Jill Brekke has poured many a pint for MacEwan students over the past 11 years. As manager of MacEwan’s Towers Pub, she is at the bar every day making sure that students have a safe place to unwind and hang out with friends at the end (or in the middle—no judgment!) of a long school day. “A home away from school,” Brekke calls the bar.
Towers first opened its doors in 1993 and is nestled in the southeast corner of the first floor of Building 6. The pub features two pool tables near the entrance, bright string lights along the bar, lots of cozy tables and chairs packed together, upbeat tunes, and a charming patio for the summer months.
Brekke started going to the pub 11 years ago when she was a student working on her accounting diploma. “I knew friends from high school, and we came here (to Towers) every day,” she says. Her presence did not go unnoticed, and partway through the semester, one of the bartenders asked if she would like to work there. Brekke decided to give it a shot and quickly went from working the crowded Friday nights as a student to now going on her fifth year as manager. “I used to be super shy,” says Brekke. “I’ve honestly just grown as a human and I’ve gained so much social confidence here.”
Brekke’s love for the bar and the students is definitely not one-sided. Pre-pandemic, many students would go every day after class and have to scramble for an empty table, save their seats, and then go see Brekke at the bar. She lovingly calls the bar “her baby” and the students “her kids.”
“You didn’t even have to text your friends to come,” says Brekke. “Students would just walk in and know so many people.”
Before COVID, Towers was the go-to place for students to unwind after class with its variety of food, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and various events throughout the school year.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, all Towers staff had to leave the bar due to restrictions on indoor dining. After being there for nine years at that point, Brekke took her job loss hard. “I was wondering why I was so depressed for the first six months (of COVID), and then I realized, ‘Oh my God, my whole identity is gone. I miss all of my kids… It was so sad,’” she explains.
During those pandemic years, the bar stayed closed, and Brekke went back and forth on whether she would even return if the bar reopened. But, as it turns out, even COVID couldn’t keep her away. As soon as it was announced that the bar would reopen in September 2022 (after two and a half years of being closed), Brekke recruited another former Towers bartender, and the two made a comeback.
It hasn’t been an easy restart, with the bar seeing lower numbers since opening again, but Brekke is up for the challenge.
“Unfortunately, advertising rules changed over COVID,” Brekke explains, and Towers is no longer allowed to advertise alcohol on campus, which is arguably its main selling point. “It does come down to that because people just don’t even know (that Towers exists),” Brekke says.
Pre-pandemic, the third- and fourth-year students made sure that Towers was packed every day, and especially on Friday nights. All those students have now graduated, and those who did school online for the first two years are also in the dark about the pub’s existence.
Brekke has had to get creative to advertise the pub around campus this school year, and she has partnered with the new food director from MacEwan’s food service provider, Aramark, to make sure students know that there is a spot for them to grab a beer on campus.
Brekke’s efforts are slowly coming to fruition, with more and more people coming to the bar.
In the fall 2022 semester, she tried some new advertising strategies, including revamping some events (including a gingerbread house decorating contest!) and placing ads for those events around the school.
Brekke says that some other events that Towers has put on so far this school year include an undergrad variety show where “students could come up and sing, dance, tell a story, poetry. . . whatever they wanted to do,” and an open mic night. A couple of students have also started a biweekly pool tournament on alternate Wednesdays which have been really well received, according to Brekke.
There is also always a big shindig on the first and last days of classes with live music, prizes, and lots of beer.
Recognizing the need to pivot, Brekke has big plans for the bar and hopes to mark the start of a new era at Towers. Part of the plans include upgrading the space and making it a bit more cozy. “We wanna bring some character back and get some student artists in to do murals,” says Brekke.
Outside of events, the food and drinks are also a big draw for the bar.
Drink-wise, there are always some fun collaborations happening with local breweries. “Lots of local breweries have approached me to get in here because they’re all just like, ‘We want to get ’em young,’” Brekke says with a laugh.
One of the new beers this year is the Griffins Honey Beer, made with honey from the MacEwan bee hives on the roof of Building 5. Towers has also collaborated with Alley Kat and Sea Change Brewing Co., among other local breweries for on-tap beers. Brekke has plans to start a happy hour soon and get students’ input on what beer she brings in next.
For many students, “this is their first time being in a bar-type environment, and I don’t ever wanna make them feel uncomfortable,” says Brekke. “I’m pretty good with giving (students) little tasters of stuff to try.”
Why else should students go to Towers? One of the biggest perks is all the comfort food. Towers has a delicious menu featuring burgers, mozzarella sticks, quesadillas, and of course, chicken tenders and fries—which are the best seller, according to Brekke.
The fully loaded Towers Burger is another favourite and from 3 p.m. to close, every day is “burger happy hour,” where students can get two Towers burgers and fries for $20. Towers also offers a sample platter with lots of different appetizers for $23, which is great to share with a table of friends.
Although it’s difficult to cater to all dietary restrictions, Brekke hopes to offer more gluten-free and other diet restriction-friendly options as time goes on to ensure that as many students as possible can enjoy all that Towers has to offer.
Towers is a hidden gem waiting to be rediscovered by students and the perfect place to escape the reality of midterms and 75-page-long research papers for a little while.
When students go to the bar, Brekke will be there, ready to make some small talk and help get their minds off everything that makes being a student stressful.
Although she is unsure if this is her forever job, Brekke is happy to be back on campus at the bar. When asked what keeps her at Towers, Brekke answers, “just seeing people, like all of the generations of kids,” she says. “It’s super endearing and adorable.”
“I’m a sucker. I love this place and can’t let it go,” she adds.
Towers is open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to around 9 p.m. Learn more about Towers at macewaneats.ca.