Ping pong balls fly across foldout tables into plastic cups in a dimly lit bar, often ricocheting on to the floor. It’s Thursday night at Moonies Nightclub and Bar, and the weekly beer pong tournament has just begun. The bar is mostly filled with a college crowd, though a few older individuals have trickled in to try their luck at the tables. One middle-aged man sits alone at the end of the bar, his 6-foot-4-inch frame hunched over a salad. He’s Brian Falvey, longtime owner and manager of Moonies.
Falvey, 44, has been sober for the past 10 years. He decided to stop drinking when he was in graduate school so that he would be able to focus on his work, around the same time he wanted to become vegan.
“I did it for the ethical reasons at first,” Falvey said. “But I’ve always been a runner, and the health benefits have really appealed to me as well. I love playing poker, though…I guess that’s my vice.”
Not drinking while owning the bar doesn’t bother Falvey at all. He feels that it makes him a better business owner because he’s able to pay attention to his customers when he’s working. His reputation as the owner of Moonies is something he’s very proud of. When he’s introducing himself, he said, people are often surprised to learn he runs a bar. In 2013, Falvey won the Ithaca Business Owner of the Year award, which he holds as one of his most memorable achievements.
“Ithaca’s different when you’re actually a part of the community instead of just a student,” Falvey said. “You realize it’s a culture capital and you become enmeshed in it and its people.”
Working nights forces him to go to bed around 3:00AM, but Falvey doesn’t mind the schedule. It allows him to wake up around 11:00AM and go for his daily run or bike ride, and he can usually fit in a weekly poker game before returning to the bar at 10:00PM.
Falvey grooms his staff to give all their customers the “Moonies Experience,” by shaking customers hands as they leave every night, and learning their names and their usual drinks. Head bartender and IC student Rocco Privitera has been working at Moonies with Falvey for two years and says that he’s been a huge influence on him during his college career. Falvey knows that they are students first, he said, and that he respects and encourages them to thrive without pushing them to put their work at the bar first.
“He has personally taken me out to dinner when I’ve recently been stressed out for school,” Privitera says. “Brian is the type of guy that you can talk to about anything.”
Bouncer Aaron Jay met Falvey one night after the bar was closed during after-hours — a time when Falvey allows his staff to play beer pong together and drink a bit while they clean up and he does the books for the night. When Falvey asked him to interview as a bouncer. Jay remembers thinking he wasn’t the right guy for the job because he wasn’t physical enough.
“Brian stressed the importance of talking to people and relating to people,” Jay says. “He told me he picked me because he thought I was good at talking to people, and that it was more important to deescalate people with words than to break something up physically.”
Jay believes that the reason that Falvey pushes them to focus on their schoolwork is because he was once in their shoes.
“A lot of people might not know that Brian went to IC,” Jay says. “He’s had the college experience, and so he knows that we need to work hard at school and study. That comes first for him.”
Falvey graduated from Ithaca College in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and never thought he’d come back to Ithaca. He’d grown up in a one-stoplight town in southeastern Connecticut with West Coast dreams, but he visited IC on a whim with a friend who wanted to study here. It was a beautiful, unseasonably sunny day in October and both of them decided right then that they would attend the school.
But Falvey wanted to escape from the East Coast. He planned to become either a professor of psychology or a therapist, and after graduating from IC, he completed a Ph.D. in psychology at UC San Diego.
One of his college friends bought the Moonshadow Tavern in Ithaca in 2006, a bar that Falvey and his friends used to frequent. He was in California at the time, and his buddy phoned him to see if he’d want to come help him run the bar.
“I told him ‘hell no,’” Falvey says. “I wanted nothing to do with Ithaca anymore. All my friends had been back since graduating, but I was doing my own thing. I wanted a career—managing a bar was not what I considered a career.”
Falvey finished his doctorate in 2007 and when he realized that he was unsure of his goals and wanted to take some time figure out what he wanted his career to be, he agreed to return to Ithaca in 2009 for a year to help his buddy run the bar. He saw an opportunity to rebrand the establishment and make it more than the place for Friday night happy hours he and his friends had frequented in college. They purchased the store next door when he returned and knocked down the middle wall, making the bar twice its original size. This became what is now the dance floor and DJ booth that gives the bar its nightclub feel. They began rebranding and it became Moonies.
While studying psychology, Falvey realized that the age demographic he enjoyed working with was college kids. He wanted to be either a therapist or a professor of college students and he feels that this love of the college demographic has translated into his unexpected love of running the bar.
Falvey hadn’t kept ties to Ithaca after moving to the West Coast. His friends came back for alumni weekend and other events, but he didn’t feel close to the community or his alma mater.
“I think that’s the best thing that’s come out of me owning this bar,” Falvey said. “I’ve met tens of thousands of IC kids, and because of that I love going to athletic games and supporting the people who support me.”