Mike and Brian’s Excellent Adventure

by | Jan 18, 2009

Hammerhead. Ruby. Terminator Stout.

These are all well known items to craft beer drinkers in the Pacific Northwest, thanks to the Herculean efforts of two brothers, Mike and Brian McMenamin, owners of the entertainment empire that bears their name.

Edgefield. Kennedy School. The Crystal. The Bagdad.

These proper nouns are also well known. You can order a Hammerhead or Ruby in these places, but that’s just the beginning. You can also spend the night, dip in an old school soaking pool, see a concert or movie, attend a wedding, and so on. Thanks once again to the beer brothers, Mike and Brian.

What started on SE Hawthorne Blvd. in 1983 is now a business with more than 50 pubs, hotels and music venues in Oregon and Washington. McMenamins sales in 2007 topped $27 million dollars. They employ 1,400 people and the brothers now run the third largest craft brew operation in the United States. They also produce and market wine, spirits and coffee.

So, what’s the foundation for their success? Timing had something to do with it, as did their entrepreneurial makeup and powers of persuasion. The brothers were semi-normal tavern owners until 1985. That’s the year they successfully lobbied lawmakers in Salem, Oregon, to allow patrons to consume beer at the place where it is made. They soon started brewing at their Hillsdale location and before their eyes an entire industry was born.

Another key that unlocked McMenamins success is the family-friendly atmosphere that they bring to their properties. While the beer is strong and the spirits stronger, there’s something almost theme-parkish about each McMenamins property. The properties all share a fun, somewhat kitschy, look and feel. You instantly know you’re at a McMenamins when you enter one, and that’s a credit to Mike and Brian, as every business needs a strong sense of identity if it’s going to stand out in the sea of sameness.

McMenamins, for certain, does more than just stand out in the neighborhoods they inhabit-they’re often the defacto community center. Take Kennedy School in NE Portland. There’s the building itself to consider. It spans an entire city block and is a lovingly restored architectural gem. Inside the old elementary school, former classrooms are now spacious accomodations for guests to the Rose City. Kennedy School also has live music and a movie theater, plus a restaurant and five bars, including the Honors Bar and Detention Bar (for good and bad citizens, as the case may be).

Yes, there are five bars, all in one building. That’s how the McMenamins roll.

There’s something European about what the McMenamins are doing. Mike McMenamin has noted in interviews that bars in Portland were generally dark, hard-partying, slightly scary places when he got into the business. He had a different vision and he’s executed against it perfectly. McMenamins pubs and hotels are now anchors in the communities they serve. In several cases, the buildings the McMenamins bought and refurbished were historically signigficant properties. Their way of doing business consciously improves the community while helping members of said community have a good time.

There are some rumblings from long time customers that the quality of the chain’s food and the beer have suffered, after the company expanded into hotels and the concert business. “They’re cutting corners now they never would have cut before,” says Nathan Parr, who’s been a fan since the early 1990s. There’s likely some truth in his assessment. Furthermore, Mike McMenamin has lamented not knowing all his managers. And the widespread proliferation of the McMenamins brand is Starbucks-like in Portland particularly. Yet, if you weigh the positive contributions to local communities and to the craft beer culture in this region and nation, it’s hard to fault Mike and Brian. The company they’ve built is as Portland as Nike, maybe more.