Oregon natives Mike and Brian McMenamin have redefined the chain operation. In fact, they’ve stood it on its ear. As the Northwest’s fourth largest brewer of boutique beers, operating over fifty establishments in Oregon and Washington, and with sales estimated by CNN at $70-80 million last year, the McMenamin brothers seem to have developed a winning formula. But the intangibles the McMenamins bring to each enterprise- their commitment to their patrons, to historic preservation, to earth-friendly processes, and above all, to fun- cannot be bottled and are the true secrets to their lasting success.
Selling handcrafted beer was their primary business when they started out in 1983, with a little Portland brewpub called The Barley Mill Pub. Thirteen years later, they are brewing 43,000 kegs of beer each year. They own dozens of brewpubs in two states, 8 theater/pubs, 7 historic hotels, and various other establishments including a concert hall. But lucky for Northwestern beer-lovers, success has not spoiled McMenamins. From the very beginning their focus has been on providing warm, fun, entertaining venues, pleasing to a local clientele. As a chain, McMenamins celebrates the local and unique and is an exemplary corporate citizen, one that cares about the community it serves. Their customers love them, and so do their neighbors. Employees feel well treated- there is plenty of opportunity for advancement and McMenamins’ “Kingdom of Fun” offers a variety of occupations. Peers and even competitors respect them. Everybody wins.
At the same time the company was going big, it was also proving that success could come by keeping things small. The McMenamin brothers have taken over properties, some of them certified historic, revamped and renovated such disparate places as bars, schools, theaters, and even a poor farm, and yet somehow hung onto the spirit of each site. deftly integrating their business model into the warp and woof of the local community fabric. Locations don’t even necessarily use the McMenamin name. Instead of forcing existing buildings into one overarching corporate theme, McMenamins continually expands its concept to embrace what is different, historic, artistic, and interesting. For instance, rather than demolish small areas or outbuildings at hotel sites that don’t easily fit into the design for the main pub or hotel, those areas are preserved, turned into cozy bars, out of the way nooks for intimate conversation. some have pool tables, some have fireplaces or woodstoves, some are for savoring cigars, some are not able to hold more than one bench, but each is a celebration of their architectural character and heritage. This approach has endeared them to the communities in which they do business. McMenamins employs a staff historian. Their commitment to renovating historic structures and preserving local history is the starting point for its many fun activities and lively events.
While in Bend, Oregon, on a recent vacation, I stayed at the Old St. Francis School Hotel, a quaint complex of one-story buildings surrounding a central courtyard area. in addition to distinctive and luxurious room accomodations, this relaxed, family-inclusive McMenamin site offered a brewpub restaurant, several smaller bars, a theater where patrons could eat and drink beer on overstuffed chairs and sofas while watching second run flicks for a good price, and a beautifully tiled soaking pool replete with stained glass and skylight. Salvaged wood and architectural details, quirky works of art inspired by St. Francis School’s 64-year history, stained glass by local artisans, and water fountains in the hallways contributed to the decor. The rooms are named after local school community members. McMenamins offers a “Walking Tour” with historical highlights of interest from St. Francis’ heyday. Old school photos line the walls outside the theater.
Another renovated site, Edgefield, is a former poor farm on the outskirts of Portland. The sprawling 38-acre complex offers more than 100 rooms in its hotel, a restaurant for fine dining, a more casual pub, various small bars, gardens, disc golf, a brewery, and a glassblower (of all things), among other amenities. In addition to anniversary parties at all locations, you might catch one of several annual festivities, including brewfests, film events, the Halfway to St. Pat’s celebration, or even their UFO Festival at the Hotel Oregon. You never know what you might find at a McMenamins, and that’s half the fun.
A number of things pull the diversity together. First and foremost is the beer. McMenamins is solidly founded upon the brewpub concept: a family friendly restaurant/tavern/gathering place that serves up its own beer. And Oregon loves its brew! After tasting quite a few of the offerings (for research purposes, of course), it’s easy to understand why. The craft and care are apparent. Every batch is brewed ‘green’; every by-product is recycled. This year, the company rolled out its new “green energy plan” and has committed to using 100% wind power in its breweries. Each year, McMenamins brews over 200 different beers, encouraging friendly competition among its breweries. In addition to McMenamins beer, each location uses similar styling and promotes the atmosphere of a relaxing place to go in your neighborhood. The hotels even offer discounts to locals. The McMenamins stress their business philosophy starts with people, their customers. Cool decor, popular ales, and fun things to do are secondary to coming up with the unique atmosphere that makes each locale distinct, an atmosphere that depends upon its patrons. By paying attention to what’s important to their customers, preserving the history that their customers value, and providing lots of fun, McMenamins has shown that its possible to operate a chain with heart.