Exploring Models for Union Pubs Worldwide

Proof that variety is the spice of life is no better illustrated than with the diversity found in the pubs located in student unions. From a 3,000-student campus in New Hampshire where nothing on the pub’s food and drink menu costs over $3, to a club at the University of Sydney (Australia) Union that hosts Grammy-winning bands and special events drawing over 3,000, one constant of union pubs is their uniqueness. 

They serve as meeting spaces, classrooms, dining halls, and event spaces, in an ambience that can range from the historical to the psychedelic. But the foundation of any union pub is the ability to sit down, relax, and have a pint. That’s especially true as union pubs have hybridized, capitalizing on the ever-growing craft beer market. That’s led to creative collaborations with university fermentation studies departments usually found in agricultural colleges, and with larger local breweries.

The Ramskeller in Colorado State University’s Lory Student Center, the 1869 Tap Room in the Purdue (University) Memorial Union, and The Platform nightclub operated by the Northampton (England) University Students’ Union each not only sell craft beer; they also brew, bottle, and sell their own iterations, often with unique campus trademarks. Craft beer sales in the United States were up 5% last year, and in the United Kingdom the number of craft breweries rose by 8%, according to the Brewers Association. 

In 2012, Northampton announced it would close its existing campus and move to the city center. Recently, as the new campus opened, the students’ union introduced The Platform, home to a café, bar, nightclub, conference space, and outdoor roof terrace. 

“The move sees the students’ union located at the very heart of Northampton’s town center, opposite its market square and adjacent local government buildings,” Berrie said. “It also sees the students’ union diversify its income streams through targeting the general public through its nightclub and café operations and local businesses through its conference space.” 

The venue is managed by a permanent staff of three that includes one graduate student, and the union employs 120 student staff working across various venues, including behind the bar, as promotional staff, and for social media marketing. 

Further, in 2014, Northampton Union began a student-driven sustainability project called NU Brew, where students brewed, marketed, sold, hand-delivered—and yes consumed—a microbrew, all within the context of decreasing the carbon footprint by reducing the purchases of externally produced beverages. New versions of NU Brew have been produced each year, and the 2018 iteration focused on the union’s Engine Shed building, a heritage-listed structure that underwent a £4.5 million restoration to serve as a contemporary meeting, study, and support space for student groups. 

Andrew Berrie, marketing and communications manager at Northampton Students’ Union, said one stipulation of a grant that helped pay for the restoration was that the Engine Shed be used for engagement activities tied to the local community, and for educating about the history of the building and the local area. Built in 1873, the Northampton Engine Shed was one of 2,363 engine sheds in England that were decommissioned with the replacement of steam locomotives. 

“One activity that will be delivered will be the production of a limited edition NU Brew to celebrate the launch and opening of our Engine Shed,” he said. “The bottle’s labelling will feature the building’s design alongside a brief history of the building, and it will be sold through our venues.”

Ramskeller Pub in Colorado State’s Lory Student Center has operated since 1968, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. When Lory underwent renovation in 2014 the pub received a new layout to accommodate a craft brewing installation that opened in March 2018. The project, called a teaching brewery, is in coordination with the university’s fermentation science and technology program. It has a brewhouse donated by Molson Coors Brewing, and it got a big thumbs up from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper when he paid a visit in May after speaking at CSU’s Liquid Arts Field to Foam Forum. The governor co-founded the state’s first brewpub, Wynkoop Brewing, in 1988. 

Lory Student Center student employees staff the Ramskeller and the fermentation science students (a 400-level course limited to 22 students over age 21) are not employees but brew at the Ramskeller under the supervision of course instructors. 

“The shared vision in addition to creating a valuable learning experience for students is to create a showpiece for alumni, the CSU community, and the brewing industry,” noted Geoffrey Valdez, assistant director for retail operations and retail dining at Lory Student Center. “We have many opportunities this fall with our Campus Game Day Experience, Homecoming, and the Ramskeller’s 50th anniversary to market both the pub and the brewery and, in turn, enhance visitor numbers as well as  their experience.” 

Another successful craft brewing collaboration has been at Purdue Memorial Union’s 1869 Taproom, which opened in 2016. Purdue Dining and Catering, the Department of Food Science, and People’s Brewing Co.—which is owned by a Purdue alum—worked together to make, market, and serve Boiler Gold, an American blonde ale. And, like most union pubs, doors are open to the under-21 audience, which lends itself to special events geared toward non-beer drinkers. At 1869 Taproom one of those events earlier this year was an all-ages kombucha taproom takeover that included free tastings and a presentation on kombucha making by a Purdue agriculture professor. 

