Iowa City Bar Crawls

By Kristin Schiller

It is midnight in downtown Iowa City on a Friday and Sarah Flood is standing inside Union Bar wearing a light blue shirt with Brothers, Formosa, Union, Fieldhouse, and David’s Place listed on the back.  She is not promoting these bars; she is involved in a “bar crawl.”

Flood is one of hundreds of people who have participated in a bar crawl.  A bar crawl involves one or more people drinking in multiple bars in a single night, normally walking to each one between drinking.  Bar crawls are recognized because everyone involved wears the same shirt.

Birthday Bar Crawl T-shirt Photo by Kristin Schiller

Many people have bar crawls for their birthdays, but others can be designed for a variety of reasons.  Even though participants say bar crawls can be fun, they can create problems for downtown police.

An Outside View

Bar crawls are huge social events, according to Sarah Lafferty, former human resource assistant at the Sheraton Hotel downtown.

“Iowa City has more bars than you normally would see,” Lafferty said. “It’s fun to go out with a group of friends and to meet new people.”

Lafferty said she sees people coming and going from the Sheraton Hotel wearing bar crawl shirts every weekend.  While college students are depicted as the main group of people on bar crawls, adults have been known to participate as well.

“A lot of the time I see parents with their kids on the bar crawl,” Lafferty said.

Alumni bar crawls also come through Iowa City.  The biggest weekends for alumni are Homecoming and Parent’s Weekend, according to Lafferty.

Organizing Bar Crawls

A lot of work goes into organizing bar crawls.  Bars on the list need to be determined, money collected for the T-shirts, the T-shirts ordered and bar covers negotiated.

“It actually takes a lot of planning if you want a good successful bar crawl,” said Rachel Rose, who organized an April bar crawl with a friend.  “But if done correctly, they can be a lot of fun.  They give people the opportunity to possibly go to some bars they might not normally go to on a regular weekend,” she said.

Rose said it is important to plan ahead because mishaps happen.  Once, she had a T-shirt company back out at the last minute.

“We had to find someone else to print the shirts quickly, but we didn’t want to go to Shirt & Simple,” Rose said.

Bar Crawl T-shirts

While Rose decided to stay away from the popular T-shirt company Shirt & Simple, many people choose the easy-to-use online bar crawl service.  George Pfeiffer, president of Shirt & Simple Inc., said his company averages about five to 10 T-shirt orders per weekend.  Cost for bar crawl shirts varies depending on the color and style.

“Sometimes, when we’re busy, that number can grow as high as 20 different groups,” said Pfeiffer, whose shirt design Web site is paired up with Iowa City’s leading bar crawl organizing source,   The Web site runs in conjunction with Shirt & Simple, Inc., providing tips for organizing a bar crawl along with drink specials bars offer.

The Den in downtown Iowa City also prints designs for bar crawl shirts.  Rhett Depauw, the lead graphic designer at the Den, said March is a big season for bar crawls because it’s getting warmer and people are excited.

“Most of the time T-shirt designs are decided based on inside jokes or birthdays,” Depauw said.  “Every once in awhile you will see an intramural team come through here.”

Depauw said he does not always understand the things people put on their bar crawl shirts but he added that black and gold is the most popular color combo for obvious reasons.

“Most times people have a design and shirt theme ahead of time and will pick a product that has that color,” Pfeiffer said.  “Yet sometimes people will pick a color just because they like the look of it.”

“I don’t think the fear of standing out has ever really been a factor,” Depauw said.  “In fact, we just did an order of neon green shirts.”

Both Depauw and Pfeifffer noticed certain bars are more popular for bar crawls than others.  Six of 50 bars get most of bar crawl business, according to Pfeiffer.

“Summit is normally on all of them,” Depauw said, noting that the name of Summit is normally written backwards to disguise it on T-shirts.

Bar Crawl T-shirt disguises "Jakes" by spelling it backwards

“Although I don’t know why Jake’s and Summit don’t allow it,” said Depauw.  “You’d think they would want more advertisement.”

Bar Owners and Police Reactions

The owner of Summit and One Eyed Jake’s does not allow the names of his bars to be directly printed on bar crawl shirts.

Christa Walrath, a manager at Summit Restaurant & Bar, said the reason they don’t allow their name or logo on T-shirts is because they don’t want to associate themselves with bar crawls or excessive drinking.

Because bars offer drink specials to people wearing bar crawl shirts, excessive consumption of alcohol is the most common problem associated with this phenomenon.

Bar crawls can sometimes cause problems for police, often creating disturbances for business owners.

“Bar crawls themselves don’t really create problems because people tend to look after one another,” Iowa City Police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said.  “It’s the individuals who are irresponsible that attract attention.”

Kelsay said the most common charges against people who partake in bar crawls are Possession of Alcohol Under the Legal Age (PAULA), public intoxication, and unlawful use of identification.  People under 21 tend to think bar crawls are an easier method to get away with drinking underage, according to Kelsay.

“Whether police agree with the drinking age being 21, it is an easy line to follow,” Kelsay said.  “However, if you drink responsibly, chances are good you won’t have negative contact with police.”

While working at the Sheraton Hotel, Lafferty has seen many irresponsible bar crawls come through and create problems.

“It gets bad.  People get kicked out,” Lafferty said.  “One time we had a girl pee in the lobby.  She was standing up, skirt on and just started peeing.”

Flood said she believed people on bar crawls tend to watch out for one another.

“In my experience, if they’re on a bar crawl, they’re with other people and at least one person on the bar crawl is responsible who can watch over the others,” Flood said.

Lafferty said people should be careful and watch out for their friends.

“It’s all fun and games until someone has to go to the hospital.”

For more articles by Kristin Schiller, visit Fake ID Use in Iowa City: On the Rise?, Fake ID Q&A with UI Student, or go back to the package’s main page.


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