Summer School: How to run a neighborhood bar
There are a dozen people seated along the bar at T-Rugg’s Tavern in Burlington on a recent Thursday evening. Surprisingly, no one is shooting pool.
Two of the six TVs are playing a NESN documentary about Red Sox pitcher Rich Hill. Another one plays the 2017 version of Stephen King’s It. No one’s watching.
Find our full Summer School series here.
Owner Mike Dunn is behind the bar. He chats easily with customers, grabbing cans of beer and making change as people settle their tabs. He knows most of the people at the bar, at least a little bit. He breaks the news to one customer that their painting business just got nominated for an award from Seven Days.
“I was stoked when I saw. I don’t know any of these people, but I know him! I’m voting for him!” Dunn told the guy sitting behind the bar.
T-Ruggs opened in 1980, and has been a fixture in the Burlington’s Old North End for over four decades. It’s the kind of place where you’re likely to run into your neighbors — and that’s exactly what Dunn wants.
The building sits on the corner of North Street and Elmwood Avenue, across from a cemetery. When you enter, you’re greeted by the beer-drinking leprechaun painted on the front door. Behind the bar, there’s a sign with the name of the bar and the phrase "Where good spirits will congregate."
“We got clean bathrooms, friendly faces cold drinks, six TVs, pool table darts, jukebox, plenty of board games, comfortable bar stools."Mike Dunn, T-Rugg's Tavern
When asked to describe the bar, Dunn pauses before answering.
“It's your Old North End neighborhood spot,” he said. “We got clean bathrooms, friendly faces, cold drinks, six TVs, pool table, darts, jukebox, plenty of board games, comfortable bar stools.”
Dunn came to Vermont 18 years ago as a student at the University of Vermont. He started working at restaurants, including Misery Loves Company and Sneakers Bistro, both in Winooski.
Dunn, who’s 35 and recently became a father, worked at T-Ruggs for a little over three years before buying the bar last May.
“I was ready to take something on and make it my own, but not have it be like a brand new concept,” he said. “I also love the idea of a neighborhood bar. That's the kind of bar I like to drink in. It's the kind of bar I like to to hang out in.”
So, how do you run a neighborhood bar? Dunn says a big part is weaving the bar into the social fabric of the neighborhood. That means hosting events, like weddings, baby showers and wakes.
“Those are things that are important to me,” he said. “Whether you move 3,000 miles away, you'll remember where you got married, or where you celebrated the upcoming birth of your child, or where y'all cried all night — because you were remembering your loved one. Those are the things that carry on.”
More from Summer School: How to keep a history
To be a neighborhood bar you also have to be open and accessible to your community. T-Ruggs is open 365 days a year from noon to 2 a.m.
“It's very rare that I look up here — no matter what time of day — and I don't recognize most of the people in here," Dunn said. “That's part of the community, just knowing who lives around you. And even just a little tidbit of their everyday lives can help them feel at home.”
Besides knowing who your customers are, Dunn says you also need to know lots of little things — whether it’s the Kardashians or the day’s news. Dunn, despite being a New York sports fan, knows a lot about Boston sports.
“This is New England. Like, more than half of my clientele is Boston fans,” he said. “So that's almost expected to know, like, who's pitching for the Red Sox tomorrow — that’s part of my job.”
"It's more like, knowing that if you go to this location, there's going to be some people that you know, some people that you don't know and magically, you're gonna exist in that space. And by the end of it, hopefully, all of you kind of know each other."Mike Dunn, T-Rugg's Tavern
All of those elements come together to make a space where people can be social — or sit quietly. Dunn says what’s important is making space for any of those possibilities.
“It's more like, knowing that if you go to this location, there's going to be some people that you know, some people that you don't know and magically, you're gonna exist in that space,” he said. “And by the end of it, hopefully, all of you kind of know each other.”
Dunn says the booze helps, but that isn’t the focal point. He wants the draw to be the people — whether they want to buy a beer or just need a glass of water on a hot summer day.
All summer long, Vermont Public reporters are learning how to do something. Have an idea? Send it to us here.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors.