(Welcome back to Thebeerchaser. If you are seeing this post through an e-mail, please visit the blog by clicking on the title above to see all of the photos and so the narrative is not clipped or shortened. External photo attribution is at the end of the post. #1)
Was it a Downer or Just the Truth?
In my last blog post which at least one loyal follower described as a “downer,” I discussed the number of not only newer establishments, but some of the “hallowed’ watering holes in the Portland hospitality business, which had folded up their taps since I started Beerchasing in 2011.
This situation was, of course, exacerbated since 2020 with the pandemic. One verbose rhetorical question I posed was:
“How many of the now defunct watering holes started off on a shoestring, by partners who had a passion for cooking, brewing beer (often in their basement) and who frequented their favorite bar or brewery and said to themselves or their partner after too many beers, ‘I (we) could do that!’”
What was the count of the newer establishments which collapsed because the owners built their business plan on an unrealistic view of what it takes to own and manage a bar or brewery? Thus, the euphemism, “I (we) could do that,” based on a whim and a prayer.
I’m not going to answer that question, but devote this post to two contrasting hospitality business visions – one which flared up before smoldering into ashes and the other, which based on a sound and prudent vision in 2012, has thrived even during the pandemic.
Does Fanfare Equate to Success?”
While some naïve entrepreneurs understandably reap what they try to pour, even some of the most seasoned hospitality experts can make a bad call. Former Oregon Duck Joey Harrington was a collegiate football star and named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year in 2001 before being a high draft pick by the Detroit Lions.
Harrington played seven years in the NFL although he never replicated the collegiate level of success in the NFL. In 2016, he partnered up with two hospitality pros. (#2)
In December, 2016, Harrington and two major partners, Kurt Huffman – a well-known Portland restaurateur and a “legendary” bartender, Ryan Magarian (the co-founder of Aviation Gin) opened a new restaurant/bar on a busy intersection in the upscale Pearl District of Portland.
Huffman is both an MBA and a lawyer and Magarian – a veteran in the hospitality business. The new Pearl Tavern had previously been a restaurant known as The Parish.
The high profile establishment opened to great fanfare including an article in Willamette Week entitled:
Former NFL Quarterback Joey Harrington is Opening a Tavern in Portland
“Intended to be more casual than a steakhouse, the family-friendly Pearl Tavern served various cuts of steak, fried chicken, fish, and risotto, as well as bar snacks and other options for brunch and happy hour. The interior had dark leather booths and multiple widescreen television for sports viewing, and the servers wore plaid. (Wikipedia)
To his credit, 3% of the profits were directed to Harrington’s family’s educational foundation. Initial reviews were good such as this one in 1859 Magazine:
“…..adulation is immediate for the killer atmosphere, wrap around bar, big screen TV’s, inviting leather booths and, most discernibly, delicious food”.
In 2017, The Oregonian included it in it’s list of Portland’s 10 Best New Happy Hours, (#3)
The adulation may have been immediate, but it was also short-lived as only about eighteen months later, Portland Eater headlined an article:
“Ex-Quarterback Joey Harrington’s Sports Bar Will Serve Its Last Fried Chicken Sandwich This June“
A Flawed Concept?
Interestingly enough, there were no print media “autopsies” that I could find stating a specific reason for the closure. And without offering conclusions, but raising possibilities, some sleuthing on social media reviews was very revealing.
The Pearl Tavern received an accrued 3.5 stars out of 5 on Yelp before it permanently closed – low for an establishment of that type and although there were some superb reviews, too many set forth criticisms. Even many of the good reviews had disclaimers.
Evidently, as they hit the economic skids they also skimped on service and patrons were mad about having to order at the bar – in what was purportedly an upscale establishment.
The repeated themes were prices which were too high and mediocre food. People criticized the overall concept and cited better values and ambiance at other Pearl District establishments:
“Went in there tonight, hardly any people, hate walk-up ordering. We couldn’t have done that anyway because the music was so loud we could barely talk to each other just standing there….. We had a lovely meal elsewhere and I looked at the Pearl menu afterwards and it just looked like pricey bar food. Poor concept.” (Yelp 5/29/2018) (#4)
Was it loud music or the concept itself?
