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A Closer Look at Chicago Nightclubs

I was waiting in a long line outside of a new bar in Wrigleyville on Saturday, October 8th when I saw something not out of the ordinary – but still somewhat surprising happen. The bar was recently opened, the night was young and the atmosphere was full of twenty-something year olds anticipating a new experience.

This particular bar is what I consider to be more upscale than other bars in the Wrigleyville area, so people were willing to wait in line to see what it had to offer. As I was about to hand the bouncer my ID, I was completely cut off as two girls in short skirts and high heels scurried up to the bouncer and asked him if they could just go in. They were hunched over as if the air outside was too unbearably cold for them to stand in.

“There’s a line,” the bouncer simply said, with more boredom than enforcement in his voice.

The one girl protested this, saying that it was just the two of them and “could you please just let us in?” with a small grin and then a slight pout to emphasize her point.

The bouncer sighed and reached for her ID and then put his hand out for her friends, and the two girls walked inside. I was somewhat shocked that the bouncer gave in so easily and just let these girls walk in, when I had to wait in line for a few minutes. Why did this just happen?

“Why did you just let them in?” I asked, smiling slightly so that he knew that I was more curious than angry.

“It’s cold out and they have skirts on – I felt bad for them,” was his blunt response.

I gave him a skeptical look. There were people behind me in line that had skirts on or no coat. They had to be cold, too, yet were waiting in the line with no sympathy from the bouncer.

He sighed and responded that  persistent girls like her were probably used to skipping lines and would probably give the club bad reviews. There are websites such as Metromix.com that gives information and reviews on local nightlife. Deuces could not afford to have bad reviews since it was still a new club and trying to build up respect and recognition.

Later on that night I realized something. What those two girls did, cutting the line and walking into the bar like they were someone special – I do all the time. Put a little liquid courage in me at the first bar of the night and I’ll walk up to the second bar, completely cutting the line and just handing the bouncer my ID without a word. Every time they will look at it, and let me and whichever girl I am with right in, no waiting in line necessary. Why me? Why do I get away with this? Although I obviously do not mind this special treatment, it certainly is not fair.

I spent a few months looking into how different bars in the Chicago area discriminate against certain people based on how they look or because of their gender, and also how bars take advantage of people to try and turn a profit. Bars and nightclubs have the ability to scam or cheat every single person that walks in their establishment’s door. How people are more or less cheated depends on factors such as how they look and who they know, and I can use my own personal experiences and examples as evidence.

For my research, I frequented several bars and nightclubs in different areas of Chicago to compare and contrast how each place applied special treatment to certain individuals, and how this treatment could ultimately help the bar or nightclub to turn a profit. The special treatment given out indicates that “Lookism,” or discrimination against or favorable towards others based on their physical appearance, is taking place.

The purpose of my investigation was to show how it does not matter what bar you are at or in which neighborhood you are, all bars have one goal in mind – to make a profit – and will partake in unjust activities such as cheating or scamming its customers to achieve this goal. I interviewed people such as my friends (who have frequented these bars with me), club and entertainment group promoters, bouncers, bartenders, DJ’s, and a security guard.

That same night, before finally going into the new bar, I peered inside and noticed that it was not very crowded. I expected the bar to be packed, seeing as there were so many people waiting outside to get in.

“Why is there even such a long line?” I asked the same bouncer, pointing at the not-so-crowded room awaiting me.

“A long line makes the bar look more desirable to people driving past,” he responded, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. A line signifies that the bar is in high demand and that it must be so much fun that people are willing to stand in line. The line was not a way to try and maintain the crowd capacity inside the bar, but merely a form of advertisement.

I Facebook messaged my friend Anthony who DJ’s at popular bars and clubs in Chicago a few weeks later. I have gone to see him DJ a few times, and always had to wait in a line that I was now wondering was even necessary.

So I asked him.

“When we come to see you, why are the lines so long and then when we finally get in there is more people outside than inside?”

He laughed, (saying “hahahah”) and then confirmed that my suspicions were in fact correct.

