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John Lamb, Published February 04 2013

Bartender Duma has become the face, and the taste, of popular Moorhead restaurant

MOORHEAD - It’s a cold Moorhead Wednesday night, but the warm wood and lodge-like interior make it feel toasty inside Usher’s House.

Still, one customer wants to find someplace, well, a little hotter.

A businessman from out of town sits at the bar asking his iPhone where he can find “a gentleman’s club” in the area.

Aaron Duma leans forward as he cracks open a new bottle of Crown Royal, pours the man another drink on the rocks and suggests the Northern.

“If you need to know how to get there, I can give you easy directions,” says the bar manager, known to regulars only by his Ukranian last name (pronounced DOOM-a).

He knows the route between Usher’s and the Northern well as he travelled it in reverse, starting as a bar back in the strip club’s Basement Bar over a decade ago. With a few stops along the way, Duma has become the face – and even the taste – of one of Moorhead’s most loved establishments.

Not that the building needs a new face. The old Moorhead Legion Hall, it was built in 1936 out of fieldstones, donated by area farmers.

Duma explains the history of the building to the customer who has since put his phone away and settled in for a conversation.

“I fell in love with this building the first time I stepped inside the dining room,” the 32-year-old says, explaining how he came to work at Usher’s predecessor, the Broken Axe.

Duma started off going to school to be a grade school teacher, but soon saw more appeal standing behind a bar than working in front of a blackboard.

At 21 he took his first service job as a bar back in the Basement Bar, what is now the Bomb Shelter.

Amy Bertzyk was a bartender there then and when she saw how much he hustled and how thorough he was about his job, she told the managers he needed to be a bartender.

“I taught him how to bartend, but he taught me about quality,” says Bertzyk, who now works with Duma at Usher’s. “He’s not some college kid pulling Bud Lights behind the bar.”

A year after he started he was a supervisor and by the time he left more than four years later, a manager.

“Teaching pre-school and managing dancers at The Northern is pretty much the same thing,” he explains. “Only you can hand kids off to parents at the end of the day.”

From there he started working as a day bartender at the Hotel Donaldson lounge where he continued his alcohol education watching bartender Amber Severson, who he still considers one of the best bartenders in the area.

“She makes everything look so easy it just ticks me off,” he says.

At the request of friends, he started at the Broken Axe in 2006 and within months he was a general manager.

He has fond memories of the short-lived business, which focused on roots rock, blues and jam bands and featured a stage above the bar, an area that now provides extra seating for Usher’s.

He spent a day golfing with blues guitarist Tab Benoit and recalls the night Los Angeles funk band Fishbone was in the house.

“When Fishbone played here, that was bad ass,” he says.

“We had one (jerk) try to stage dive off of there,” he says, gesturing up to where the stage was. “He hit his feet on the bar but his face broke the fall. Then he got up and ran out the door.”

And that was tame compared to when singer and celebrity bachelor Bret Michaels played.

“We had 350 women hanging off the lights,” Duma recalls. “Brett Michaels is like crack for 32-year-old women.”

But the statewide smoking ban that went into effect Oct. 1, 2007, doomed the business, Duma says.

“You saw an immediate drop,” he says estimating about an 80 percent loss as drinkers went over the river to downtown Fargo. The Broken Axe closed after New Year’s Eve, 2007.

The building didn’t stay dark for long. Three months later it re-opened as Usher’s House, featuring food largely inspired by the region.

“The food is what brings people back to Usher’s,” he says, talking about the meat-and-potatoes approach to the menu, which features a finer form of pub grub. “If you can get a great meal, with great made-from-scratch cooking, that’s gravy on top.”

One of Usher’s signatures has become a sandwich named after its popular bartender. When Duma worked at the HoDo he would get a lavosh made with chicken, bacon, spinach. Nancy Savageau, who owns Usher’s with her husband Jerry, told the kitchen to develop a burger topped with bacon, spinach and Havarti.

“I never saw that until it was on the menu,” Duma says.

The burger became an instant smash and it, along with its chicken counterpart, became popular staples on the menu, lasting through various seasonal menu makeovers.

He recommends regular fries with the hamburger, sweet potatoes with the chicken version and wash it all down with a Stone’s Throw from the Fargo Beer Company.

While Usher’s is known for a good, rotating beer selection, the bar has developed a reputation for its cocktail selections.

“He puts a lot of thought into our drink menu. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality,” Bertzyk says. “There are a lot of people behind the bar, but there are not a lot of true bartenders out there. And that’s where he really steps it up.”

Duma’s signature drink is twist on the classic Moscow Mule, a Moorhead Mule. It’s a sweet, refreshing mix of mint, lime, simple syrup, vodka and ginger beer.

He said Moorhead residents particularly have embraced Usher’s and appreciate having quality establishments on their side of the Red River.

“Moorhead people like to spend their money in Moorhead,” he explains. “The city of Moorhead loves this building.”

And so does he.

“I think the dining room is the best room in town. It could be raining and that room is awesome. It could be flooding on all three sides and people come to gawk at the flood,” he says, referring to a boost in business during the 2010 flood. “You couldn’t gawk from the street, but you could come in to Usher’s and have a drink and gawk at the flood.”

During warmer weather the patio is as much of a draw, not only for lunch, drinks and dinner, but also weddings.

He says that’s one of his biggest joys about working at Usher’s, watching it all come together for the bride and groom, including many of his friends.

“I’ve married four couples on the patio,” he says gesturing outside.

Then he gestures down the bar to a game mounted on the wood counter. “I married a couple at the Megatouch, but that’s a different story.”

He even met his fiancée, Emily McMahon, when she was on the opening staff at Usher’s. But plans aren’t finalized for the big date, so he doesn’t know where his own wedding will be.

The businessman, to the delight of his fellow travelers who have waited patiently for him to finish his drink, gets up and says his farewells to Duma.

“That’s the beauty of bartending,” he says as the men leave. “You meet someone new every night.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533