Barmageddon: Sweeping changes to UCF bar scene

The UCF bar scene has seen doors close in the past few months. But why are they closing?

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There's one easy way to get a college student to revert back to that childish tendency to respond to everything with the question: " But why?"

Take away their free drinks.

Many have asked this one-word question after hearing the news that bars in the UCF area such as The Station and Mad Hatter have closed for business. It seemed like a Barmageddon, with one venue shutting down after another. Now, with a limited number of bars still thriving in the area, some students may even find themselves going as far as downtown for a night out.

The Station, Mad Hatter and The Moat closed down all within months, and some even weeks, of one another. This isn't an uncommon trend for this area, either. Before these bars there were Fubar, TD's, The Real McCoy's, Scoop, Devaney's Too and more. All have come and all have gone.

But what leads to the collapsing effect in the East Orlando nightlife in the first place?

The owner of now-closed The Station, Michael Rubino, said by his account, safety is a major factor. He recalls the elimination of overnight parking as one of the key factors in the ultimate demise of the popular bar. About eight months after his business took over the venue, Rubino said, the landlord of the plaza decided to do away with overnight parking. Rubino believes that decision triggered a trickle down effect that drove the problem a lot further than the parking lot.

"[It was a problem because] it affected students' safety, No. 1. No. 2, college students live on a budget," he said. "So when they're partying at The Station and they wake up to their car being towed and they have to pay $100 to get it out, that kind of eats into a student's budget. They're not going to want to go to a place, no matter how popular it is, if they know their car is going to get towed."

The Station opened in January 2013 and Rubino said it provided students with a downtown atmosphere all while being right in the UCF area. He said the spot did very well in the beginning, bringing in numbers that the then 25-year-old had never seen before. However, he also said that the cost of rent for a bar in the UCF area is significantly higher than that of other spots in Orlando.

On top of that, Rubino claims that after a few months of being in his venue, the owner of the plaza didn't seem to want the atmosphere of a college bar on his property anymore.

"After we [The Station] got in there, the landlord decided he didn't want a college bar in there anymore. So he pushed heavy on us legally to get not only us out of there, but to get the Mad Hatter out of there as well," Rubino explained.

He said that the owner sent him a notice for a violation of his lease agreement, which he claims they did not violate. He said they then felt singled out as his company was cited for an offense that other tenants weren't penalized for. The owner of the plaza did not return the Central Florida Future's calls and emails to share his side of the story.

Rubino has moved on, though, and is now expanding a business in New York despite a seven-year career in the Orlando nightlife industry. With his experience, and understanding that he may just have been placed in a tough situation with the location of his venue, why not just relocate to another vacant spot in the area? He said it's not that simple.

"[Another reason] as a bar owner, I would say that a lot of people are reluctant to open bars in the area is because no matter how much the college kids want or ask for another bar, when it comes down to it, a lot of them have a problem paying cover and paying for drinks," Rubino said.

He went on to say that the competitive nature of the college-bar market tempts an owner to constantly offer free incentives, which ultimately doesn't help cover their rent and expenses.

"Bars rival too much. Everyone is always trying to compete to have the best drink special and have the most people in their building. That's not necessarily the best business move because sometimes when you give free drinks and your place is full, it can cost you thousands of dollars," Rubino said.

UCF economist Sean Snaith said the volume of closing bars in this market throughout the years isn't too surprising.

"It's highly risky. Many new places will close within a few years of opening. It's not an industry where that's an unusual occurrence" Snaith said.

UCF Rosen College of Hospitality Management's Marissa Orlowski also noted the competitive market. However, one thing sets the successful bars apart, she said.

"[You need] a pricing structure that allows for a profit. You can't operate at a loss, having a full bar, because you've got this great super-cheap drink special that's awesome for college students. [It] doesn't sustain you if you are either only breaking even or taking a loss every night because your pricing is so low," Orlowski, a graduate teaching associate in beverage management, said. "What sets the successful ones apart is they've figured out how to manage that mix."

But while other bars seemed to fade out just as quickly as the "open" light was switched on, one bar has thrived in the UCF area for almost a decade. Knight Library commemorates its 10th year in business this year and General Manager Cabot Brown said he attributes its longevity to his staff.

"The biggest thing that's been our success is the staff. We have a staff that really enjoys what they do and I think that attitude just transfers right to the customer," Brown said. "Everybody comes in with a positive attitude and positive energy just really making sure that that customer knows it's a fun time and fun place to be."

Brown said Knight Library has seen bar after bar enter the market and often times get swept under the rug. He acknowledges how tough the business is, but said in order to last, communication is key.

"It's all about listening. That's the biggest thing," he said. "When we have somebody walk out of the door, we don't take that personally, but we want to know why … We're not on a tight budget or anything, so we'll spend the extra dollar to make sure that it's where you want to come and spend your dollar."

Meanwhile, Rubino said he would need to see the market get more promising before he brings the moving truck back into East Orlando. He recommends that any student or entrepreneur looking to open a business in the East Orlando nightlife market keep a few things in mind first.

"Do the due diligence in the real estate market to secure a good deal. Definitely work with the Orange County Police to help keep underage drinking down and to provide better security," Rubino said. "Make sure you secure the right type of liquor license for the business that you're trying to open and make sure that you're clear with the landlord of what you're trying to do before you go into it so that there are no discrepancies."

Currently, the spaces that used to occupy The Station and Mad Hatter are vacant.

The Central Florida Future reached out to former management of the Mad Hatter and the owner of University Commons, but did not receive responses. When The Moat originally closed, the Future made phone calls and emails to the management, which were not returned.

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