Blacksburg bar full of tradition

By Kristen L. Teufel
Special to The Roanoke Times

For Jason Brauns, Top of the Stairs is more a place for friends to hang out, throw back a “rail” or two and see where the night takes them.

Since 1978 when Top of the Stairs was opened by his father, Al Brauns, Jason Brauns has been calling 217 W. College Ave. his home away from home.

“I had an interesting childhood,” said Brauns, now the establishment’s manager. “I would come here to the bar after I got out of school, hang out with all the employees and then fall asleep on a couch in my dad’s office. He would wake me up around 2 in the morning, and then we would go home, and I’d sleep until school. Then we’d do it all over again. I loved it.”

Al Brauns sold the establishment in 1995 to Mike Whaley, who is still the owner.

At that time, Jason Brauns was serving with the Marine Corps, as his father had done, and started working for Whaley when he returned in 1998 to major in finance at Virginia Tech.

“I started my way down at the bottom, with being a bouncer at the door and worked my way up to being a bartender, and over the years progressed to being a manager,” Brauns, 32, said. “I used to get nervous about what went into which drink. Now it’s second nature.”

And one of the most challenging to make, but most well-known drinks at TOTS, is the coveted “rail,” a combination of bottom-shelf liquors, juices, sodas and grenadine. It was started in the early 1990s by bartender Bobby Duval, Brauns said.

Back then, TOTS had no outside deck but a gravel patio and a volleyball court. Brauns said he remembers that it had the same rustic feel that it has today and was a popular hangout for fraternity and sorority members.

“The Greek community has always supported us, so we try to support them just as much by allowing organizations to always hold their philanthropies here,” he said. “Not only does allowing them to hold their events here promote our name, but hopefully their event will garner more participation by being held at our establishment.”

Both fraternities and sororities take advantage of this partnership. Alpha Phi member Colleen Whalen said each spring her sorority has its “Say What Karaoke” competition at TOTS, where participants representing their organization dance and lip-sync to a song on the outside stage.

“TOTS works really well with us,” Whalen said. “Because of their good reputation and how well-known they are, it is a great place to have a philanthropy.”

The brothers of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity have had their all-day benefit concert, Sudflood, which features several bands, held at TOTS every April for almost 20 years.

“We have Sudflood at TOTS because it has the best layout to have a concert with both the indoor and outdoor staging,” said Pi Kappa Phi member Ryan Cole. “It can also hold a great number of people outside while giving everyone a great view of the band, whether it is downstairs or up on the balcony.”

During the spring, the philanthropies really take over the business, but fall means football season.

“It is such a staple now in downtown Blacksburg that alumni always make sure they come back here at least one point during a football weekend,” Brauns said. “You always hear stories about what went on when they were here, but to tell you the truth, their stories aren’t much different than what happens now. That’s what makes TOTS special.”

Even though TOTS is known as a “big kids’ club,” meaning that only those who are older than 21 may enter at night, if it were up to Brauns, he says that he would let everyone in the door.

“It’s so tough because the students are the consumers, but we have to follow laws on who we let in our establishment,” Brauns said.

Virginia Tech student Isha Mehmood explained how the age limit is what makes TOTS such an exciting place: “That’s the only place that I hadn’t been downtown, so it was a big deal for me to go there when I turned 21.”

Brauns said he has no plans to leave TOTS anytime soon.

“It’s really rewarding as far as the leadership aspect of the employees and the relationships I have built,” he said. “My satisfaction comes now not from making the drinks as it once did, but now it’s all about the relationships I’ve made with the people I’m with.”

Published Sunday, January 27, 2008 in the Roanoke Times