“Yeah they hold the line. The bouncers are supposed to wait until the line gets pretty deep, like 30 people for a Friday and closer to 60-70 on Saturday. People who drive by see the line and for some reason will want to go there now. It’s a good way to draw people in. Also, Maxbar has a pretty small entrance and you can barely even see the sign, so it brings people’s attention to us and they notice that we’re even here.”

So that’s why I often find myself standing in long lines, waiting outside in the freezing Chicago cold to enter a not-so-special bar just like any other.

Interview with Jeff the Security Guard

Later in the night, I watched a security guard, Jeff, drag a girl out of the bar by her arm. By the time he returned I realized he was definitely someone I wanted to talk to. Working in the nightlife industry, he had probably seen many interesting things and would know the ins and outs of how bars operate successfully. I approached him and he was willing to talk to me, probably since I was one of the most sober people there.

“Why’d you drag that girl out?” I asked right away.

“She was too drunk to stay here,” he replied.

“What qualifies someone to be considered ‘too drunk’?” I asked.

Jeff responded that since she was unable to stand on her own, (she was stumbling around and leaning on tables and chairs to keep her balance) she was more likely to fall and hurt herself or break something, and that if she kept drinking she would probably get alcohol poisoning. Yes, the bartender would have been able to cut her off, but nothing would stop other people from buying drinks and continually feeding them to her. Luckily, the drunk girl’s friends willingly and got in the cab with her.

Jeff also said that in some cases, (especially if it is a man he is kicking out) the person will protest and fight with him, struggling to stay in the bar even though they have been over served and could be a liability. If this happens, usually another security guard will see it and come to help assist or else he will call one over on his earpiece.

“Usually as soon as someone walks up to the door we can tell that they’ll eventually need to be evicted so we will keep an eye on them,” Jeff said, “we radio over to the bartenders that ‘the huge dude in the blue shirt with the silver chain,’ or something, should have their alcohol limited and then we wait.”

The bartenders are instructed to pour these people less alcohol than they normally would into each glass, but they still charge the same amount. Jeff said that sometimes he and the other security guards would take bets on how long that certain person would last inside the bar, and what they would do to merit being kicked out.

Jeff’s line of work influences his personal decisions. “Dealing with drunken people is just a part of the job, but seeing how drunk and sloppy people get makes me not want to drink on my nights off. It’s not attractive.”

Then suddenly, Jeff took off in the direction of a girl who did not have shoes on. He talked to her for a few minutes and then came back over to me.

“What was that all about?” I asked, laughing at the absurdity of it.

“I noticed she didn’t have shoes on. I told her she has to sit in one of the booths or put her shoes back on or else she has to leave,” he answered.

This particular bar uses actual glasses for the drinks (not plastic cups as some places do). If someone dropped a drink and broke the glass, and then the girl stepped in it, the bar could potentially face legal action. Since it would happen in Jeff’s “area,” he would be somewhat responsible for it.

“See why I hate drunk people?”

Interview with Dan, a bouncer and bartender

It is not uncommon for people under the legal drinking age of 21 to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages as well as be admitted into 21+ bars and clubs. In June of 2009, I entered my first bar at age 19 and became good friends with the bouncer, Dan, who let my three friends and I in after laughing at us when we handed him our fake ID’s. I wondered why he let us in even though he obviously knew we were not 21, and decided to visit him to find out why and see what else he could tell me.

According to Dan, there were a few different reasons why he quickly decided to let us into the bar after he first saw us and estimated our age. We were meeting my cousin and her friends there (who met us outside of the bar), so he knew that there would be someone there potentially watching over us so that we could not get into too much trouble or act stupid. He also let us in because this bar was near a college campus, and underage people go there frequently.

“Do you know how many underage students try to come here on a daily basis? A lot of our business is college students. If we turned down every single fake ID, we would never make any money. Occasionally you have to look the other way,” Dan told me.

He was used to overlooking the age limits and letting younger people into the bar when he thought it would be okay (and when the manager was not around). That particular night, the bar was empty for a Saturday so he figured that a little extra business could not hurt. We looked harmless enough.

