Reporting, writing and photos by Emily Anderson
It was 1990 when Chuck and Helen James, along with their daughter, Jody Sowers, bought 2920 Bailey Road and turned it into a cozy neighborhood tavern. Jody eventually took over and still runs the bar today.
As of December 2020, Bailey Road Tavern has been around for 30 years. That’s older than some of our readers.
So how does a tavern stay open for 30 years? What is their secret?
I venture out to BRT on a snowy Wednesday in December to see if I can answer that question. It’s already dark when I arrive at 6 pm, but the simple brick building is warm and glowy inside. The first face I see is the bartender, Shannon Culler. She’s looking at me and waving. No doubt there’s a big smile under her mask.
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Wednesday is $2 Burger Night at BRT, and there’s a handful of people spread out around the U-shaped bar drinking beers and watching a football game. One guy on the far side is toasting across the room to a couple in the front. I find a spot and sit down. It’s clear that most of my fellow patrons know each other, but they didn’t make me feel like an outsider in any way.
There’s a jukebox playing rock music and dartboards on the wall. The beer selection is traditional — their highest sellers are Budweiser and Bud Light. I opt for an IPA from Great Lakes Brewing Company and order one of those famous $2 burgers.
Shannon, who lives right down the street, is in a great mood. It’s like she’s friends with everyone here. She introduces me to Jody.
Jody was born and raised here; Bailey Road Tavern has been her lifelong project. As I ask her questions about her bar and her life, we keep getting interrupted by people walking in and telling her hello. She gets up and has a conversation with every person that comes in.
I don’t mind waiting because my burger has arrived and it is wonderful (juicy homemade burger, fresh bun, all the toppings). By the time I ask Jody what her favorite thing about her career has been, the answer is already obvious: It’s her customers. Her friends. Her people. “It’s not even like a job,” she says.
Jody has been around long enough to watch generations of beer drinkers come and go, but “It doesn’t take long for anyone to make a friend here,” she tells me, “That’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”
She has some advice for anyone out there thinking about opening their own spot: “Be prepared to put the time in. You can’t just open the doors and expect people to come in for no reason. We have pool tournaments, bowling tournaments. We raise money and do community outreach. We have Saturday morning breakfast and a movie. You gotta get people in.”
Shannon has been bartending at BRT for the last 15 years. It’s not uncommon for Jody’s employees to stay that long — they’re being taken care of and they enjoy the atmosphere and customers.
Shannon not only bartends, but also enjoys hosting open mic night every Sunday night. Their open mic is one of the longest-running in Akron, going on 13 years now. She misses booking bands every month like she used to before COVID-19. If things are slow at the bar, she’s known to start juggling or hula hooping, just for fun.
Everyone at Bailey Road Tavern, and pretty much everywhere, is excited to get the pandemic under control and get back to normal. This is a bar where people usually have baby showers and graduation parties. They’d have a birthday party for a customer “at the drop of a hat,” Jody says.
In the meantime, they’ll be here. Burgers are still $2 on Wednesdays, breakfast is served on Saturday mornings and open mic is every Sunday. Jody will be chatting with her many friends who come to visit and Shannon will be tending the bar. If you’re in the neighborhood and want to make a new friend, this is the place to go: Everyone is welcome at Bailey Road Tavern.