Mike Beder never seems to stop working.
“The exciting part of small business to me is the idea and the formation, and the creation of it all. After the day to day sets in, that’s when I get a little restless,” Beder said, adding that his restlessness can sometimes be a detriment but it’s what “keeps (him) moving.”
Even during an interview last month, the chronically busy 45-year-old entrepreneur was talking about closing another deal to acquire The Loft on Kent’s Main Street.
In addition to his recent acquisition of The Loft, he has a stake in the Water Street Tavern — his longest venture, having been involved for the past 21 years — Venice Café, Kent Sportswear, The Cleveland Bagel Café, and Lake House Kitchen & Bar.
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Beder and Ben Koberna, one of the co-owners of Lake House Kitchen & Bar, are also involved in Gold Zone Rentals, a string of multibedroom rental houses located near KSU’s campus, but outside of its footprint.
Beder is even involved in show business.
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He’s close friends with Mike Polk Jr., and since 2010 has been acting as the comedian’s manager.
He’s also co-director of the Crooked River Arts Festivals, a nonprofit responsible for organizing the Kent Blues Fest, Kent Beatlefest, the Kent Rocks Music Festival, and the American Roots Festival.
He works closely with his alma mater, Kent State University, acting as an entrepreneur in residence, a position co-sponsored by the city and the university.
And he serves on numerous boards around town — the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors and the Main Street Kent board of directors, to name just two.
“It feels like the right thing to do with all that I’m getting from the community by having these businesses here,” he said.
From New England to Kent
A New England native, Beder ended up in Ohio because of his father’s work.
“He worked in medical equipment, marketing medical equipment, essentially,” Beder said.
The family moved around the New England area, living in Massachusetts and Rhode Island until he was 6, when they moved to a Milwaukee suburb for the duration of his grade school experience.
Eventually, the family moved to Ohio and settled in Westlake when his father joined up with Radiometer America, a company that pioneered the development of the blood gas meter. Beder attended and graduated from high school in Westlake, where his parents still reside.
“I didn’t do great in school,” he admitted. “I didn’t really apply myself. It was a tough transition coming from a different middle school into a whole different high school. I didn’t get involved in much, but there were a couple, like, creative outlets that I enjoyed.”
It wasn’t until he was midway through his college career at Kent State University that he began coming into his own.
Kent State helps shape Beder’s future
Beder entered KSU as an exploratory major, graduating with a general studies degree.
During his last two years, he was part of the university’s Undergraduate Student Senate, serving as student body president in his final year. He also bartended at the now-demolished Robin Hood for the final year and a half of college
He said his student government adviser, Donna Carlton, and others he met through Undergraduate Student Senate “were probably more influential than classroom people necessarily.
“I think the lines were blurred between life advice and advice for whatever project we were working on for student senate, and that was a good thing,” he said.
Brent VanFossen met Beder when they were both attending Kent State and joined the same fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon.
Their friendship developed around their common interest in sports, particularly the Boston Red Sox, and a similar taste in music.
Even in college, VanFossen said, Beder exhibited tendencies toward leadership.
“He was the president of the student senate at Kent State, very levelheaded, smart — not necessarily book smart, but socially smart, and was able to form relationships with people, and lead people as part of a team in achieving common goals,” VanFossen recalled.
In the years since graduating college, their lives have taken different paths, but that didn’t stop them from keeping in contact. VanFossen still reaches out to Beder for advice concerning his own career.
“That’s kind of been like the next phase of our friendship, is being able to talk on that level of both of us being entrepreneurs,” VanFossen said. “We can relate to each other on that level as well.”
VanFossen recalled an instance where he was flying back into Cleveland and didn’t have a ride back to Kent. Beder, he said, dropped what he was doing and came to pick him up, “no questions asked.”
“He’s reliable. He’s a good person — cares about his friends and his family a lot,” VanFossen said.
Water Street Tavern launches business career
After graduating, Beder took a marketing job with the PGA tour but didn’t like the work. He lasted two weeks.
Returning to Kent, he was unsure of what do next. His old adviser, Carlton, told him about a place called Bellie’s Deli that was soon to be up for sale.