Campus size notwithstanding, offering a diverse lineup of activities and services within the pub is a driver for customers. At the Last Chapter Pub at the Southern New Hampshire University, not only are all beers, wines, and food items under $3, but free soda, snacks, and non-alcoholic cocktails are always on the menu. Televisions, a pool table, fireplace, booth seating, and a quality sound system provide versatility, and like most union pubs, space is available for private rentals. A program called Late Night Bites, where local restaurants offer free food in the pub, has seen as many as 250 students in line to take advantage. 

“In a year we typically have more than 300 programs scheduled in this space, and the average number of folks using the space each day is above 105,” said Elizabeth LaClair, associate director in the Office of Student Involvement. “It can become a black light party one night, and the next day we’re eating hot wings and watching a playoff game. The space is made even better by the students who work there and by the students that frequent it.” 

Five student managers oversee different aspects of the Last Chapter Pub—such as operations, programming, and staffing—with another five student staffers handling the front door, bar, and floor. They’ve all been trained through a New Hampshire program called Total Education and Alcohol Management, and similar programs exist at both state and national levels. In Oregon, for example, every alcohol server must have a state-
issued bartending license, and many union use the nationally recognized Training for Intervention Procedures (TIPS) program. 

It’s not always wine and roses at union pubs and bars as they can run into the same business challenges as any mainstream brewhouse, restaurant, or bar. Markets shift and as customer preferences change so might profits. Having a proven, successful business plan or the ability to be nimble and re-envision a space can be lifesaving assets. 

The PUB at California State University–Fullerton’s Titan Student Union had been open since the early 1990s, when it was a magnet for up and coming bands, its dark, underground-like atmosphere making it a popular hangout for music fans looking for a traditional pub ambience. Then, Titan Union director Jeff Fehrn recalls, “A remodel took it from dark to light.” 

That change, Fehrn thinks, contributed to an attitude change about the PUB as a go-to venue. While it continued to stay open for years, it eventually folded as its former self. It no longer served in-house food nor drink and eventually converted into a more traditional open lounge space hosting karaoke, some live music, and other programming. 

During the 1970s and ’80s the Healey Pub in Georgetown University’s iconic Healey Hall thrived, but a move to a then-new Leavey Student Center fizzled and the pub permanently closed in the early 1990s, according to Patrick Ledesma, Healey Center director. 

“There had been a big gap until the Bulldog Tavern opened in the new Healey Center in 2014,” he said. The Bulldog has been challenges, though. A local restauranteur slated to manage the pub backed out before opening, but food management company Bon Appetit stepped in and swung the doors open in November 2014, a few months after the new union had opened. Management shifted last year when Aramark won a contract to operate the tavern, but then dropped the pub from its contract last month. 

“A new proprietor will be chosen shortly, just in time for the new school year, and we’re thinking that this time it won’t be a big food service conglomerate, possibly a current restaurant owner in the area,” Ledesma said. And at Cal State–Fullerton, Fehrn said he expects something similar: a local restauranteur to come in and create a dining space that also offers drinks before the end of the year. 

If there is one union pub or bar that might be considered unique among others for its size, stature, and variety, it could be the operation at the University of Sydney Union’s Manning House, where both Manning Bar and Hermanns Bar offer food, full bar service, space for meetings, theater events, and most particularly, live concerts. Manning Bar opened in 1974 and has hosted thousands of bands, including Australia’s INXS and Grammy-winning The Foo Fighters. Manning Bar has a capacity of 950, is open until 3 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and is staffed primarily by university students—as many as 16 at a time working at two bars. 

“Since its opening, Manning has had many transformations; however, the main purpose has always been to provide a venue for students to meet, have a drink, and enjoy performances,” said Andrew Woodward, CEO of University of Sydney Union. “During the day, the venue is used by student groups such for theater sports, comedy, and performing arts rehearsals, as well as for lunch and as a general meeting place.” 

Manning also hosts regular events for external clients, the largest of which is an After Mardi Gras Party with Heaps Gay, a Sydney party promoter for the LGBTQ+ community and their friends. The event draws over 3,000 people, requiring use of the entire Manning House and grounds. Other unique events include Neko Nation events inspired by Japanese anime characters where guests dance, drink, and party in costume. 

From small and inauspicious to large, market-competitive venues, union pubs run a range of styles and settings. Therefore, schools contemplating a new pub or refurbishing an aging one have many models from which to choose. Experienced professionals from various pubs did recognize fundamental elements that will inevitably need exploration: define the desired market, conduct a competition analysis, determine how a pub will take part in the role of the union, and have an employee training program that creates professional and satisfied workers. 

Each of those priorities can involve students by having a student dining committee, establishing a student tavern advisory committee, and conducting a vendor showcase students can attend and offer input at, noted Georgetown’s Ledesma. 

“Then try to think about little challenges like your students being able to visit and use their university debit card or meal plan,” he added. “We tried 21 and over after 10 p.m. for a while then realized too many students were looking for something to do so we lifted that restriction.”  


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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