“Hey, are you clocking in? You're on the schedule!” said a grinning Jeremy Prach as I walked into Center Street's River Horse tavern just after the Pabst sign in the window came on at 5 p.m.. I took this to mean he knew I was there to report rather than drink, but before I could stop him, he cracked a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and set it on the bar.
“First drinker gets one free,” he said. He then went back to bringing the high-backed stools down from the table tops and setting out ashtrays as the sound system blasted a string of '80s hardcore classics by Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and Black Flag.
After taking a tiny sip of beer, I told him I was there to write a story on Raffle Night. Prach's smile becomes rueful.
“Raffle Night's been pretty bare lately,” he said with a shrug. He pointed to a red Sendik's bag resting in front of the whiskey bottles. “I've got my little emergency bag. We'll see.”
Night was originally a Sunday night thing, said Prach. Monday night's happy
hour attraction used to be Madden Monday, featuring the popular “Madden NFL”
video game. But now things are changing. Blame the economy, or budget-watching students, or a neighborhood exodus, but it's tough for the neighborhood tap these days, and this one is no exception.
“That went really well for a couple years,” Prach said. “But then people started trying to sneak their own beer in here, or smoking a bunch of weed before they came and just ordering water. And then they'd expect service! 'Hey, I need some more water over here,'” he said, shaking his head. “So we decided to try raffle to get people in here on Mondays.”
“Sometimes, that helps.”
“All right, we're close to a quorum,” said Prach. He considers seven customers a “quorum,”enough people to justify a raffle.
“Don't count me, I'm leaving in five minutes,” said a man who asked not to be identified or photographed. Prach stepped to the bar's computer and said he was posting a message on Facebook.
“Sometimes that helps.”
Prach started doing raffles after visiting a friend in New York City and seeing him do a happy hour raffle while tending bar.
“That was in...2001? It can't have been 10 years, can it?”
As the clock nears six, quorum is achieved and the hardcore songs yield to the familiar theme music from “The Price Is Right.”
“Welcome to another exciting edition of Raffle, here on Monday night. It's a good-lookin' raffle crowd this Monday, not like last week,” said Prach. “It looked like a set from SpongeBob in here.” After Prach gives away a prize package including a “Monday Night War” wrestling DVD featuring Patrick Swayze, a comically oversized pair of white boxer shorts, and a single-serving package of Purina Moist and Meaty dog food, the quorum evaporates.
“This is as busy as it's been in six months,” he says. By 6:45, the hardcore punk is gone for good, giving way to the Beatles and the Velvet Underground. There won't be another raffle tonight.
Happy hour, not so happy
“Without raffle, happy hour is not so happy,” Prach said, “and sometimes that's a good thing. People sometimes want to come in and mope, and I try to read that, and not interfere with that.”
Todd Loferski, nursing a can of Bitburger at the end of the bar, affirmed he was there for that very reason.
“What can I say? I'm having a little lady trouble, and I just wanted to get out of the house and have a drink,” he said. “Frankly, to me the whole raffle thing is kind of a nuisance.”
Scott Radtke, who has run the bar since 2006 and bought it in 2007, said that February is a “notoriously hard” month for corner bars like the River Horse, blaming the “winter doldrums.”
“You get to the end of February,” he said, “and you're just done with winter, but winter's not done with you.”
Seasonal patterns aside, Radtke acknowledged that 2009 had been a tough year, in part because “the neighborhood is changing. A lot of people who made Raffle Night big have moved to Bay View, and there are a lot more students, who are very budget-conscious.”
“The questions I'm hearing most these days are 'How much is a Pabst?' and 'What's cheap?'” he said. “My costs rise, but I can't raise my prices much.”
He also said the bar needs to make money during the summer to get through the winter, and thatthe summer of 2009 was the “least summery summer I can remember.”
“March will be better than February, and April will be better than that, and so on until we hit festival season,” he said. “And even then, a lot times people will stop in after they leave Summerfest or whatever.”
“Last year, it really hit me that the economy had filtered down,” he continued. “Last year when people were done at Summerfest, they were done for the night.”
“People still want to go out, they just want to spend less money,” said Radtke. “And what we're selling, more than alcohol, is a social environment.”
Radtke also acknowledged that the tavern could have done more to help itself. “Yeah, we've rested on our laurels, we need to market ourselves better,” he said. “We need to remind people that we're still here, and let new people know we exist.”
“I mean, Coke spends millions on advertising, and why do they do that? Everyone knows about their product. They advertise to remind people that they're there, that they still exist,” Radtke said.
“Admittedly, we haven't done that. We need to to more outreach.”