PORTLAND — Ask a bartender exactly how much profit was collected from that pint of beer you just drank, and the answer is likely to be as murky as a barrel-aged bourbon stout. The economics of alcohol, like the calorie count, are usually about the last things purveyors want their customers focused on.
But now a new generation of beer halls dedicated to something beyond the cash register is bubbling up around the nation and the world, with proceeds going not into an owner’s wallet but to charity, and bending elbows may never be the same. Call it drinking for a cause.
“More people will want to support your business than if you’re just doing it to pay for your second home," said Ryan Saari, a minister and a board member of the Oregon Public House, which is preparing to open as soon as next month in a residential neighborhood in Portland, pledged by its charter to donating all profits to charity.
The place already has a slogan outside on the century-old red brick facade, “Have a pint, change the world," and a painting on the back wall of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of giving.
The beer-for-charity movement, like the microbrew phenomenon that preceded it, is different depending on where you look. In Houston, for example, where a group of giving-minded bar owners opened a place called the Okra Charity Saloon last month, patrons get a vote with every drink as to which charity should receive the next month’s profits. A project in Melbourne, Australia, plans to put geography into the equation — sale of a beer from Africa, for example, will be linked to microloans or charities in the country of the beer’s origin.
Other projects are in some stage of development, in cities from Hyderabad, India, to San Francisco.
Saari at the Oregon Public House agreed that success or failure would hinge on the transparency of the economics. If customers suspect, even for a moment, that what smells like good works is really just a clever business model to attract customers, the effort is doomed, he said.
“In our cynical society, people will immediately say, ‘OK, how much is the president making?’" he said. So the pub’s books will be open for the checking, he said, and customers will be able to choose from a menu on the wall exactly where they want their contribution to go as part of the order itself. About a dollar on a locally brewed draft costing $4.50 to $5 a pint is profit, as it turns out.
The Public House’s charter prohibits any member of the board, including Saari, from drawing a salary, he said, though it will have a paid staff for the bar and kitchen of perhaps seven or eight. Through grants from the city and private donations — about 30 people have given between $1,500 to $2,500, support levels that come with a free beer a day, or a week, for life, and their own mug — the bar will also open with no loans or capital to pay back, Saari said.
In Washington, D.C., supporters of Cause, which calls itself a “philanthropub," in the trendy U Street Corridor, said their business model is based on research that says young people give less to charity than their elders — busy with careers and maybe burdened by college debt — but are still willing to chip in under the right circumstances.
“Everything is competing for their attention, and this is another way for people to combine charitable giving with something they’re doing anyway," said Raj Ratwani, a psychologist and a founder of Cause, which opened last fall, describing the young professional the bar is aiming for. “They’re going to find time to go out and drink no matter how busy they are."