Downtown Kent Landmark Celebrates 85 Years of Beer and Gertie’s Chili
What is it about Ray’s Place?
The downtown Kent landmark is as iconic to the Kent State University community as the Golden Flash or the Rock. Its owner, alumnus Charlie Thomas, likewise is a fixture in the city and within the university.
As Ray’s recently marked 85 years in business, Thomas this year is marking his own milestone: 45 years as Ray’s owner.
When he purchased Ray’s in 1978, Thomas had no idea he would become the longest owner of an establishment that is legendary in the eyes of many in the Kent State family.
“I still don’t think about that. I really don’t dwell on it. I’m just glad to be here doing this,” Thomas said, “I came here in 1978 and I went to work.”
Dana Lawless-Andric, Ph.D., associate vice president for university outreach and engagement at Kent State, said Ray’s is a community touchstone – it’s the place where Kent State graduates always want to come back to visit – and a gathering place that bridges the city and university communities.
Stop at Ray’s for lunch, she said, and you’ll find students, faculty and staff, along with Kent city and Portage County leaders.
She described Thomas as a constant in the community and credits his steady leadership behind the scenes for creating a spot where all within the Kent community come together.
“When I think of what makes Kent unique, he is someone who is iconic and also super humble,” she said. “Ray’s is that intersection of all the different pieces and parts of what makes Kent and Kent State so special.”
Opened in 1937
In an era when many restaurants consider five to 10 years a successful run, Ray’s Place stands out with 85 years spanning four owners at its home at 135 Franklin Ave.
Ray Salitore, the son of Italian immigrants, and his wife, Margie, opened his namesake tavern across from what was then the train station in 1937, just as the Great Depression was beginning to wane and World War II was looming in Europe.
In the mid-1940s, Salitore sold to brothers Rocky and Andy Flogge, who operated the bar for about 30 years, before selling to Tom and Jay Shaw and Mary and Buddy LoCicero in 1975.
In 1946, the Flogge brothers installed televisions at Ray’s, drawing in crowds to watch the Cleveland Indians defeat the Boston Braves in the 1948 World Series, and creating what may have been one of the earliest sports bars on record.
Thomas arrived in Kent from Caldwell, a small town in southern Ohio, to study business in the late 1960s. By 1969, he had turned 24 and still had not yet finished his degree, meaning that his exemption from the draft expired and he found himself entering the U.S. Army.
He served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971 and immediately returned to campus at age 26, eager to finish his degree.
“I loved Kent State. I couldn’t wait to get back here,” Thomas recalled. “I was restless and full of energy and maybe a little crazy, too.”
Thomas earned his bachelor’s degree in marketing and business management in 1974 and was working at the Loft, another downtown bar, as an assistant manager and bartender from 1974 to 1978 while selling stereo equipment out of his car for Tokyo Shapiro, the Cleveland-based electronics retailer.
“I used to take out ads in the Kent Stater that said, ‘Get high on the sounds of Stereo Chuck.’ There’s no way you could run that now,” Thomas chuckled. He wore his Stereo Chuck shirt while tending bar to help make sales.
Then, one night he was sitting at the bar at Ray’s having a beer when he heard one of the owners mention that they were planning to sell. He started negotiating the next day and, at age 33, became Ray’s fourth owner.
Riding Waves of Success
Thomas’ first few years as Ray’s owner were a bit wild, he recalled. In the 1970s, Kent was a mecca for partying and outsiders would pour into Kent on the weekends to frequent the bars and enjoy the popular music scene.
“In the early days, the town was packed every weekend. People came from everywhere – Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Youngstown,” he said. “The streets were crowded all the time.”
At the time, Ray’s upstairs was home to the popular music venue Mother’s Junction, where weekend concerts would pack in upwards of 500 customers.
“We did one hell of a bar business, as most places did,” he said. “It was quite a period of time, fun and hard and active.”
Capturing the Hearts of Alumni
Over time, Ray’s also solidified a place in the hearts of Kent State alumni, who return in droves for Homecoming and throughout the year to relive their college days.
Mark Ferenchik, who earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism at Kent State in 1984 and who has been a longtime urban affairs reporter for The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, said Ray’s in the 1980s was the hangout for the staffers from what was then the Daily Kent Stater student newspaper.
