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From left, Jesse Mello, Erin Holt and Matt Pankey enjoy drinks at Houston’s Original OKRA Charity Saloon, which donated $300,000 to charity.

Bar being raised for giving

Texas saloon gives 100% to local charities

– It’s become a place where you can eat, drink and be merry – but also give to charity.

Since opening its doors last December, a Houston bar that donates 100 percent of its profits to local charities has far exceeded expectations, helping turn cocktails and glasses of wine and beer into warm blankets and hot meals for those in need.

By the end of this year, the Original OKRA Charity Saloon will have donated about $300,000 to a dozen organizations. The group that runs the saloon – a collection of some of the city’s best-known bars and restaurants – had expected to donate only about a third of that amount in its first year.

“It was a good year. It’s pretty amazing,” said Mike Criss, the bar’s general manager.

“It’s just the community coming together.”

The charity saloon is one of several bars around the country using that business model as a way to give back. There are similar bars or concepts in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore.

The Houston saloon, which this year was named one of the country’s best bars by Playboy magazine and got a shout-out on the “Colbert Report,” has four charities competing for donations each month. Customers vote for a winner, who gets the following month’s proceeds.

The Oregon Public House, a similar bar in Portland, has also had success – donating more than $15,000 to charities in its first six months of operation.

“I believe in this model, not just for us but for my city, for our state, for our country,” said Ryan Saari, director of The Oregon Public House’s board.

“I think there is a lot of good that could be done, stepping outside of the box a little bit in terms of how we support and fund our nonprofits.”

For A Simple Thread, a small Houston nonprofit that distributes kits with everyday items such as socks, toothbrushes and books to homeless people, the $16,000 it got from the OKRA Charity Saloon allowed the group to do more. But it also empowered its volunteers, whose presence at the bar every day during the month it competed helped convince many customers to vote for them.

“We’ve never had that much money. It gave us the ability to do more for the people that we help,” said Jacquie Brennan, the group’s founder and board president. “It gave us, as the smallest organization that ever won this thing, confidence in ourselves.”

Brennan said the bar’s donation helped her organization, formed in 2008, buy and distribute items that it typically might not be able to give away, including sweatshirts and sweatpants, gifts cards to McDonald’s and passes to ride the city’s bus system.

“We know we’re not ending homelessness,” said Brennan, who is a lawyer. “We’re not providing shelter. We’re not making everything OK for them forever. We’re just being kind ... to people who need your help.”

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