April 11, 2017

The profit from your meal at this Portland pub will go to charity

The Oregon Public House is a nonprofit restaurant that donates its profits to local charities of its patrons' choice

Portland, Oregon, native Ryan Saari wanted to change the world, but he knew his hometown was already rich with nonprofit organizations doing that work. He questioned how he could best support these organizations with a sustainable business model of his own. That’s when he came up with the idea for The Oregon Public House, a restaurant that donates 100 percent of profits to local charities. He thinks of it this way: “What if charity doesn’t have to be a solitary and sober act? What if it’s a celebration? What if it actually builds community over a burger and a pint?”

In many ways, Saari isn’t doing anything new; he’s raising money to help his community. But he’s also spreading the message that, even when we gather to unwind and share a meal, we can be making our neighborhoods a better place.

We spoke to Saari recently about the pub and how it works, and also how other community leaders can learn from what he’s created.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about Public House and how it came to be?

We’re the nation’s first nonprofit pub and we raise money and awareness for local charities and causes here in Portland, Oregon. I think what we’re doing is perhaps as unique as how we got here. We are about as organic, grassroots, and mom-and-pop as it gets. I’m a pastor and moved back to Portland eight or nine years ago. One thing that’s challenged me about the church is how divisive it can be in a city like Portland. Whether you’re in the faith community or not, we all agree that we wanted to see the city care for its less fortunate, care for the environment, bring the community together—that’s when I decided to do something not religious.

We wanted to start something new, but why start another nonprofit when there’s another one down the road doing the exact same thing and probably doing it better? So that’s why we decided to partner with existing nonprofits instead of creating our own, and that’s how the pub came to be.

How does the pub work?

It works just like any other pub. After the chaos of getting this thing up and running, we felt it was easy to just sell burgers and beers—and we get to champion the true heroes who are our charity partners. The way it works is this: eat, drink, give. You pick what you want to eat, what you want to drink, and where you want to give. And any profit we make on those individual orders goes to support our charity partners in the ways that our customers specify.

We have six different charities on for six months of the year, they rotate every year and we select a wide gamut of social justice, community, and environmental charities, and then allow our customers to select which of those charities they want their profits to go to. Everyone has something they feel really passionate about and this pub gives them an opportunity to support those individually. We also give these charities an opportunity to get their name out there. Many of these small charities can’t afford to take money from their budgets to do advertising, so this gives them some much-needed exposure.

What do you say to folks who want to try and create something like this? Not necessarily a bar or pub, but any sort of nonprofit?

I would just say go for it as fast as possible because looking back now, it’s just so hard and it’s easy to see a lot of “no,” or red tape, or dead ends. But back then, we didn’t know any better and we just went for it. Even now I look back and ask, “How did we get open? How did we do this?” Our naïveté allowed for us to take some really great chances that have paid off.

One thing that surprised me was the complexity of it—it is challenging for people to try to do good. I also worry that this model is also enabling a generation of people who don’t want to sacrifice anything and still think they are benevolent. Just go out and eat and drink and be a great philanthropist! I think there’s a balance here that this model can be great and beautiful and effective but doesn’t come at the expense of people really sacrificing for the causes that they believe in.

Gabriel Muller

Gabriel Muller is a contributor to The Renewal Project.