“There was something really homey about Ray’s. It was always crowded, and it was just a fun environment,” he said.
What’s most special about Ray’s, though, is the fact that it seemingly never changes, he said.
Ferenchik recalled going to Ray’s with his dad, who was a Kent State student in the late 1950s, who commented on how it hadn’t really changed since he was a student. Ferenchik feels the same way when he returns now.
‘Meet Me at Ray’s’
About a dozen years ago, Patrick O’Connor, Ed.D., professor emeritus from Kent State’s College of Education, Health and Human Services and a frequent Ray’s customer, began to ponder the question, “What is it about Ray’s Place that it has such long-lasting appeal to so many people from the town and the university?”
The question, he decided, was worth pursuing, and later became the book “Meet Me at Ray’s,” released to coincide with the tavern’s 75th anniversary in 2012.
When O’Connor began soliciting responses within the Kent State and Kent city communities, stories poured in and he began to see just how much the establishment means to Kent State alumni.
“Ray’s reminds them of a very special time in their lives,” he said, “Lives are chartered because of their college experiences. It’s a very pivotal time.”
He points out that the Latin term “alma mater” translates to nourishing mother.
“It’s a place that people feel like is the alma mater for them, the nourishing mother. At Ray’s you can go home as often as you want. If they come to Kent, Gertie’s Chili is going to be the same. There’s something comforting about that, especially in our fast-paced society,” O’Connor said.
A Ray’s Love Story
The responses O'Connor received from Ray’s lovers included one story from literal Ray’s lovers, Eric and Colleen Morgan.
It was a cold Friday night in December 1990 when Eric Morgan, then 22, decided to head to downtown Kent to look for some nightlife.
He had graduated from Bowling Green State University that spring and had begun a new job as a German teacher in his hometown of Hudson, Ohio.
Eric had moved back in with his parents and felt the need to seek out some company his own age that fateful Friday. He was sitting on a barstool at Ray’s having a beer when in walked a group of young women.
Among them was Colleen Krantz.
After working to put herself through Kent State, Colleen, 23, had just finished her final, final exam and was with friends celebrating her upcoming graduation with a bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing audiology.
She walked into Ray’s, saw Eric sitting at the bar, and, as if in a scene from a romantic movie, he looked up, their eyes met and in that moment, she knew.
“I turned to my friend and said, ‘I think I just saw my future husband,’” Colleen recalled.
They eventually ended up sitting next to each other that night on barstools two and three, as one enters the main door of Ray’s, the same stools on which Colleen’s roommate met her future husband a year later. (She often advises people looking for love to visit those barstools.)
They talked for hours, closed the bar that night and continued their evening by going out for coffee at Denny’s, where they talked into the wee hours of the morning. Their first official date was New Year’s Eve, when they rang in 1991, a year they finished by getting married on Dec. 28, just a little more than a year after they met at Ray’s.
In their home, there is a throw pillow that reads: “It all began at Ray’s Place 12-9-1990.”
They credit the magic of Ray’s with bringing them together, and so, every Dec. 9, they return to Ray’s for dinner and drinks, and if they are open, a seat on barstools two and three.
A few things have changed in the 32 years since they met. Eric, who eventually moved to Kent Roosevelt High School, retired last year after a long career as a German language teacher and soccer coach. (He even coached O’Connor’s daughter.) He, too, became a Golden Flash, earning his master’s degree at Kent State. Colleen works in Human Resources for Macy’s. The couple, who reside in Randolph Township, have raised two sons.
These days when the Morgans head to Ray’s, it’s generally a bit earlier in the evening than when they used to go out. As they enjoyed their day-we-met anniversary in December, the couple pointed out that bartender Patrick Watson was tending bar on the night they met, too.
Watson, a 42-year employee of Ray’s, laughed and said, “I’m not responsible,” when told of the Morgans meeting 32 years before, before buying the couple a round of drinks for their celebration.
Eric Morgan said Ray’s never seems to change – the way it looks, the way it smells, with its heavy wooden bar and mantle behind it.
