They say it’s better to give than receive, but what if you could do both at the same time? At a handful of bars scattered across this great land of ours, it turns out you can. Thanks to some visionaries who’ve launched drinking establishments that give 100% (that means all, there’s no catch) of their profits to charity, you can now combine good times and good works in a way that lends liquidity to the term “win-win situation.”
Leading this hopefully burgeoning trend are the OKRA Charity Saloon in Houston, Texas, and the Oregon Public House in Portland. At OKRA, for each drink customers buy, they receive a ticket to deposit in a ballot box designated for one of four charities chosen by OKRA’s board members. The charity with the most votes at the end of the month receives the following month’s proceeds.
And they’re not alone. Similar ventures have surfaced in Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Montreal, where the restaurant and bar Robin des Bois (French for Robin Hood) features a mostly volunteer staff and funnels all profits to local charities. There’s also no shortage of joints that, while not donating 100% of their profits to charity, make philanthropy an important part of their business. (To name just two: Madam’s Organ Blues Bar in Washington, DC, stages a Nonprofit Night every Thursday, with charities receiving $1 of every food and beverage transaction; and The Ginn Mill in Denver donates all of its profits to charity every Monday as part of its Make a Difference Monday promotion. The Ginn Mill does other fundraisers throughout the year as well, including their annual Trickeration benefit at Halloween.)
Clearly, drinking and generosity go together like whiskey and vermouth, but it’s not yet such a widespread phenomenon that new customers could be expected to have the concept click for them right away. OKRA and Oregon Public House each have prominent signs explaining their purpose (and in OKRA’s case, it’s right there in the name), but, still, many drinkers drift in without knowing what the bars are all about.
“I would say 40% of the people who come in don’t have any idea, until the bartender hands them a ticket and explains it,” says OKRA’s Board President Scott Repass. And their reaction? “Oh, it’s always awesome. Sometimes there’s a little bit of disbelief. But everybody’s really positive about it.” The same goes for the Oregon Public House, where, according to Board President Ryan Saari, people often think the donation is something extra, like the solicitation you sometimes get at a supermarket. “It’s really great when we’re able to say, ‘Actually no, you already made your donation, and now you get to choose where that profit’s going to go to.’ It is kind of a lightbulb moment for them, and I still love seeing that.”
Yet witnessing those reactions is just a secondary benefit to the hugely fulfilling overall endeavor—you know, the whole genius idea of transforming drinking into charity. “It’s a great thing because you get to do something that you wanted to do anyway,” says Repass, “and you get to do it for a good cause.” Saari concurs: “We’re coming together just to celebrate, to eat and drink, but we’re also recognizing that there’s something more meaningful behind all of this, and that we’re a part of it, and that’s really something.”
On the flipside of the customers who come in not knowing the Oregon Public House’s mission are a percentage of folks who come in because of the pub’s purpose—including people who might not ordinarily go to a bar, but want to contribute to a cause. Repass notes the same phenomenon at OKRA, but cautions that a charity saloon should put more emphasis on the “saloon” part of that phrase than the charity part. “We were really adamant when we started out that we wanted it to be a bar first,” he says. “We’re all bar people, and we love good bars, and we knew it wouldn’t work if it was the charity that was drawing people in. It has to work as a place where people just go to drink.”
Unfortunately, in recent years, a few of these so-called philanthropubs haven’t worked as a place where people go to drink. United Libations of San Francisco never got past the planning phase, and Shebeen, in Melbourne, Australia, closed last summer after sputtering along for years and producing a relatively paltry $12,787 in donations for world charities. Then there was Cause in Washington, DC, which opened in November 2012, only to close 14 months later after a series of mishaps, some of which fell under “not getting the bar part right.”
On the “charity” side of the equation, the biggest issue revolves around a venue’s status as a non-profit or for-profit entity. OKRA never sought nonprofit status, while the Oregon Public House is in the unusual position of being recognized as a nonprofit by the state of Oregon (arguably the nonprofit capital of the world), but not by the IRS. During the application process, when the feds asked them for previous examples of the kind of business they wanted to run, they couldn’t produce any—because there were none.
In any event, both places operate like any other bar, paying taxes, paying employees and operating costs—and sending all proceeds along to charity. “We wanted to demonstrate that this model can work, without any special privileges,” says Saari. Their status also preserves the crucial profit motive any business needs. “If a nonprofit has a bad month,” says Repass, “they can just do more fundraising and try to make it up. They don’t have to look at the structural problems. Whereas if we have a bad month, we have to look at what’s going on.”
Fortunately, OKRA hasn’t had many bad months, and the beneficiaries of that are listed on the OKRA website. It’s an impressive litany: In May 2016, OKRA customers sipped on Blackstrap Daiquiris and Philly Fish House Punches—and donated $15,628.16 to the Houston Parks Board. In June, they imbibed to the tune of $15,774.42 in charitable donations to a local service-dog training outfit called Give Us Paws. The list goes on: $18,836.34 in July, $15,913.86 in August.
Houston is the fourth-biggest city in the US, and OKRA is also located in the bustling, newly revitalized Market Square area of the city. Portland is the 26th-largest city in the US, so the Oregon Public House is in a much smaller market, but still, it’s donation total has topped six figures and the pub has operated in the black in every month of its existence. That’s no mean feat—just ask anyone in the bar/restaurant business.
There is one unresolved issue between these pioneers in Texas and Oregon. The Oregon Public House claims to be the first philanthropub in the country, and while its board was founded in 2010, the pub didn’t launch until 2013, the year after the OKRA Charity Saloon opened. The basis for a friendly rivalry? Not yet, says Repass, chuckling, “But we should think about it, and maybe go up and toilet paper their trees, or something.”
“We were established in 2010. When did they get started—2012?” asks Saari with a smile. “Aww, they’re Johnny-come-lately. Come on, guys.”
We may never get to the bottom of that one, but the real question going forward is whether there’s hope for others to join in and fly the philanthropub flag. “Absolutely,” says Saari. “Between emails and phone calls, I get three or four requests every week, from all over the country, from people who’ve seen our model and say they want to do it. Every single one of them says, ‘This would be perfect in Norman, Oklahoma,' or 'This would be perfect in Pensacola,' or 'This would be perfect in Dayton.’ Everybody thinks that their city is right for this, and I think that means something.”