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'13! Blue Light!’ Frantic activity inside the Canalside Live beer tent

Willie Schult, the Beer Tent Captain at Canalside Live, said sure, he would be happy to talk about his job.

"But we may be moving as we're talking," Schult semi-shouted, so he was heard above the warmup band. "And every once in a while, someone's gonna yell my name, which means I'm going to have to do something."

And there is plenty to do. Under the tent, 14 people are in constant motion. Outside, the lines are long. The music is loud. The sun is out, and thousands are enjoying a warm summer Buffalo evening by making their way to the waterfront for Canalside Live's Thursday night concert.

And, for many, their first stop after a short walk on cobblestoned Hanover Street is a large temporary structure to the left, under the Skyway.

The beer tent.

Before Schult can be asked a question, a female voice shouts from the activity behind him.

"Thirteen, Blue Light!"

That call is immediately punctuated with Schult's hollering:

"Thirteen Light! Thirteen Light!"

There's no more Blue Light coming out of tap No. 13, and Schult's voice is the one that makes sure that a new keg is hooked up as soon as possible.

The beer tent is actually two light blue Canalside canopies placed in front of a Try-It Distributing tractor-trailer truck. The refrigerated trailer is equipped with 16 taps.

The lines are long, for a long time, at Canalside Live's beer tent. (Keith McShea/Buffalo News)

Schult is positioned in the rear right corner of the tent, by the back of the trailer. When Schult yells, Try-It workers swap out one keg for another.

Soon after, there's another call from tap No. 4. The keg of 1911 Original Hard Cider has been kicked.

"Four! Cider!" 

While Schult is talking – and yelling – he's filling cups of beer, along with about five other workers. They are filling 16-ounce cups, over and over again, then turning and placing them on a row of plastic tables. "What I would call the beer table," Schult says.

On the other side of those tables is the next step in the assembly line: Servers take orders from long lines of concertgoers, accepting tickets that have been purchased at a different tent (one ticket equals one dollar) and swiveling around to grab whichever beverages have been ordered.

The goal is "quick service for the customers, which entails a lot," says Schult, 63, who is in his fifth year as the Beer Tent Captain. "That means beers on the table, and quick service … with a smile."

His smile gets interrupted again. No more cider.

"YO! You're out of cider! The only cider is here! The only cider is here!"

Along with the pourers and servers are two barbacks, who make sure the coolers are stocked (with ice, bottled water, soda and wine) and the trash cans are emptied.

A beer tent staff of 14 was on hand for the second week of Canalside Live. On busier nights, the staff goes up to 25. (Keith McShea/Buffalo News)

"And the beer captain oversees the whole shebang," Schult said.

And that, after he received another update, and that means letting the servers know the cider situation.

"The cider on the table is it! After that, no more cider!"

This Thursday evening was a typical one, as 14 people were in Canalside navy blue T-shirts, working the tent for the second week of Canalside Live (Fitz and the Tantrums were playing). For busier nights, like this year's opening week (Method Man & Redman), there are many more.

"On a busy night we'll have 25 people in here," Schult said. "Last Thursday we had 25 people in here, and we were busy pretty much right out of the chute. The gates open at 5, we were busy by 6, and we didn't look up until 10 o'clock."

The biggest challenge, Schult said, is those very busy times, when all parts of the operation are moving as fast as they can, and there is only so much time, and only so much room. There may be 14 taps on the beer truck, but there isn't enough room to fit a person at each one.

"I'd say you can only get so many people back here to work – to fit, to physically fit – so that's a challenge," said Schult. "When we get swamped, sometimes it's a challenge. You have six taps here, but you can't fit six people here to pour.

There are a total of 14 taps on Try-It Distributing's beer truck; the plastic cups were placed on the taps later in the night after they were empty. (Keith McShea/Buffalo News)

"There's times where on a busy night, with a big seller, like Blue or Blue Light – you'll go 45 minutes without turning that tap off. You'll just run the keg out."

Speaking of kegs running out, it's time for another keg of Labatt Blue Light Grapefruit.

"Sixteen grapefruit! One-six grapefruit!" 

In the middle of the tent, pourer Pat Hanes, 61, of Tonawanda, is working the taps. She said that the toughest part of the job is "keeping up with it, keeping the beer served cold, and trying to stay dry."

Moments later, two servers collide near the table, and one gets an arm covered with beer. Soon after, Schult's booming voice is back.

"No. 6! Hayburner!"

Time for more Big Ditch Hayburner and Flying Bison Rusty Chain.

"Five! Rusty!"

Next to Hanes was Andrew Proudman, 21, of Buffalo, who said the key part of pouring is keeping your cup at a 45-degree angle.

Pourers, to the left, get cups of beer to the table, where they are grabbed by the servers. (Keith McShea/Buffalo News)

"The hardest part about the job is not being out there having with all of them," Proudman said with a smile, motioning to the throngs outside, "but it's not bad at all."

On the opposite side of the tent from Schult, the person manning tap No. 1 is asked what it's like to work there.

"Normally, this is not my job," said Kevin Parkinson.

That's because Parkinson is the vice president for operations and finance for Rich Entertainment Group. Rich Entertainment is in its second year overseeing Canalside.

"We do whatever we need to make sure everyone gets served as quick as possible," he said.

Parkinson excuses himself for a moment. "No. 1 guys! No. 1!" Schult's echo follows.

"No. 1! Blue Light!" 

"Part of my job is to be on site to make sure everything goes smooth, so we just walk around and wherever we're needed we jump in and help out," said Parkinson, who will leave his office at Coca-Cola Field during Bisons games to help in similar ways.

"We'll have a couple-hour rush, and then I'll go count money after this."

"We pride ourselves that our full-time guys know that we have to get lines down, too," said Canalside general manager Matt LaSota. "When it's busy, we'll have all hands on deck and we'll all pour beer. It's the nature of how our upper management is at Rich's, and how I was trained in the organization. ... If you see a mess, go fix it."

"Seven, Blue!"

"For me, I'm an old fart, this is my fun job, I do this for fun," said Schult, who moved to Buffalo from Long Island in 1979 after he got a job helping put in the Metro downtown. "I enjoy the energy, the energy of the people I work with, the energy of the crowd. ... I'm not a born-and-bred Buffalonian, but I've been here a long time. I enjoy the revitalization of the area and the waterfront."

"A guy like Willie, he is sharp and on top of things," said LaSota. "It sounds crazy, but he has this way of knowing when a keg is about to kick, and being on top of it. And knowing that is important. We need to have those kegs tapped.

"The reality it is, the quicker we can get people through the lines, we can sell more, and we don't want people in line, making them angry. That's important to us."

*Read more:
- Canalside Live! lineup for 2018
- Jeff Miers' top 10 summer concerts
- Gusto summer concert guide

Email: kmcshea@buffnews.com

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