A number predicted even soon after the opening that the tavern would be short-lived although people in Oregon love Joey Harrington and wanted him to succeed:
“I wanted to like this place…..badly. Big Joey Harrington fan but man, this place is just not that great. In fact, IN FACT , it’s not even worth stopping at. You can tell what they are going for here, but you can see it was done cheaply and with corners cut. The drinks were great, but even the happy hour price seemed high.” (Yelp 5/5/17)
Perhaps the problem was overestimating the ongoing draw of a star athlete when the overriding concept is flawed. How many people in Portland want to go to a sports bar with multiple big screens, raucous crowds during games, but then have to order a high-priced steak or other entre’? (#5)
“Was not impressed with this place at all. Way overpriced, mediocre bar food. It seems like they are going for upscale tavern food/atmosphere but they miss on the food big time.” (Yelp 4/5/17)
“The old Oregon Ducks QB Joey Harrington owns this place, get a clue! In a foodie town that needs a good sports bar, this place misses the mark by a wide margin. It will not last the year. We left and caught the last 2 periods at Life of Riley. Way better! Skip this place!” (Yelp 4/22/17)
Lessons to be Learned?
Now there are other nearby establishments that also failed during the last five years. For example, Bridgeport Brewing founded in 1984, closed in 2019 and nearby Henry’s Tavern – open for fifteen years – left the scene as reported in The Oregonian on October 1, 2019:
“Henry’s Tavern, a popular Pearl District watering hole and restaurant, quietly closed its doors for good after notifying staff only hours before it shuttered.”
That said, another great watering hole about one mile away – Yur’s also a tavern owned by a former NFL star is still going strong. Terry Hermeling was an offensive tackle (weighed in at 255 and is 6’5” tall) for the Washington Redskins during the 1970’s after starring at the University of Nevada at Reno –
Yur’s has thrived for twenty-five years by eschewing pretension – it’s clearly a dive bar! I loved it as did about ten companions. (#6)
Willamette Week headlined its review in 2018:
“Yur’s is a Dark Dive Perfect for Day Drinking.”
And by Comparison…….
Shortly – like about two months after the Pearl Tavern closed – another bar opened in the same quarters as reported in the July 9, 2018 edition of Portland Eater:
BACKWOODS IN THE PEARL IS NOW OPEN IN PORTLAND’S PEARL DISTRICT
“To complement the beer offerings (most of their own beers) Backwoods has an enticing cocktail menu with very affordable pricing, especially for the neighborhood. It also offers a concise wine list.”
Backwoods is a small brewery originating in Carson, Washington.
“Backwoods Brewing was founded by the Waters family in July of 2012. Prior to that, Jim Waters had taught his sons the art of home brewing before they flew the nest, but the boys came back after college with the dream of starting a brewery in their hometown.” (#7 – #13)
The two brothers (Tom and Steve Waters) have been strategic and smart in their expansion and underlying business plan. They brew excellent beers and are planning a third location in Ridgefield, Washington while adding cabins at their scenic site in Carson.
Backwoods Brewing expanding with brewpub in Ridgefield, bigger plans for Carson – oregonlive.com
Backwoods Pub in the Pearl
I had lunch there just last week with two Oregon State fraternity brothers (Ron Holloway and Steve Crow) and almost five years after opening, Backwoods in the Pearl is thriving. We had to make a mid-week lunch reservation and it was filled.
As just one comparison, let’s look at the price of two items at the Pearl Tavern compared with current prices at Backwoods in the Pearl. This from an April 2017 Yelp review of the Pearl Tavern:
“We were recommended the burger. Tasted like a Big Mac with a fancy bun. The patty was about as thin as a Big Mac burger patty as well. $16 for that one. The baby kale salad was pretty tasty. $12 for a $7 portion.” (Emphasis supplied)
Keep in mind that this was in spring of 2017 and inflation, as measured by the CPI on a non-compounded rate through 2023, has been about 24%. Backwoods offered several burgers – its Little Town Burger goes for $13.50 and the Big City Burger (1/2 pound with bacon and fried egg) is now priced at $15.75! Both include fries or tots.
