Ryan Saari is having a tough time naming his favorite beers. “Pliny the Younger, of course, and Pliny the Elder, which is a little easier to get. Laurelwood’s beers are fantastic—the Free Range Red and Workhorse IPA are amazing. This is so hard! Alameda Yellow Wolf and Oakshire Espresso Stout...”

We’re standing upstairs in Woodlawn’s Village Ballroom, a much-beleaguered building about to experience a major uplift. Saari is helping to start up The Oregon Public House, a non-profit pub due to open its doors in the next six months or so.

The idea goes something like this: you head to the neighborhood pub with some friends, order a pint and a sandwich at the counter, and choose from a list of local charitable nonprofits. After operating costs, all the proceeds from your meal go directly to the nonprofit of your choice. Feeling good about supporting the good work of a local organization, you and your friends find a seat and kick back to enjoy your beer.

When asked what the pub will have on tap, Saari keeps it simple: “Really good beer. I mean, this is Portland.”

Ryan Saari
Ryan Saari

Supporting Two Passions: Brewpubs and Nonprofits

Indeed, this is Portland—home to more brewpubs and nonprofits per capita than any other city in the nation. Why not connect these two strengths, says Saari, and make it easy for people to support two passions at once? The connection seems particularly essential in this time of economic duress, when donations to charitable organizations plummet while alcohol sales soar.

It was also an obvious connection for the Oregon Community, the Foursquare church in the Northeast to which Saari belongs, and which began looking for a way to do great good in the community in an inviting and inclusive way. They knew they wanted to form some kind of non-profit business that would support other local nonprofits. They tossed around some ideas—hotels? A coffee shop? A brewpub?

The brewpub idea stuck, for the simple fact that pub culture is family-friendly and community-oriented—a great environment to reach a broad spectrum of people and connect through the spirit of giving.

“For the church, it’s about doing great good,” says Saari. “We wanted to find a language that would make sense to everyone, and most people connect to charitable giving rather than Kingdom living. For us, it’s the same thing.”

The ballroom upstairs
The ballroom upstairs

He’s quick to emphasize that the Oregon Public House is a non-profit entity, entirely separate from the church. While there are many people from the church who are also involved in starting the pub, there’s no hidden agenda. “The only tie-in with the church is in vision and in heart.”

Stewardship and Community Involvement

With the vision starting to take shape, he traveled to Seattle with a core group of planners (which include finance and marketing gurus) to talk with Mike Hale of Hale’s Ales. They looked at the numbers and realized how lucrative the pub could be as a business concept, and thus how much potential it held for supporting local charities. They also began to realize how much work lay ahead of them.

The next six months were spent in planning, and waiting for the right facility to open up. They initially planned to finance start-up costs by seeking investors, but because it’s important to the group to open with zero debt, that structure  was less than ideal. Then the Village Ballroom became available, a street-level kitchen and restaurant that came paired with an upstairs Ballroom they could begin renting out immediately—to dance groups and scout troops, for example. This would help finance start-up costs and the pub remodel, and enable them to begin donating their proceeds from day one. They were delighted at the prospect.

The dining area while it was the Cannabis Cafe
The dining area of former tenant, the Cannabis Cafe

So were Ryan and Sharon Flegal, owners of the Ballroom, whose previous tenants left much to be desired in the way of transparency, stewardship, and community involvement. (For more on the history of the building, see Neighborhood Notes’ coverage here and here.) 

Ryan Flegal says he was open-minded when looking to lease the building, hoping to find someone who would ‘add something instead of subtracting from the neighborhood.’

"We're really optimistic about [the pub],” Flegal says. “They seem like they will be good stewards of the building: they're already neighbors, and they're proactive about meeting people. I think they'll be a fabulous addition to the neighborhood."

The neighborhood seems to agree, with several skilled residents stopping by to lend a hand in the remodel. As a group, they’ve gutted the kitchen, and plan to lay salvaged wood floors and line the walls with salvaged brick. For now, everyone is volunteering. Though there will be a few paid positions once the pub opens, for the most part it will be highly volunteer-driven. The food will be simple at first, and progress as the pub grows into its own. Eventually, they’d even like to brew their own beer.

The kitchen as the Cannabis Cafe (above) and gutted (below) to be completely renovated
The Cannabis Cafe  kitchen(above) has been gutted (below) for a complete renovation.

“More than anything, we want this to be a place for the entire neighborhood, for our neighbors to be part of what we’re trying to do,” says Saari. “Basically we’re trying to do great good in our city, with as many hands as possible.”

That includes Woodlawn resident and small business owner Sarah Bott, who first met Ryan when he was volunteering during a Woodlawn School clean-up.

“He has my wholehearted support, “Bott says. “The Oregon Public House’s mission is selfless and remarkably visionary. I think it stands to benefit many local charities and, more personally, people who need a lift up.”

Next-door neighbor Michele Eccleston echoes this sentiment: “We’ve met some of the people involved and they are friendly, excited, and inspired. We feel fortunate to have moved to the heart of such a great community in which to raise our son.”

Reception rooms adjacent to the ballroom upstairs
Reception rooms adjacent to the ballroom upstairs

Saari, who grew up in Portland, has lived in the Woodlawn neighborhood for a few years, and says they want the pub to reflect the attitude of neighboring businesses, who all seem to demonstrate a desire to be involved in the community.

“Part of why we kept the name [of the Village Ballroom] is because it has a history in the neighborhood. We want this to be the neighborhood’s place.”

As part of that goal, they’ll hold regular community nights, when the ballroom will be available for community events, especially in the winter months when there’s an increased need for indoor venues. They also hope to emphasize Pacific Northwest brewers as much as possible, with a local “brewer of the month,” who would donate beer and choose a charity for the proceeds to benefit. Finally, the pub will hold a yearly “change the world” week, with evening benefits that give non-profits an opportunity to speak about their organization, letting people know how to get involved beyond the pub.

Radiators in the ballroom
Radiators in the ballroom

For now, there are several ways to get involved, whether by pitching in on the ground level or making a donation. A donor can choose to become a Founder or a Partner: Partners make a tax-deductible donation, while Founders make a one-time donation which is not tax-deductible, and instead receive one free beer per day or per week for life. They also get a custom pint glass with their name on it to keep on display in the pub.

Saari has a feeling Portlanders will be into the idea. Because it’s free beer, sure, but most importantly because of the vision itself. He believes this is a population that’s passionate about giving, citing a Harris poll which states 97% of generation Y wants to have a job in which they can first and foremost have an impact on the world.

“I’d love to see this business model take hold in this city,” Saari says.“I think it’s something our generation is ready for. There’s an appeal to be part of something bigger.

For more on The Oregon Public House, including contact information, download the prospectus.

An old Wurlitzer organ in the ballroom
An old Wurlitzer organ in the ballroom

Charities the endeavor will support: