The saying used to go that “bars are recession-proof.” While the sentiment certainly doesn’t hold true today, what’s more puzzling is that local watering holes also don’t seem to be boom-proof these days either.
In a city facing accelerated development and rapid population growth, there are many effects. Some of the changes can be for the better, but many are no bueno – including but certainly not limited to: Increased housing costs (and the heaps of cultural and socioeconomic transformations driven by that); Intensified traffic conditions; Amplified wear on pertinent infrastructure such as roads, water and sewer systems; And out-of-state investors squeezing out local business owners.
Where dive bars and music venues used to be a driving force in Portland’s identity (at least on the East side of the Willamette), craft-everything culture and swank-lifestyle establishments have become the new norm across the city. Opening and operating a simple neighborhood haunt becomes less plausible, competing with big-money business owners and umbrella-companies.
We spoke with Jeremy Wilson, bartender and co-owner of NE Alberta’s Donnie Vegas, about the trials and tribulations of opening shop in a rapidly changing Portland.
Noise & Color: Tell me a bit about your bar.
Jeremy: The name of the bar is Donnie Vegas. It’s owned by myself and one business partner, Ben. We opened in March of 2015.
N&C: Eight months and going strong?
Jeremy: Sure. Eight months and still open — that’s something. I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 17 or 18. My first job at a restaurant was making burritos at a little shop in Richmond, VA, called Taqueria Loco. It was owned by this guy who came from an “old money” family. The rumor always was, that to get his inheritance, he had to prove that he was worth it. And one way he could do that was take a bunch of money, open a business, and run it for four-years. If he could keep it open for four-years, he could get his inheritance.
N&C: Good old Richmond, VA. When did you come to Portland?
Jeremy: I moved here in 2011. When I first moved here, it was difficult to find a job. Took me three months, but I eventually got a job at EaT, the oyster bar on Williams. I liked that place a lot, but I was looking for something a little bit nicer. I was trying to serve nicer food, get more into wine. Randomly one night I went on a date to Ned Ludd, and I was like, “This place is what I’m looking for.” I kind of forced my way in there. I came back a few days later, dropped off a resume, and then kept coming back every other day being like, “Hey, can I get an interview? Can I try out? Can I get a stage?” The fourth or fifth time I went in, the owner was like, “Man, you’re really fucking persistent. All right, why don’t you come in Saturday,” and I got hired the next Sunday.
N&C: So after a little bit at Ned Ludd, you opened Donnie Vegas. Ned Ludd is very far removed from what Donnie Vegas is.
Jeremy: It’s the opposite side of the spectrum from what Donnie Vegas is.
Why make that jump?
Jeremy: That’s something I still kind of struggle with now. Before actually opening, the way that it made sense in my head was that Donnie Vegas was gonna be a simple, easy thing to open. The whole idea was streamlined — cocktails on tap and hot dogs. Simple, easy, turn & burn. I didn’t want to open a full-fledged restaurant, because a lot of me thought I was ready to open whatever I wanted… but then part of me thought there was something I was missing… I felt like there were a lot of grey area that I wasn’t seeing. And now that I own a small, simple bar; I realize that I was right… there’s so much that I was missing. A restaurant is so much more. And that’s why you have so many restaurants in this city being opened by umbrella companies.
N&C: You’re located where the Black Cat used to be. I’ve heard people come in and comment, “Well, it’s no Black Cat.” Of course not. It’s not a coffee shop.
Jeremy: Yes, it’s not Black Cat. But in a way — and maybe this is just my own biased opinion — I feel like it’s very similar to the Black Cat in that it’s a hole-in-the-wall bar. The only difference is that we don’t share our time between serving coffee and being a bar. We’re just a bar. And we tend to put a little effort into being a bar, rather than ride the line between the two. It certainly doesn’t feel overly polished, though. At least to me.
N&C: The Moscow Mule is basically the Donnie Vegas signature.
Jeremy: Yeah. I went around to many Portland bars and ordered Moscow Mules just to see what they were doing, and everyone’s kind of doing the same thing: your average well vodka – which ranges from HRD to Monopolowa – and then Cock & Bull ginger beer. It’s not bad, it’s not great. It costs seven or eight dollars, and it ranges from a 10 oz glass to a 12 oz glass — I don’t think I got many in pint glasses. There are a couple nicer places making their own ginger beer, which is pretty good. But no one’s really doing them on tap, it’s a pretty original idea. So then we started business planning.
N&C: How did you choose your location?
Jeremy: When we were writing our business plan, we agreed upon four streets that we wanted to be on — Alberta, Hawthorne, Division, or 28th. We didn’t even look for that long. It was our fourth or fifth month looking when we found the spot on Alberta. It was kind of dumb luck. We happened to know someone who owned it — it was Legend at the time. We found out he wanted to get rid of it, so we went and talked to him. The space was exactly what we were imagining: a shotgun space that we could put a long bar in. And it had a patio.
N&C: Where did you think you’d be in October compared to where you are now? Are you meeting expectations?
Jeremy: We definitely thought we’d be busier than we are. Our whole idea of “efficiency rules all, efficiency is king” hasn’t really caught on. Whether that’s because it’s not generally accepted, or if it’s because the Moscow Mule isn’t as loved as we thought it would be, or because we don’t have professional PR… It could be a combination of any of that.
At this point, I feel like we’re slowly settling into a very “neighborhood bar” niche, which I’m totally happy about. I like that idea a lot, and I like our regulars, and the people that do come in. I think we thought it would be a bit more of a quick build to a consistently busy business. But it’s been more of a slow, occasionally spiky build to more of an inconsistent crowd.
N&C: What would you tell someone else looking to open a Bar in Portland?
Jeremy: My initial feeling of “Portland is not the place to open” is still right for me. I don’t think Portland was the place to open for me. There are tons of awesome things here. There are tons of great bars and restaurants. But without even trying to, I got caught up in the Portland PR machine. I didn’t want to be a part of it, but I was in it. I was seeing things from inside that machine. Sometimes I think appearance and actual quality are so far removed from each other.
N&C: It’s almost as if you’re fighting two separate battles.
Jeremy: Yeah, and just one of them isn’t enough. Any maybe one of them shouldn’t be enough. But I think that a quality product should be stronger than what you look like. Kind of going into what I was saying about umbrella companies – so many of these bars and restaurants that open now are a part of these companies that are essentially local corporations.
N&C: What’s an example of an umbrella company?
Jeremy: ChefStable, for example, is probably the biggest in town right now. Essentially what they are is an infrastructure company. They know how to open restaurants. They know what needs to be done. So they go out searching for people like Ben and I who want to open a bar, and they say, “Look, we’ll help you with all these things you don’t know about, and we’ll own a percentage of the restaurant, and you can work that down over time.”
N&C: Is that fair?
Jeremy: Yeah. I think it’s totally fair. It’s a good business model, and they’re doing good things. They’re opening places that are giving people chances who maybe wouldn’t have had a chance on their own. Generally, they do a good job, but they’ve totally failed as well — they don’t have a 100% success rate. To their credit, they built this reputation where people say, “Oh, this is a ChefStable place,” and that right there gives it this lore and credibility, and this PR force. It’s hard to define what I don’t like about it.
N&C: Why not join one of those groups? What do you think would need to happen for that to happen?
Jeremy: I don’t know. I don’t think I would do it. I don’t wanna be a part of it. I’d rather Donnie Vegas kind of struggle to survive for a couple years and cement itself in the community.
Support small local business, get drunk and fed all at once by visiting Donnie Vegas at 1203 NE Alberta, open all week 4pm-2:30am.