One can have a small Kale Salad for $9.75 and the kale entre’ salad for $15.25. I had the Fiesta Chicken Wrap which included a side salad, was scrumptious and big enough – even with my appetite – to serve both as my lunch and dinner that night for $15. (#14 -#16)
Backwoods gets 4 out of 5 stars on Yelp and has a very nice ambiance. And the comments about poor service and having to order at the bar are history as evidenced by our experience and repeated comments on social media.
Our server was a wonderful young woman named Ally – maybe I’m biased because she is also an Oregon City High School graduate. But she was one of the most attentive, personable and competent servers I’ve had in eleven years of Beerchasing. It rounded out the positive visit at Backwoods in the Pearl.
How will Portland bars and breweries fare in the future? Part of that depends on getting both office workers and tourists back to the City. And forecasts are not exactly optimistic. Look at this May 7, 2023 headline in Oregon Live:
“Portland office vacancies have nearly doubled since the pandemic; will return-to-office plans reverse that?”
“More than a fifth of the office space in downtown Portland was vacant in the first quarter of the year, according to the latest data from commercial real estate firm CoStar. That’s double the vacancy rate in 2019, and the number of empty offices is continuing to rise.”
Let’s hope the Mayor and City Council step up to the plate and develop action plans to reverse that trend.
External Photo Attribution
#1. Wikimedia Commons (File:Pearl Oysters.jpg – Wikimedia Commons) Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. Author: Keith Pomakis – 10 December 2005.
#2. Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joey_Harrington.JPG Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Author: Conman33 16 November 2008.
#3. Pearl Tavern Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/pearltavernpdx/photos/pb.100054523927834.-2207520000./1511892872228948/?type=3) Source: User:Mysid – 26 November 2004.
#4. Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia .org/wiki/File:Rolling_Loud_Logo.png) This logo image consists only of simple geometric shapes or text. It does not meet the threshold of originality needed for copyright protection, and is therefore in the public domain. Source: Rolling Loud festival – 11 June 2022.
#5. Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sports_portal_bar_icon.png) Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Authors: Baseball.svg: vedub4us
- svg: Liveste
- svg: Pumbaa80
- svg: Domaina
- svg: *Ru_ball.svg: The original uploader was Stabilo bossat English Wikipedia.
- derivative work: Bertrand GRONDIN(talk)
- svg: user:Booyabazooka
- svg: User:Slashme
- Basketball Clipart.svg: user:Tkgd2007
- derivative work: Sven Manguard
#6. Yur’s Bar and Grill Facebook Page ((4) Facebook)
#7 – #13. Backwoods Brewing Website (https://www.backwoodsbrewingcompany.com/portland-menus) and Facebook Page (Backwoods Brewing Company | Carson WA | Facebook)
#14 – #16. Backwoods at the Pearl Website (https://www.backwoodsbrewingcompany.com/portland-menus)
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Dang! … Backwoods is my #1 favorite brewery but not the Pearl location. You and I need to go to Carson to visit the ‘real’ Backwoods location and you’ll see what I mean. Why they would open in the Pearl is a mystery to me. But save beerchasing at the Carson location for me. Maybe we can get Ryan/Laura and fam to go with us, been trying to get them out there. Love that place!
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I will definitely save it for you although I was there in about 2017 when another person involved in the planning of the Benedictine Brewery and I went up to visit and interview the Waters to get some advice – they were really helpful. This would make a great summer trip!
Sounds like when people tell me I should brew beer and I tell them a writer isn’t necessarily a brewer just because the topic is beer. Pub food by definition should be reasonably priced but with inflation, the term has become harder to attain.
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Good comments, Rich although I think the high prices at the Pearl were a misguided attempt to convey an upscale image – obviously, it fell flat. That said bars and breweries with the cost of supplies, wages and leases are in a battle to maintain profitability.
We have them either closing entirely or greatly reducing their opening hours. This affects my being able to go up mid-week for a lunch visit without interrupting my home life since they are often now only open in the evenings outside of Sunday. 😦
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