Beder got help from his boss from the Robin Hood, where he had bartended, and his boss’s accountant to finance the purchase. Bellie’s Deli became Water Street Tavern.
“I was there from January of ’01 to May of ’03, and then moved into the building we’re at now,” Beder said. “In ’08 we expanded and bought the building next door to us, and it’s been about the same footprint ever since.”
Kent Sportswear among his niche businesses
His goal through his businesses is to find niche markets that aren’t being catered to, and finding opportunities to fill that need.
One example is his 2021 founding of the Kent Sportswear shop.
“That was me realizing that the third-biggest university in Ohio and a Division I sports program didn’t have a team shop-type partner,” he said. “It was a situation where someone who had managed another shop locally, and had a lot of experience with it, came to me and was interested in doing something, and it all just sort of made sense. Imagine going into the Ohio State or Cincinnati market and realizing there wasn’t … a partner for their team shop.”
It was an opportunity not only for him, but also for the university to advance and grow KSU’s athletics program.
‘Great community partner’
Kent City Manager Dave Ruller said via email that the city’s downtown revitalization worked because of “a lot of great partners.”
Beder, he wrote, was one of them.
Beder saw early opportunities to help craft Kent’s future.
“Mike’s business acumen and market awareness paid off for his new ventures and for all the customers who are regulars at his growing number of small businesses in downtown Kent that have become some of the favorite destinations of Kent fans,” wrote Ruller. “Mike has been a great community partner and we’re always anxious to see what’s next for our local serial entrepreneur.”
Tom Wilke, Kent’s economic development director, serves on the boards of the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Kent alongside Beder.
Wilke and Beder met in 2015 when Wilke started with the city.
“I find Mike to be a very collaborative person,” Wilke said. “What’s a little unusual about Mike, compared to a lot of entrepreneurs, is he’s willing to help others be successful as well.”
Other independent business people find others’ success to be threatening to their own, he said.
“Mike doesn’t suffer from that syndrome,” he said. “He’s willing to help out others.”
Mary Kline, president of the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce and director of sales and catering at Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center, knows Beder because they’re both on the chamber of commerce board and because Beder is on the university’s Hospitality Management Board.
Upon meeting him for the first time, Kline said, she found Beder to be a quiet man, and didn’t realize how deeply involved he is in the city.
“He’s not a boastful man at all,” Kline said. His demeanor doesn’t betray just how much business he does in Kent.
“If you didn’t personally know Mike, you probably wouldn’t know that because he doesn’t carry that persona,” Kline said.
During their time working together, Kline has learned that Beder is game to take on challenges, and is the first to step up to the plate when there’s something in the community to be done.
“He’s just a genuine, good-hearted man,” said Kline.
In her opinion, Beder’s integrity and humility are his most useful traits as a businessman.
“He’s proud, but he’s not boastful on it, and you can count on him to do anything that you need,” Kline said. “In fact, I did just ask him to help me with something with the hotel, and he was like, yeah, I’ll be there. So, he’s definitely a pillar in the community, and one that we can all count on.”
Innovation on Water Street
Beder has taken the opportunity to utilize his connections to find ways to benefit others.
One example is his work with student-athletes, something that was a natural extension of his work with the sportswear shop.
About a year ago, the NCAA suspended its rules prohibiting players from profiting from their name, image or likeness. This opened up the opportunity for alumni to form what are called NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) Collectives to give college athletes chances to financially benefit. However, they’re still barred from receiving financial compensation based on their on-field performance. This has resulted in some clever maneuvering.
Water Street Tavern is partnering Kent State Golden Flashes wide receiver Dante Cephas, who recently set a record 246 receiving yards against Ohio University.
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When Cephas scores and performs his iconic touchdown dance, fans can come to Water Street Tavern for a $6 chicken sandwich and fries combo on the Thursday following the game.
“I was proud of this,” Beder said. “The way this deal was positioned, we’re sponsoring his touchdown celebration — that was the first deal of this nature.”
Beder worked out the details with Cephas’ marketing representative.
