The Saloon That Saved the World

Oct 16, 2017 | Jessica Ogilvie

You can’t have Texas without the clichéd “big”; big belt buckles, big malls, big open spaces. In Houston, one group of bar owners and restaurateurs is expanding that designation beyond attire and sheer square footage; the Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs is proving the state also has big heart. Which comes in handy when disaster strikes.

OKRA was established in 2011 when a group of local business owners joined forces to have an impact at City Council meetings, says OKRA president Ryan Rouse. But what began as a purely business-related endeavor soon transformed into a charitable undertaking.

“After several post-meeting get-togethers,” Rouse says, “we decided we could do some good and have a positive impact on our city by creating a charity bar.”

By the end of 2012, the group opened the OKRA Charity Saloon in downtown Houston. One of the first bars of its kind in the country, the saloon gives 100 percent of its proceeds to local nonprofit organizations.

“We pay our bar staff and kitchen reasonable wages, [cover] usual business costs such as rent, electricity, water, etc.,” says Rouse, “then any profits go to charity.”

Puppies Always Win

Since OKRA’s founding members have plenty of collective experience setting up new venues, it was largely smooth sailing in establishing the saloon, says Rouse, with the exception of “weeks of hero accountant voodoo to figure out how we could sell booze and give all of our money away.” Once that was sorted out, they got down to business.

Every month, the Charity Saloon’s customers vote on four potential organizations to which proceeds will be donated. Organizations on the ballot are preselected in quarterly meetings by OKRA members and the bar’s staff. From there, it’s up to customers.

Rouse says they’ve learned some lessons along the way about what works when it comes to charitable giving, and what could use some tweaks.

“In the early days, we had a few [voting] landslides, particularly when it came to arts groups competing with puppies or children; puppies and children will always win,” he says with a laugh. “In order to even the playing field, we’ve since done monthly categories. For example, we will have one month of children’s charities, another month of arts, and another of animals. It helps spread the wealth around.”

Raise a Glass to Relief Efforts

There’s a groundswell of need in the Houston area after the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, and in its wake, the Charity Saloon jumped in to help. They’ve teamed up with the Newman’s Own Foundation, which is matching the saloon’s donations three-to-one, capping off at $50,000. Those donations were split evenly, says Rouse, between four local nonprofits: AniMeals on Wheels, Community Cloth, Southern Smoke, and The Montrose Center. The saloon ended up raising $17,000 for each group.

The decision to focus September’s profits on Harvey’s lasting damage was a no-brainer; the city’s local spirit of giving, says Rouse, has only been bolstered by the tragedy.

“I think everyone has been infected by the giving bug, and we’re all looking to help out Houstonians any way we can,” he says. “Everyone involved at OKRA has stepped up to the needs of this city. Customers too are eager to donate and asking us how else they can help. Despite how we got into this mess, the mood is positive, hopeful, and most of all resilient.”