“Plus, you came with cute girls who seemed like a lot of fun,” Dan finally admitted, as I had assumed this all along.

Response from my friends, looking back at our underage experience

If we had been a group of four guys, or a group of unattractive girls, would we have still gotten into the bar being underage that night? I asked my girlfriends this question.

After I asked Audrey about what she thought about our first bar experience together and why we got so lucky, she said, “In all honestly I think it is because we were with a bunch of girls that were all good looking. I hate to say it but our ID’s were not good and they basically laughed at them, but we got in because they thought we were cute. I know this isn’t a very educated response but bluntly put, bouncers discriminate and plus they wanted more people in their bar. On Thursdays when we went we were the only ones there and we were bringing them business so it didn’t matter that we were underage they were making money.”

Kathy had a similar response. “I’d think for the fact that we were good looking underage girls who were easy to talk to and fun, it was fun for them to hang out with us but it was also good for the business. Also Dan was the type of guy who probably understood what it felt like going out and being underage; I mean he worked at a bar so I’m sure he’s had his fair share of nights out being underage. But I do feel like if we, as a group of girls, weren’t good looking or as talkative to them (because I feel like they knew we weren’t immature teenagers when we would talk to them) then they wouldn’t have let us in so easy.”

Nightclubs and Promoter Information

On Saturday, September 24th, I went to a nightclub in the Gold Coast with my friends Stacey and Mike. Mike is a part of an entertainment group, which hosts events, books parties, and tries to get people to come to newer bars. We got there at about 11 o’clock, when the night was just starting to pick up and were let in without a problem and without having to pay anything. About a half an hour later, my other friend Laura called me, and told me that the girls sitting at the door were asking her and two other girls to pay a $10 cover.

The usual scenario at a bar is that first the bouncers check ID’s, and then there are girls (or guys) who check people in if they are with parties or want to buy a bottle and a table. My three friends that came after me are all a larger size than I am. This is not the first time or the first location that has given me special treatment while denying it to other people I know.

After this happened, I asked Mike why they let Stacey and I in for free and charged Laura and my two other friends. I had assumed, like Audrey and Kathy both did, that any girl would be allowed access into a bar before a guy, but Mike said that is not what bouncers are supposed to do.

“Bouncers are actually supposed to let in more guys than girls. Guys will spend more money, it takes them longer to get drunk and they will probably buy at least one drink for a girl they talk to,” Mike said. “That’s why the girls they let in first are usually pretty and skinny, so that the guys will want to spend money on them.”

He also told me that males are more likely to purchase bottle service, which averages around $300 per bottle (which you could get at a liquor store for around $60) so that they can have their own table to sit at all night and invite girls to come back to. What this means is that the table (most likely a booth) has a bottle of alcohol on ice and a few different mixers with glasses for however many people they want, and that they refill their own drinks all night and can make them as strong or weak as they like.

While being able to make your own drinks is what draws some people into buying a bottle, according to Phil, this is actually not supposed to happen at bars. Phil was a DJ at a nightclub a few years ago that has since closed. He said that a worker is supposed to serve you when you get bottle service. Someone is supposed to physically pour it for you because otherwise the bar cannot control how much each person drinks.

“Five people may purchase a bottle together, but the bar has no way of knowing if one person ends up drinking half of it by themselves. They have no way to cut this person off, which could lead to problems,” Phil said. “Bars no longer hire servers to be at each table because their cheap and trying to save money. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.”

The servers at the bar come out with the bottle lit up with a sparkler, and no one sits at this table except for the people who bought the bottle (unless you are looking for a fight or to be kicked out). Mike then told me that if I were to ever order a bottle, that I should request them to open it in front of me.

“Some bars have an expensive alcohol bottle, Grey Goose or Patron being the most popular, and inside the bottle will actually be cheap vodka,” Mike warned. This is a scam that the management of the establishment will do to save them money. The whole sparkler show is just an act to distract the buyer from noticing that their bottle is already opened and that the alcohol has probably already been swapped out.

When we first got to the nightclub in the Gold Coast, Mike offered to buy Stacey and I both shots. For two Rumple Minze shots, he paid $26. $13 each. Later on in the night, I bought the same shots for us two, and the bartender told me it was $8.

