By John Qubti and Louie Diaz Jr.
It’s 11:50 p.m. on a Thursday night at The Fuel Station and there are only 16 people scattered around tables in the bar.
The usual line that snakes down Jarvis Street is gone. Nobody is pushing and shoving to get a drink at the bar. The three bartenders pay more attention to the hockey game on TV than the occasional customer. The DJ is spinning loud tunes but the dance floor is empty. A lone bouncer is twiddling his thumbs at the door.
The Fuel Station, on the corner of Gerrard and Jarvis Streets, was once the trendiest spot on the Ryerson pub night circuit, packing in up to 300 students on a Thursday night.
But tonight the bar is deserted.
The competitions is fierce between the three pubs within a 10-minute walk of each other — The Fuel Station, Ram in the Rye and Mick E. Fynn’s.
Add to the mix the nearby club district — slick nightclubs luring well-dressed drinkers with expensive lights and professional DJs — and campus pubs are forced to offer better music and cheaper drinks to attract students.
Hoping to increase business, Mick E. Fynn’s is moving from Yonge and Gerrard Streets a few blocks north to Carlton Street in May.
Until mid-November, The Fuel Station, known among regulars as The Fueler, was the busiest bar in the Ryerson area on Thursday nights. Tonight the 16 patrons have the place to themselves. So where did all the students go?
“I don’t get it, we haven’t changed anything,” says Owner Steve Vlahos.
He stands behind the bar pouring beer from a Moslon Canadian tap. He knows his customers by name and calls the regulars ‘brother.’ But tonight there are barely any customers.
“I knew it would come to and end but not so soon,” he says. “I guess we are not the hot spot anymore.”
Vlahos has owned The Fuel Station, the rooming house above the bar and the kitchen on the side of the building since October, 1995. He changed the name to The Fuel Station from Junction Tavern, which had been there since the 1970s.
Vlahos brought in hard liquor and a bigger selection of beer.
“I wanted the students, not the riffraff,” he says.
Shortly after revamping the bar, Vlahos was approached by a theatre student who wanted a regular place for Ryerson students to hang out.
He made Thursdays official Ryerson pub nights. Vlahos says The Fuel Station was the first to hold pub nights and bars in the area soon followed with DJs and drink specials.
And it worked, for a while.
Dave Brodie has sworn he’ll never step foot in The Fuel Station again.
The last time the second-year business student was at The Fuel Station he came home with a bloody mouth and a chipped tooth. He got into an argument outside the bar, was punched in the face and needed 16 stitches to close the gash on his lip.
A regular on the Ryerson pub night scene, Brodie, 20, gathers a group of friends every week to drink at his Neill Wycik apartment then go to a bar or club.
“We try to change our schedules around to be able to go out,” he says.
Brodie’s crowd were regulars at The Fuel Station but stopped going there in October. He says the bar was too crowded and had a bad atmosphere.
“I only went [to The Fuel Station] because of the people,” he says.
Brodie’s friend Mary Warner, 20, a second-year radio and television arts student, also stopped going to The Fuel Station.
“They have nothing to offer. It is the Thursday night desert.”
The Fuel Station’s dingy, cramped atmosphere was a big turn off for Warner.
“Last year The Fuel Station was a total sausage fest,” she says. “I just want to go to a place with a better girl-to-guy ratio.”
Now Brodie and his crew go to Tonic on Peter Street every Thursday night. He says there’s a bigger dance floor and better atmosphere.
Tonic is a $1.5-million club that hosts C.U. Thursdays — no cover, no dress code and $3 drinks and beer for college and university students.
“I cannot compete with Tonic,” Vlahos says, “and I never intended to.”
He says Tonic is a nightclub with expensive light and sound systems, while The Fuel Station is a campus bar — a casual place where students can meet their friends and have a good time.
Vlahos will do almost anything to get the students back, starting by lowering the price of a pint of beer to $2.75 from $3.50 and a pitcher to $8.50 from $9.50. He also wants to offer free pool on all four pool tables and line-bypass for ladies.
“If that’s what it takes,” he sighs.
Brodie would like to go to a pub near Ryerson, but says none of them appeal to him.
He won’t go to Ryerson’s campus pub, the Ram in the Rye at Oakham House, because he thinks it resembles a basement.
“There is no real dance floor and it’s way too small.
“It’s a poor dance hall, just pathetic.”
But this Thursday night, Ram in the Rye, on the corner of Church and Gould Streets, is busy. People are jumping to reggae music on the dance floor — a small section of hardwood floor that has been cleared of chairs and tables.
John Nadalin, the 23-year-old manager of Ram in the Rye, has been pleased with pub night attendance this year.
“Things are booming,” he says.
Ram in the Rye offers $2.95 drinks and $8.75 pitchers. They have a resident DJ that spins hip hop and dance music.
Nadalin isn’t worried about nightclubs stealing Ram in the Rye’s business. He says its biggest draw is that the servers and bartenders are students. He believes students want to hang out in a casual and comfortable as it gets.
It’s 12:15 a.m. later this Thursday night at Mick E. Fynn’s and empty seats are hard to come by.
All four pool tables are occupied. A waitress carries two pitchers in one hand as she carefully manoeuvres around the people at the bar.
Bartender Seth Vallier, 22, says Mick E. Fynn’s had a quiet spell when students went home for Christmas break, but business has been steady over the past few months.
“This year [numbers] have been a little down,” he says, “but our Thursdays have picked up as of late.”
Ryerson business graduate Sara Burke, 25, now manages Mick E. Fynn’s.
Burke remembers her student days and is trying to make sure Mick E. Fynn’s has cheap prices and a good atmosphere to compete with other bars and clubs.
She instructs the DJ to play a wide range of popular music and occasionally brings in house band 60 Cycle Hum to play rock ‘n’ roll.
On Thursday nights Mick E. Fynn’s drops their prices for students $3.25 for liquor, $2.75 for shooters and $9.50 for pitchers.
Vallier is excited about moving north, into the old Gardoonies Bar and Grill across from Maple Leaf Gardens. He says the new space will put Mick E. Fynn’s in a better neighbourhood and increase business.
He doesn’t know what is moving into Mick E. Fynn’s, but says it won’t be a bar.
Mick E. Fynn’s is planning a big frosh week promotion in September to kick off pub nights in the new space. In the meantime, Vallier is enjoying seeing almost 200 people fill Mick E. Fynn’s on Thursdays.
Donnie McDougale, a fifth-year aerospace engineering student, is on his way to join the party at Mick E. Fynn’s.
He is sitting in the almost-empty Fuel Station finishing his beer.
McDougale, 24, is at The Fuel Station because he feels obligated to be there.
“I have to come here on Thursdays and spend a little money. I know the owner,” he says. “I’ve been here so long and I know the place real well.”
McDougale has been a Fuel Station regular since his first year at Ryerson and has seen the bar at its best, and now its worst.
“I think it got too busy for their own good,” he says. “Sometimes there were 200 people lined up outside. There were fights and I guess the students just said no more.”
McDougale gulps down the last sip of his beer, rounds up his buddies and heads out to a more spirited bar.