“It’s personable, it’s warm, it’s welcoming, it’s Ray’s,” he said.
Recipe for Success
Thomas loves it when alumni come back and remark how nothing about Ray’s has changed. The physical appearance of the bar is mostly unchanged.
There are other constants too, including menu favorite, Gertie’s Chili. It was created by cook Gertie Gritten, who started working for original owner Salitore and didn’t retire until she was 84, well into Thomas’ ownership.
Gritten’s chili recipe is unchanged since she created it, and her photo hangs on the wall in Ray’s right next to celebrity chef Michael Symon, who, in 2011, proclaimed Ray’s Mo-Fo Burger one of the “best things I ever ate” on the Food Network show of the same name.
But the perception that nothing at Ray’s ever changes is perhaps the best tribute to Thomas’ business acumen. Thomas works hard to keep Ray’s vital, and he is at the bar every day, staying on top of trends.
When Ohio’s legal drinking age changed in the early 1990s and drunk driving became a prominent public concern, Thomas read the tea leaves, closed Mother’s and reopened the upstairs as additional restaurant space in 1992.
“The pressure on DWIs stepped up greatly, and people weren’t going to take the chance anymore,” he said.
When he purchased Ray’s, his business was 75% bar, 25% food; today those figures are more like 65% food, 35% bar.
He also was one of the earliest bar owners to feature a large and expanded beer selection.
“I would say we were 20 years or more before the craft beer market even hit,” Thomas said. “Nobody else could touch us.”
At the time, Budweiser and Miller ruled the day, but Thomas began featuring early imports such as Bass, Harp and Guinness. Ferenchik recalled that in the 1980s, “Ray’s had more beers than any other place at the time. That’s where you got Moosehead.”
Currently, Ray’s has more than 60 varieties on tap and plenty more available in bottles and cans, including a wide selection of microbrews.
For 45 years, Thomas’ formula for success has remained the same: “Ray’s equals the customers plus the employees plus the physical plant.”
Watson is one of two employees who have been with Thomas for more than 40 years.
“I don’t think Ray’s has ever been boring. It’s active, it’s alive and it’s a lot of work and a lot of logistics,” he said. “Obviously, you have to treat people right.”
O’Connor sees Thomas as the perfect example of “someone who turned what he loves into what he does.”
Supporting Students and Giving Back
Kent State student Josh Sullivan, 22, from the Cleveland suburb of Brooklyn, Ohio, currently works as a doorman at Ray’s, passing out to-go orders and taking names for the waitlist for a table.
A business management major, Sullivan said he sought employment at Ray’s because he had a friend who worked there and he often was a customer, coming in for drinks with friends and to play pool.
As an employee, he has found a supportive staff.
“The environment here is great,” Sullivan said. “The people are really cool.”
Over the years, Thomas has employed hundreds of Kent State students, and he remembers well what it was like to work two or three jobs as he, too, worked his way through college.
That’s why in 2014, he started the Ray's Place Entrepreneurship Scholarship for Kent State students who are working to pay for their own college. A portion of the proceeds from O’Connor’s book was donated to support the fund.
It was also a way for Thomas to give back, to acknowledge how tightly intertwined the university community has been with his success. Kent State alumni, who number more than 268,000 strong, take Ray’s around the world with them, wearing Ray’s T-shirts and sharing photos of the bar, he said.
Forecasting Ray’s Future
As he celebrates 45 years as Ray’s owner, Thomas has no plans to slow down.
Currently, his thoughts are consumed with how to move forward from the pandemic. Recovering from COVID-19 was challenging, and he said most restaurants, including his own, have not yet achieved their pre-pandemic sales figures.
“There was a psychological shift across the spectrum. COVID changed everything and everybody,” he said. “We’re trying to get past COVID and think about how to grow: where can we go now and make this place happen even more since COVID.”
Part of that growth will be figuring out the current generation of students whose movements seem to be governed by their next text message. “I’ve seen it happen, we can be having a great night and with one text, 20 or 30 people will walk out at once,” he said.
At 77, Thomas said it would be nice to have more time to travel, but the idea of retiring never really enters his mind.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I so-called retired,” Thomas said, “It’s my life, and I love it.”