$8 for two Rumple Minze shots? Wait, $4 each? When did the prices change?

I looked at him in disbelief but he repeated $8 and would not accept any more money.

So for Mike, a male, it was $13 a shot. For me, a girl, it was $4 for the same shot. Why is this?

The next day, I asked Stacey what she thought about our experiences the night before over lunch.

“Why do you think the bartender only charged me $8 for those Rumple shots?” I asked.

“He probably just wanted to get us drunk. That’s their job – to get cute girls drunk so guys will buy them more drinks. Or so we would tip him really well and the money would go towards his pocket rather than the bar,” she responded.

If this was what the bartender was going for, it worked.

I texted Laura and asked if she bought any shots (they ended up just paying the $10 cover and coming in) and told her how I only paid $4 for mine.

She was stunned. “I definitely spent too much money on drinks and that stupid cover charge,” she texted back. None of her drinks ended up being as inexpensive as my shot.

Interesting news from Phil, the retired DJ

How can bartenders change prices without the bar noticing? It turns out, the bars still get paid for the drinks they give you for free.

Someone else just pays for it. Without knowing it.

“Bartenders would not charge certain people for their drinks, and then overcharge stupid college kids and tourists,” Phil told me.

“How can they get away with this? Wouldn’t someone notice they were overcharged?” I challenged.

“They base it off of how you are dressed. If you’re at a club, and you have khakis on, you don’t fit in. You don’t know how the prices range, and you’ve probably never been to this place before. That would be the person that gets overcharged and pays for your free drink. Thank him next time you see someone like that,” Phil told me laughing.

I was shocked. Then I remembered hearing that at some other bars, the bouncers would change the cover price throughout the night. Phil confirmed this.

“I think like 99% of nightclubs do not have the license to charge a door charge – yes you need a license – but they still do anyways. Who’s going to question it?” Phil said. “It doesn’t happen at every single bar or club, but it’s definitely heard of.”

Phil also said that he knew of a bar that the bouncers would charge an outrageous cover price for someone who was already extremely intoxicated. Once this person was in the bar, if they bought drinks right away, they would let them stay for a little bit.  If they did not buy a drink immediately, they would kick them out and claim that they were too drunk to be there. Also sometimes, they would tell the bartender not to serve them, so when they were denied their first drink they would react angrily and then get kicked out. This was an easy way for the bouncers to pocket money at a steady rate.

The deception does not stop there.

“Bars are all about making money. They don’t care about their customers, they barely care about the workers. It’s all about the money that goes into the owner’s pocket, and they’ll do whatever it takes,” Phil said.

“The sketchiest way they get a lot of people to come to the bar and drop a lot of money is to falsely promote something. They’ll put “celebrity” DJ’s on a flyer – like that Pauly D from Jersey Shore – and tell everyone that he’s going to be at the bar. They come to the bar, paying a ridiculous cover charge and inflated drink prices for the “special event” and the celebrity never shows. They never actually booked them to begin with” Phil revealed.

“Doesn’t this cause people to never go back to this bar again?” I asked.

“Sometimes, but the payday for the owner is worth losing a few customers who are so pissed they boycott the bar. It’s just how the industry works,” Phil said, “I could go on for hours about how bars take advantage of people.”

“What else?” I asked, insisting he go on.

“I remember once there was going to be a big music conference in Miami and we had a promotion ‘Come to our bar for a chance to win a trip to Miami for the music conference!’ and then one of the workers won it. They always would have one of the workers win it. Even for Halloween contests – $500 for the best costume – an employee would win it. Then the bar doesn’t have to actually pay out on it,” Phil replied.

“It all depends who you are or who you know. If you are nobody and you know nobody, they’ll have no problem trying to get as much money out of you as possible,” Phil stated. “I worked there over five years ago – nothing has changed.”

Without customers, bars would not have business, and they would have no one to make money off or scam. Bars depend on the people they hurt. It is time for a change.

By Christina Maraviglia

Photo by Pinguia/Wikimedia

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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.