Dive Bar Family Christmas: The Ballad of Ray & Mario
When being home for the holidays means working the bar
by Chris Horne
It’s Christmas. You’re still a kid. This is supposed to be your day. Maybe you got some new clothes, some new toys. You want to play. Enjoy yourself. Hang out with some friends, snack on candy canes or grab seconds from the family dinner. But if you were born into the bar business like these cousins, Ray Nemer and Mario Nemr, then Christmas is pretty much like every other day. You work.
“When I was 14, that was my first night at the bar—Christmas night. It was the first time I went actually at night,” Mario says. “I was there for an hour and within that hour, I got into the biggest fight I’ve ever been in in my life. It wasn’t like a school fight where the principal is there to break it up. My dad was trying to kick somebody out for breaking something. Guy wouldn’t leave. Typical story. Guy wouldn’t leave, comes back, brings his friends. You’ve got this brawl. I got hired the next day and I was expected to be there every weekend night for the rest of my high school life.”
That was an extension of the kind of childhood he and Ray had shadowing their fathers and mothers, who ran bars in Akron, Barberton and Ellet back when the rubber factories were still humming along well enough to keep dives open in the morning and stocked with drinkers coming in off the third shift. They’d ride around running errands with their dads, making deals and dealing with customers.
“We didn’t get to go anywhere,” Mario says. “If we went to an Indians game, a painter drove us. The janitor took us. Wasn’t like we were part of some summer camp, Boy Scouts and shit like that.”
Ray adds, “Our summer vacations were going to the bar.”
Both sets of their parents—for Ray, Manny and Collette, and for Mario, Fred and Barb—came to Akron from Lebanon, which is bordered by Israel and Syria. So the work ethic they picked up was in reality a survival tactic for their first-generation immigrant families.
Ray says, “It was about not letting someone else get one up on you. You’ve got to outwork the person next to you. That’s how we were brought up. That’s how our parents did it. They out-hustled and out-worked the next bar owner, or the owner of whatever business, because that’s how they were going to make it.” He points behind the bar and says, “To this day, if I’m back there, or my dad’s back there, you’re trying to out-hustle the 22-year-old kid. My dad is 65 years old. My mom—she’s outworking a kid half her age. That’s just their mentality.”
That hustle meant being willing to do what others wouldn’t, to go where they wouldn’t. If that means going to the “dingiest places” in Northeast Ohio for a deal, that’s what you do. If it means telling the Hell’s Angels to kick rocks, you do it. Just to get by.
“They’re survivors of a different time and place and generation. Ray and I were raised as if we were surviving something even though we were just regular kids. We didn’t have to go that route, but I don’t think our parents knew any other way to make sure we didn’t turn out the wrong way.” Mario says, “What’s probably not normal for most people is like perfectly normal in our family.”
He remembers going with his dad and Manny to the kinds of places few Akronites even knew existed.
“We’d go to these dingy-ass places and I’d be like, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ and (find out) we’re going there just to buy straws or napkins or something. You’d ask and they’d say, ‘It’s ten bucks cheaper.’ You learn the hustle from the time you’re a kid.”
He may have been 14—only or already, depending on your perspective—when he started working nights at Thursday’s, but Mario and Ray both were in the hard-knock school of the hustle earlier than that. No teacher, no books. Just figure it the fuck out.
“Everything you did, you just learned on the fly. You know, they’d throw you in the fire and boom, go to work,” Ray says. “As a kid, without even knowing you learned it, you learned it. As a 10-year-old, you’re watching people make drinks, but all of a sudden when you got thrown into it, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this before.’”
And they taught each other. Mario had watched his sister DJ for Thursday’s several times, picking up what he needed to do, which eventually came in handy after their regular Saturday guy quit on a whim.
“I had a Chuck Taylor box of some CDs and some records, and that was it—you’re hired.”
That’s a tough way to grow up, and their parents were tough bosses to boot. So of course, they’d split that scene as soon as the opportunity arose, right? In their own ways, each tried. Mario went into sales. Ray worked in a bank. They both spent their days in an office and nights at their parents’ bars. It wasn’t because they needed the money. They were being good sons.
“Even when we had jobs, whatever time you’re not at your job or at school, you’re expected to be at the business, helping—and you’re never doing anything right. It’s not like our parents trusted us. We just got yelled at the whole time,” Mario says.
Ray says, “I worked for a Fortune 500 company, in a bank, and it’s the same for Mario—you worked in an office—one thing that made us what we are too is we had like three different schools of thought. You had what you learned in college, what you learned in the hustle school and what you learned in corporate America.”
Fred got sick in 2000 and needed Barb to take care of him, so Mario picked up every shift he could until his dad passed away in 2004.
Mario’s wife, Tiffany, who is sort of the “mini-HR/fill-in-for-the-kitchen/make deliveries” for the business, says, “These guys would work at the bar—both of them—and we’d pass each other driving home and then they’d both wake up at 7 o’ clock in the morning and go to work until 5 pm at their office jobs. Sometimes during lunch breaks he’d go set-up for bands and then go back to work and then come back at 6 pm to run the band.”
So did Mario’s parents and Ray’s parents want them go into the bar business?
“No, they didn’t want us to do this,” Mario says. “I think Manny still thinks Ray is going to be a lawyer.”
Laughing, Ray admits, “He still wants me to go to law school.”
Eventually, they both gave in to what seems to be in their blood. Mario bought Matinee in 2006 and Ray bought the former Bucket Shop in 2007, turning it into Ray’s Pub. Even considering how much they knew about the business, the significant leg up they had going in, it was tough work. Not just because of the regular demands you might expect but also because… well, they had to hide their successes.
“Basically had to give up the other life at the bank and concentrate on this. But you’re still doing a juggling act because you’re between here and your parents’ place so you’re trying to appease both crowds,” Ray says.
Huh? You have your own bar and you’re working for your folks?
Mario says, “You don’t want to tell your parents that you were busy the night before because they’ll think we’re actually competing with them. It’s like in ‘Goodfellas’ when Ray Liotta is selling crack on the side and not cutting in the mob.”
He and Tiffany have two young kids, and so there’s another generation coming up in what has become the family business. They follow their folks around, running errands and working with customers.
“My son knows how to run the register,” Tiffany says. She adds that they spend a lot of time with Ray a couple doors up the block, too.
“They want to play the bowling game,” he laughs.
Then the other day, Ray witnessed a familiar sight. The kids were helping Mario and Tiffany set up for a band coming in later that night.
“It was the cutest thing you’d ever see.”
Ray and Mario are on schedule to move their Highland Square businesses into new digs next Spring, relocating Capri, Matinee, Mr. Zub’s and Ray’s Place to the complex they’ve been building for the last couple of years. They have some big plans for each, but we’ll save that update for an issue when we get closer to the move. For now, they say they’re excited about the upgrade and think their customers will be too.