Ryan Saari never wanted to get into the restaurant business. Saari, a pastor, and some likeminded people in Portland, Oregon, originally planned to start a nonprofit organization to better the community. But they looked around and realized there were already hundreds, if not thousands, of nonprofits serving the Portland area—many of them spending significant time and resources on fundraising. So, instead of starting their own foundation or nonprofit organization, Saari’s group decided to start a restaurant and pub that would pump its earnings into existing community efforts.
“Anybody that knows business, particularly the restaurant industry, knows restaurants aren’t always big money makers,” says Saari, who directs the board. “We stumbled into it in many ways. We wanted to start a nonprofit. We didn’t want to start a business.”
But Portland loves both its charities and its beers, Saari says, and thus The Oregon Public House opened in 2013 as a way to not only funnel cash to worthy causes, but also to help educate the wider community about different community efforts—a model that is already gaining interest in other cities.
The Oregon Public House is part of a surprising trend of not-for-profit restaurants and bars popping up across the country. Some are raising money for specific causes, while others rotate benefactors or focus on a mission rather than money. Milwaukee’s Troop Cafe exists solely to provide training for military veterans so they can land jobs in the foodservice business. The soon-to-open Staplehouse in Atlanta will funnel profits to The Giving Kitchen, which provides grants to restaurant industry workers facing unforeseen financial hardship. And Manhattan’s New Leaf Restaurant and Bar directs profits to Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, which cleans up and restores New York City parks.
In Portland, The Oregon Public House rotates through various local charities. A menu of causes allows diners to choose which charities will benefit from their meal or beer. In its first year, the restaurant donated almost $25,000 to various nonprofits, Saari says.
Operationally, the pub looks and runs like any other restaurant. An all-volunteer board oversees the operation, but regularly paid employees staff the dining room and kitchen. There are no discounts on food, supplies, or rent; Saari says he and his partners want to prove that this is a sustainable model that works without any loopholes. And just like any other joint, the quality of the food, beer, and service are paramount.
“We know people are coming to us mostly because they heard about the mission, but we want them to come back because they had a great experience,” he says. “We need both.”