People fill the streets as the sun is rising. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers and sisters are all there to celebrate.
It’s graduation day, and the traditional 6 a.m. celebratory bar crawl is underway. For two days, families will line up as early as 5:30 a.m. to be the first inside when bars and pubs downtown will fling open their doors at 6 o’clock sharp to welcome in this year’s grads.
Few people remember exactly when San Luis Obispo’s bars began opening at 6 a.m. for graduation, though the tradition is at least 20 years old, Colin Wenzl, manager of McCarthy’s Irish Pub said.
“It’s easily over 20 years, but it’s got to be longer than that,” Wenzl, who has worked at McCarthy’s for the past 16, said.
Originally, McCarthy’s and Bull’s Tavern were the only bars open, but over time, as more people started coming, other bars started opening at 6 for graduation, to get in on the businesses.
Now, every establishment is sure to open at dawn for graduation, Wenzl said, and families show up bright and early to join in the revelry.
“It’s fun because the parents will get into it, kind of the relief of, ‘My kid’s done with college,’” Wenzl said.
And the family aspect is part of the novelty, said Phil Armentrout, who has worked at McCarthy’s for the past year.
Parents and grandparents don’t just accompany their graduates, but drink with them.
“There’s nothing like watching Grandma have a shot of Jaeger,” Armentrout said.
But graduation day is not all about drinking, it’s about celebrating with family, graduating political science student Sara-Rachell Grunow said.
Grunow’s parents, aunts and friends are all coming downtown with her to celebrate when she graduates, she said.
“When you think about the bar scene here, you know, it’s all college students, but then you see parents, you see grandparents,” Grunow said.
For the bartenders, the 6 a.m. opening can sometimes be a hassle, though.
At McCarthy’s, which usually opens at 8 a.m., opening at 6 isn’t that much harder, Wenzl said. At other bars, though, a 5 a.m. wake-up call can be tough to adjust to, said Matt Mallon, who’s been bartending for six years at Black Sheep Bar and Grill.
Mallon can get up early enough for graduation, but only on occasion.
“Unless you work the night before until three, it’s cool,” Mallon said.
Still, Mallon said, there’s a reason bars don’t usually open at 6 in the morning.
“Bartenders don’t like to get up at five,” Mallon said.
Even with the early hours, the graduation tradition is rewarding, said Vesna Galic, who has worked for two years at Buffalo Pub & Grill.
The crowd that comes downtown for graduation is often well-behaved, and even though the bars are packed, it’s a positive experience, Galic said.
“People are really excited, and it’s a really good vibe,” Galic said.
To top it off, the bars do some of their best business during graduation. The two graduation days are second only to New Year’s Eve celebrations, Galic said.
The morning is also a last chance to let loose for some students.
“At that point, you have nothing to lose,” Galic said. “Might as well have some fun, show up and drink and go out with a big bang.”
Some students do get too carried away, though, said Jimmy Berlow, who has bartended at Creekside Brewing Company for the past three and a half years.
“I’ve heard of a few people who have actually gotten too drunk and slept through their graduation,” Berlow said.