers to the ground, but because his zip-up hooded sweatshirt covered up the word “staff” on the back of his work T-shirt, a policeman mistook him for one of the perpetrators.

The next thing Gyarmati remembers, his face was on fire. The cops had sprayed mace, and his efforts to play peacemaker had only earned him agony.

But life at Rick’s provides the ammunition for less painful stories too, like the time Oles observed someone in line name-drop a co-worker to another bouncer.

“You don’t know Cory Davis like I do,” Oles recalls him saying.

Little did the arrogant customer know, he was actually talking to Davis’s brother, who also works at Rick’s.

For Oles, Gyarmati and the rest of the students behind the scenes at Rick’s, a job at the bar simply makes sense. But what does it take to be a good fit for a job at Rick’s or another popular off-campus bar?

“Someone with work ethic who is willing to give up weekend nights,” Oles said.

“Just try to be easy going,” Gyarmati said. “If you’re a bartender, you’re going to be yelled at. You’ve basically just got to be calm and be focused.”

Correction appended: An earlier version of this article misidentified Cory Davis and his brother as twins.