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Five Lessons Learned Behind the Scenes at Indigo

We all know that the line is long, the music is loud, and the light shows are crazy. We know the specials by heart, and we know it’s where we should go if we want to dance all night – but there’s so much most people don’t know about what goes into each night that Penn State students spend drinking and grinding on each other at Indigo.

To most Penn State students, the Indigo door staff is just a minor detail they have to deal with before they can get to the bar, and the bartenders are just there to provide them with a few shots of social lubricant so that the impending mating ritual that awaits them on the dance floor feels less awkward. Those students forget that every person they interact with, from when they get in line to when they buy their first mixed drink of the night, is a real person with a real life.

So what is it like to be on the other side of the bar? I went to Indigo at 8 p.m. on a Thursday to see what kind of work goes into preparing for a night of partying and to see what kind of people were doing all of that work. I came away with five lessons learned for all of you Indigoers out there to take away from my experience behind the scenes.

The night kicked off with a managers’ meeting, as every night does, according to club manager A.J. Madden. I sat down at a table surrounded by six of the guys in charge of running Indigo, all of whom have worked at the club for more than two years.

The security team introduced themselves right away. First came the most seasoned veteran, Lambis Pearson, who has worked at Indigo for 23 years – well before it was called Indigo and even before it was called Players. After that came security managers Jonathan Marsh — who has worked at Indigo for three years — and the baby of the group Ernie Jenkins, who has worked there for two years.

The rest of the managers seemed to be pretty versatile; they all do a little bit of everything around the club. There was Alex Nepa, the entertainment director, who is a jack of all trades. He deals with DJs, takes care of marketing campaigns, and even runs Indigo’s social media accounts. Nepa has been working at Indigo for 10 years. Then came Rich Cole, the assistant manager, whose three years of experience don’t say enough about how much he does around the club. And of course there’s Madden, the overall manager of the facility, who has worked there for six years.

The first topic they discussed at the managers’ meeting was the club’s capacity, which is just a little more than 700 people. Indigo tends to fill up around 11:30 p.m., and the club usually gets close to capacity around midnight. The door staff keeps track of how many people have entered and exited the building throughout the evening using nifty clicking devices. Once the number on those devices gets close to 700, they have to stop the flow of the line, after which point they can only let a person in when another person walks out.

I could only imagine how fired up drunk Penn State students must get when they’re told that they have to keep waiting in line outside in the cold until more people exit the building to make room for them. The managers agreed.

“Yeah, they can get impatient, but there’s nothing that can really be done about that,” said Marsh. “It’s the fire code, so we have to stay under capacity to keep the place running.”

Lesson #1: Don’t get pissed off when an Indigo bouncer holds a hand up to stop you from entering the premises. They don’t want to keep you waiting, but they can’t exceed capacity and break the fire code. They don’t make the rules, they just follow them.

Next up, the managers talked about the process of identifying a VIP. I cocked my head to the side, intrigued, and asked how you become a Very Important Person at Indigo. Madden laughed.

“A VIP at Indigo is a ‘visibly intoxicated person,’ not a ‘very important person,’” he explained. “We try to watch out for them and, if we see them, to stop serving them and make sure that they’re okay. We don’t want anybody to become a danger to themselves or to anybody else, so if we see that someone’s eyes are very red, that they’re slurring their speech when they’re talking, or that they’re stumbling when they’re trying to go up and down the steps – we have a lot of stairs in here – then we identify them to the other managers and security staff.”

But what happens to these excessively inebriated after they’ve been identified as a VIP?

“We’ll stop serving them,” Madden said. “If they look like they’re going to be sick or like they need to go home, we’ll find their friends and get them to walk the person home. In some cases, if they’re here alone or we can’t find their friends, we’ll call a cab if we feel it would be unsafe to let that person walk home on their own. We aren’t just going to keep serving somebody who is clearly intoxicated just to gouge them for money – we’re much more concerned about their safety and making sure that that person is okay.”

Lesson #2: Don’t be a lightweight. Or if you are a lightweight, don’t pound down tequila shots to the point where the Indigo staff has to identify you as a VIP and call your friends or a cab to get you home safely.

My original question still remained, though — how do you become a Very Important Person at Indigo, even if they won’t actually call you a VIP until you’re ten shots deep? I’ve seen people skip the long line and go straight into the club and even get their cover waived or some free drinks on the house from time to time. What did those people do to get such special treatment?

“The only special guests we have are our regulars, people who come back every week to support the bar,” Madden said. “It’s hard to get someone to come back every single week. If we can get someone to come back every week, or even every other week, then we feel like we’re doing something right.”

Beyond that, Nepa talked about how proud Indigo is of the students on campus who take charge of all of the amazing organizations that Penn State has to offer.

“If someone is volunteering and dedicating their time to things like Homecoming or THON or Onward State, or anything else that contributes to the university, we think that’s pretty incredible,” Nepa said. “When we know who those students are and we see that they’re coming to Indigo, we try to treat them to a really great night however we can.”

But don’t think that that means that if you show up and tell the bouncer that you’re the president or executive director of a particular organization, that means that you’re automatically entitled to skip the line, nix the cover, or get free drinks! Indigo won’t stand for students trying to abuse the system.

Besides, the hyper-involved and the regular Indigo-dwellers aren’t the only people who skip the line. Madden let me in on a secret: You can come to the door early, around 9 p.m., and pre-pay for your stamp. Then you can come back whenever you’re actually ready to go into the bar, and you can skip waiting in the long line. Genius!

