Portland, Oregon is famed for its love of beer; pubs and breweries are dotted about throughout the city and you are never far from the chance to try a locally brewed beer. The Oregon Public House, just like many around the city, will have its own beer, serve food, and create the perfect environment to spend time with friends and family. It will, however, have one fundamental difference: it will be a non-profit pub.
Two years ago when Ryan Saari and his friends were discussing what they might be able to do to contribute to their community, they had the idea of starting a non-profit of some kind.
However, as Saari says, “Portland has more non-profits per capita than any other state in America ... so we quickly realized that another non-profit, while wonderful, may not be needed. So instead we thought what can we do to partner with the existing non-profits?”
They realized that the most important way to help the non-profits around them was to raise some of the money they had lost in donations due to the downturn in the economy.
After researching how they could best help, Saari and his friends discovered that, “when an economy goes down or there’s a recession, the first thing that people cut away from their budgets is their giving. At the same time, alcohol sales go up”.
While that may be a somewhat discouraging idea, Saari began to think about how “to leverage those two realities: supporting non-profits for what they desperately need, which is funding, and then giving people what they’re already spending their money on doing, which is going out, having a drink, having some food.”
Instead of trying to change people’s habits, which would take far too much time and money, Saari decided they could use those habits. The key was to create a “social aspect to charitable giving.”
So they created The Oregon Public House, “the nation’s first non-profit pub.” Saari explains that, “we exist solely to raise money for local charitable organizations.”
They found the perfect space for their pub, a building from 1909 that contained not only space for a pub, but also a parent-child community space, and the ‘Village Ballroom’ upstairs, spanning the entire length and width of the building.
The condition of the pub area itself, however, was far less than to be desired. So Saari and his friends began the long process of demolition that was needed on the interior of the restaurant space before they could even begin to build their pub.
Although demolition and construction began around a year and a half ago, the pub is yet to be completed. Far from this being the result of delays and inefficiencies, it is the side-effect of yet another unique aspect of The Oregon Public House.
In order to ensure that 100% of their profits go to their chosen non-profits as soon as they open, they are completing the process of building the pub while remaining entirely debt-free.
Nothing is being built unless there is the money to pay for it, and costs are being kept down considerably by the large number of volunteers who donate their time to help with construction in the pub.
“This allows us to actually give back from day one,” says Saari. “As soon as we start operating as a pub, we’re able to generate money for these local charities.”
They also offer an attractive offer for those who wish to donate larger sums of money. Saari explains that as a “Level 1 Founder, you get a beer a day for life - which is very exciting for some people - and a Level 2 Founder, you get a beer a week for life.” Both come with a personalized pint glass, “with your name etched in it, that goes on the wall behind the bar ... every time you come in, we pour into your glass.”
While fundraising is always difficult, as for any non-profit, renting out the ballroom upstairs to community events has helped provide enough income to cover their costs for renting the building as well as some building costs.
This means that, as of August 2012, the pub is yet to open but with the most costly and time intensive work already completed, the remaining work is essentially cosmetic.
As soon as the pub opens, Saari and his friends will get straight to work to raise as much money as they can. And the amounts are more than you might think: “at this point, we’re projecting a five-figure [number] a month for these organizations,” says Saari.
The pub will employ some full-time bar staff and chefs but they are hoping to cut costs by recruiting volunteers as waiters and waitresses, hosts and hostesses, and to help with any other jobs.
The Oregon Public House will work much like a conventional pub: people will come in, order food and drinks, and enjoy time with friends and family. There will, however, be a third selection to be made by the customers. “We wanted to empower [our customers] to feel like they are able to actually do something with their sole purchase, whether it’s a burger or whether it’s just a beer,” explains Saari.
“So we’ve created three different menus: you have your food menu, you have your drink menu, and you have your charity menu.” This gives the customer the chance to decide exactly where their own donation goes and truly feel that they are making a concrete difference.
Like any good Portland Pub, The Oregon Public House will also have its own beers. Dean Ivester, a friend of Saari’s, will be the pub’s head brewer. He is currently working on getting the beers they will serve just right.
Not only will having their own brews mean that they have another way to draw in customers but “having our own beer is going to allow us to donate even more money to charity ... if we have to buy it from other people, then we’re not going to have as much profit margin there to give away,” says Ivester.
The social aspect to the pub is vital. Relying on volunteers to help run it at a low cost, and customers to provide the profit, The Oregon Public House seeks to create an environment in which people can enjoy their evening with friends and family while also feeling the benefit of helping a local charity.
“I think a good pub is a place where you want to go and don’t want to leave, where you want to hang out and you have good food and you have good drinks ... a good pub is a place where I can bring my daughter,” says Saari and that’s exactly what they’re building.
The Oregon Public House will not only help raise money for local charities but it will also bring together its surrounding community. “It’s a way for people to say, ‘I’m supporting my neighborhood pub, I’m supporting my neighborhood farms and groceries ... and I’m also supporting my neighborhood charities, I’m giving back.”