“I wasn’t aware that it was going to be a first,” Beder said. “I was just trying to figure out a fun way to drive traffic and promote our relationship with the university.”
Helping Kent State students find success
About 10 years ago, Beder started helping his alma mater by mentoring a handful of students from Kent State University’s College of Business Administration.
While they’re required to touch base with him a number of times each semester, it’s ultimately up to the budding entrepreneurs how much they avail themselves of his expertise.
He’s involved with two courses. The first is called New Venture Creation, a course meant to teach students the logistical process of beginning a new business. The second is Entrepreneurial Experience, a two-part class wherein students implement a plan they developed in New Venture Creation and ultimately decide at the end of the second course whether to continue or terminate the business they’ve begun.
Beder said he gets considerable enjoyment from being able to help students get their careers underway.
“I love being around enthusiasm and new ideas,” he said. “It fuels that need for me to see an opportunity and do something with it without having to do it myself.”
Life outside of work
Though it may not seem possible what with all he’s involved in, Beder does have a life outside of his entrepreneurial pursuits.
He and his wife, Lucy, have two children: Sonny, 2, and Olive, 3.
“What’s funny,” Beder said, “is that we don’t remember when we met each other. I do vividly remember knowing her before she was 21 because of some mutual family friends, and seeing her in line at Water Street Tavern multiple times and reminding her she wasn’t 21 and she wasn’t going to get in.”
The couple hire Kent State students to babysit for them.
Eventually, Beder said, their babysitters get around to asking Lucy about Water Street.
“If they’re not 21, she’ll tell them: ‘Don’t bother. I tried and he kicked me out,'” Beder said.
Since having children, his recreational opportunities dwindled, he said. But he still enjoys going to live events like concerts, sporting events (he’s a Cleveland Browns and Boston Red Sox fan) and comedy shows, as well as dining out and traveling.
Beder has faced some personal challenges recently.
According to his Facebook page, he went into cardiac arrest six months ago while sleeping. Luckily, his wife called 911. A Kent police dispatcher was able to talk her through performing CPR, keeping him alive until Kent firefighters arrived.
They spent half an hour working to reestablish his pulse. To his understanding, he wrote on Facebook, his recovery is nothing short of a miracle.
Learning from life’s successes and failures
Over the years, he’s learned his fair share of lessons, more from failures than successes.
One example he cites is his 2005 acquisition of Screwy Louie’s, a former nightclub on Main Street.
A friend of his was trying to get out of managing the nightclub, so Beder took it over. At that point, he was behind on the trends. The capacity of Screwy Louie’s, he said, was around 1,200 people.
“Students don’t go out like that like they used to, that I saw when I was in school,” Beder said. “I opened it and pretty quickly realized that the space was overbuilt.” It simply wasn’t possible to pack the place in a way that made it feel like a nightclub.
“Here’s the thing — at Water Street, our capacity is 300 people. If you put 300, or even 200, people in that space it feels exciting and vibrant and busy. When you put that same 300 people in a space that can fit 1,200 — or you put 400 in there — even though there’s more people, it doesn’t feel … as vibrant,” Beder said.
They were able to readjust and better utilize the space by booking some big-name live acts there, though he only owned the place for a year before selling. In the end, he said, the experience taught him the importance of being able to roll with the punches, to adapt to changing circumstances.
He’s also learned even independent business owners still answer to others.
“Very early on, I learned that you have to serve somebody,” Beder said. “Owning your own business doesn’t mean you have 100% freedom or anything. I think some people might glamorize seeing someone at a certain point in their career that has as lot of freedom, but there’s always some sort of government form that needs to be filled out, some bank that needs an answer for something, some customer that had an experience they need to talk to you about. There’s no such thing as complete freedom.”
When asked what advice he would give to someone starting down an entrepreneurial path, Beder offered some guidance that’s applicable to anyone.
“This goes for jobs in any capacity,” he said, “but if you enjoy what you’re doing, for the most part, that’s all that counts. Like, I can’t imagine living any other way, just because it’s all I’ve known as an adult. It rarely feels like a job. It’s just part of my lifestyle at this point.”
Contact reporter Derek Kreider at [email protected]