Lesson #3: Indigo takes care of people who are dedicated to supporting both the bar and the university. Contribute to Penn State and visit Indigo regularly (or just come early and pre-pay for your stamp), and waiting in line could become a thing of the past for you.

I asked what the biggest issue is that the club faces from a managerial or security standpoint, and the overwhelming answer was just ensuring safety. Making sure that guests aren’t getting too wasted, that the club isn’t exceeding capacity, and that everybody is getting home safely are the major goals of the security staff — along with making sure that female guests feel comfortable throughout their time at Indigo.

“Female safety is paramount, that’s just a given — it’s a perpetual focus. That’s a minimum requirement, we feel, to make sure that our female guests feel safe,” Madden said. “We keep an eye on how much they’ve had to drink, and if they become overly intoxicated, we make sure that they leave with a friend. If it’s a male, we make sure it’s a male that they knew prior, not just somebody who they met that night, so that they’ll get home safely.”

But more than just over-inebriation, the staff takes extra precautions to ensure that women never feel like they are in any sort of danger when they’re spending time at Indigo.

“We want to make sure we’re getting rid of over-aggressive males, hopefully by stopping them and not letting them in at the door, but if they do get in and cause problems here — which is rare, but it does happen — we make sure that they don’t come back again and that they are dealt with as quickly and properly as possible,” Madden said.

But how do they decide when it’s a problem?

“If a guy continually approaches a girl, keeps getting too close to her, trying to dance with her, and she repeatedly rejects those advances,” Madden answered. “We want to make sure that our female guests aren’t on the receiving end of any unwanted attention, and that our male guests are listening when they say no. We keep an eye out for that sort of thing. We address the issue if it gets out of hand, and hopefully it will end there.”

Lesson #4: Indigo has your back, ladies. If someone’s creeping you out or trying to make you do anything that you don’t want to, make that clear to a member of the security staff. They’ll take care of the skeezes so you feel safe and comfortable throughout the rest of the night. 

Next came the servers’ meeting. The bartenders, bar-backs, and cocktail waitresses gathered at the tables near the top bar, where they listened to Madden discuss the goals for the evening. He informed them that, based on a medical study performed by researchers at the University of Kansas, smiling can reduce your heart rate by up to seven percent. Even if the grin you’re flashing is fake, simply activating those facial muscles sends a message to your brain to calm down.

Madden reminded the service staff that in addition to reducing stress, smiling is a great way to connect with customers, which increases both the amount of tips they could receive as well as the customers’ enjoyment of their evening.

Customer satisfaction is the biggest perk of all for top bartender duo Brad and Chad, who have worked at Indigo together for more than 12 years. It makes the hours spent setting up the bar each evening and cleaning it up at the end of the night worthwhile — not to mention the time they spend taking, making, and serving each of the zillion drink orders throughout the evening without complaint.

“The best part of our job is just being part of what makes people’s night fun,” Chad said. “If we can show them a really good time — play good music and have a good light show and give them some good drinks and they leave happy, then we did our job right.”

“They have classes and jobs and whatever else going on, but when they’re here, they just want to have a good time,” Brad agreed. “So that’s our goal throughout the night, to make sure that everybody’s having fun.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that every night is rainbows and butterflies. Brad and Chad said that in the past twelve years, they’ve witnessed “just about everything.” From fist fights to projectile vomiting to people hooking up on the dance floor, these veteran bartenders have seen it all, and they STILL love their job.

“That’s another thing I love about this job: every night is different,” Brad said. “Maybe some nights are worse than others, but no matter what, it’s always interesting.”

Cocktail waitress Gretchen spends her nights running back and forth between the bar and the seating area, but she says she loves her job too.

“I get to meet so many people, and I get to make sure that their night goes the way that they want it to,” she said. “Maybe once in a while someone will be rude, but most of the time when I bring them their order, people are just happy and grateful, and it’s awesome to play a part in that.”

Having worked in the service industry myself, it was shocking to me how positive all of the service staff members were about their jobs. Most of the servers I’ve worked with are constantly bitching about their customers, their work hours, and how under-appreciated they are, but everybody I talked to at Indigo seemed to genuinely love their jobs and all of the people they get to interact with while they work. I mentioned this to Madden.

“That’s the biggest thing we look for when we’re interviewing someone for a position here: a positive attitude,” he said. “People don’t last here very long without one.”

Lesson #5: All that anybody on staff at Indigo really wants is to make sure that you have a fun night. Whether they’re checking your ID at the door or serving you drinks, be kind to them (hell, maybe even thank them) because they spend their weekends trying to make sure you have a good time. 

I went into this behind-the-scenes investigation in hopes of righting some wrongs. I thought I’d find out all of the annoying things that Penn State students were doing while they were out partying and I’d write an article explaining how hard it is to be on the other end of the spectrum so that maybe students would think about the efforts and feelings of the staff members, like the bartender they didn’t tip well or the security guard they’re being an asshole to or even the cocktail waitress they’re hitting on before disrespecting them.

But according to the staff at Indigo, the majority of Penn State students who frequent Indigo are just peachy. They love their regulars, they love meeting new people, and they love what they do. So to the majority of you — good job! Gold star for being decent people. And to the minority? Look at how nice these people are and how hard they work, and treat them well.

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About the Author

Alicia Thomas

Alicia is a senior with majors in Print Journalism and Spanish and a minor in International Studies. Chances are that she's somewhere talking about her semester abroad or ranting about sexual assault prevention right now. She can be reached via Twitter (@aliciarthomas) or email ([email protected]).

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