What has become of the local Brandon bar scene?

Pictured: The Great Western Roadhouse, one of Brandon's largest nightclub experiences.

RIP – Sassy’s / Spats / Red Pepper / Barnacles / The Unwinder / YAKS / Inferno / Voulez-Vous / Miss Q’s / Encounters / OCC and Code.  I know that have missed some names over the last 25 years.

There once was a time, 15 years ago, when clubs like Encounters, The Unwinder and Houston’s were busy three or four nights a week.  Today if a bar has one busy night a week that’s a victory.

Over time a few things have changed.  In 1991 Manitoba Lotteries introduced VLT machines to help offset decreasing revenue that rural bar owners were feeling at the time.   One would say it was a bit of a gold rush for those owners until Casinos popped up everywhere, and Winnipeg allowed VLTs in their licensed premises.  The novelty of those machines in rural bars and clubs died quickly after that.  Also, minimum drink prices of $2.25 came about in 2001 after a young man died after being at a hotel on Pembina Highway. He was very drunk, after a 25 cent shooter promotion, and rolled into the river and passed away.  So those old promotions of 1 cent drinks at the Unwinder from 9 – 9:45 pm on a Thursday, or 2 for 1 Tuesdays became a thing of the past.

So, what is the overall problem that faces local club owners as well clubs across the country.  The two most common thoughts are:

#1 –  booze is too expensive
#2 –  to meet women or men all you need is Tinder or Plenty of Fish on your phone.  You can buy a dozen beer for 25 bucks and just chat and communicate with whoever you want from the comfort your couch.

One local club The 40 has found their ticket to a busy night is booking touring acts like The Trews, Glorious Sons, and classic rock bands like Helix and Streetheart.

Liz The 40

BDNMB – can local clubs revive their history from the last 15 – 20 years?
Liz – It might not be as a heavy hit as the past, but I think with some planning and matching with what the people want nowadays…and there is always someone in your group of friends, or a friend of a friend, who will always have a birthday where they want to go and have some fun!

BDNMB – booking bands can be difficult …. does being in Brandon make it more difficult to get quality bands to come to town?
Liz: Since Brandon is still a bigger city in Manitoba, a lot of bands still want to make it in to Brandon and get their foot in the door, from my experience.  Now bigger bands, a lot of them like to come to Brandon as a drive through while there on tour in Canada, and we’re a perfect spot!

BDNMB – does your staff help with ideas and promos etc?
Liz: YES!! I love my staff, they all give their opinions on how to promote, which bands might be good, how we should set it up, etc.  Also, I like to know the opinions of the customers, who they want to see, what they want to hear since we are here to please our customers.

Jason Roblin – Vionell Holdings / Houston’s

BDNMB – can you find a way to revive local nightclubs to their glory years of 15 and 20 years ago?
Jason Roblin – I don’t think anyone has figured this out in large or small centers like Brandon.  Going out to clubs for 18-30 year olds is not what it used to be.  This group wants good food, and better entertainment, than only 10 years ago.  The age group likes to socialize in smaller groups and spend their disposable income on live sporting events (the Jets or Bombers in Manitoba), they also can travel to large outdoor festivals inexpensive.  Once you experience these events at a young age a night club only provides limited entertainment value.

BDNMB – do places like Brown’s and The Dock for example cut into revenue, or is that a totally different market?
Jason Roblin – Upscale lounges with good food do take away from the traditional have drinks and watch a local band type atmosphere. Despite the novelty of a $5 smokie after the bar, the new crowd may still spend $100 on a night out, but now it is more heavily weighted towards food and safe transportation than booze.

BDNMB – Bands – DJ’s – Contests – Food – VLT’s what else can a club owner do to make the bar fun and unique?
Jason Roblin – One off concerts seem to help attendance at night clubs. Sponsoring a big activity that may or may not be a fund raiser like a street hockey tournament, or events that bring people in from out of town (Ag days) tend to fill the night clubs. With zero tolerance drunk driving laws, and minimum drink prices, without a reason to go out, people chose to stay home or hit a lounge for two drinks (rather than 5 or 6 at a night club).

For single people, dating sites and other social media like Tinder have eliminated the need for people to go outside of their comfort zone to meet new people. This has reduced some potential customers motivations to go to a club. Now people can at least make an introduction to a familiar acquaintance via social media.

Fez – Double Decker

BDNMB -is their a way to revive local nightclubs to their glory years of 15 and 20 years ago?
Fez – There is a way, Bringing down the Decker party is the hottest DJ 3 layered different music scenery

BDNMBare you surprised to see the success of The Decker as it is one of the few downtown local places to hang out?
Fez – Decker has always been successful but due to the non-care of downtown there is more violence and homeless people around.

BDNMBdoes your staff help at all in promotions and feedback from what customers look for?
Fez – yes for sure.

Darren Burdeniuk – The Dock on Princess

BDNMB – Any chance in saving the nightlife scene in Brandon?
Darren – I’m not sure, I think socializing has changed and people meet people and socialize so much online and in smaller venues these days. Big night clubs really are a thing of the past. Everyone is also much more responsible with drinking and driving now then they were 20 years ago.

BDNMB – Are you surprised with the success of The Dock so far?
Darren – I am not surprised, but very happy with the success at The Dock. The key to our success is the people who work there. They are what make it the success that is is. We still have team members who were with us since we opened. Being part of a franchise has its advantages but also has its disadvantages. Because we chose to develop our own brand instead of a franchise it gives us the many advantages like making our food from scratch in house. 80% of restaurants fail in their first year, and then out of the 20% that succeed, 80% of those restaurants do not make it to 5 years.

BDNMB – How valuable is your staff to helping with ideas and promo’s etc?
Darren – Yes, the staff help out with most if not all of the decisions at The Dock. We meet weekly with our leadership team and we discuss promotions, menu ideas, customer feedback, online reviews and restaurant trends. As a team we are really strong, and we always idea share on ways to make The Dock better.

BDNMB decided to hit the streets, so to speak, and find out what people at the clubs today are thinking.

Sitting outside of Houston’s at 11:40 pm a group of young girls from Neepawa were walking in. Bdnmb asked their opinion about what they like and dislike.

Bdnmb – now, girls what is it that you dislike the most about clubs and going out?
Mandy & Sara -the prices make us stay home longer and drink cheaper.

Bdnmb – does VLTs, or food, or the band make a difference for you?
Mandy & Sara – No, none of that matters as long as people are inside. We don’t care about a band or DJ.

For many of us that are say 35 and over we can say “those were the days” but perhaps the youth of today is making their own memories at small lounges and house parties. A memory I can share of busier times was that one time we had 750 people crammed into the Unwinder on a Monday night to see Helix. The liquor inspector said “Beef you better find a way to get 400 people out of this place”, so we had Barrie Roney hide in the parking lot and the person that found him got a 100 bucks. Mike Strang also turned on the hot dog cart and gave away free hot dogs outside to get people to leave the building…. Hey, whatever it takes was our theory.

Darryl Wolski for BDNMB.CA