The Original OKRA Saloon gives all proceeds back to the community.
by Megan Smith
Want to stay for one more round? Well, it is for charity.
Nestled in northern downtown Houston at 924 Congress Ave., the Original OKRA Charity Saloon welcomes passers-by with its glass doors trimmed in bright red—a bold statement of color against its otherwise brick exterior. Upon entering, guests are pleasantly surprised by the spaciousness of the bar. The walls are lined with table seating, an elongated oval bar sits center, a chalkboard menu features paninis and other small bites, and a massive overhead glass skylight enhances the openness of the space.
But the bar’s most important feature is its red, white, and blue voting booth. Each month, OKRA selects four charities to feature in this booth. For each drink an OKRA guest purchases, they receive one ticket. The guest can then enter the voting booth and place their ticket in the ballot box of one of the four charities. At the end of the month, the charity that achieves the most votes receives 100 percent of the saloon’s profits.
Behind OKRA (Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs) are some of Houston’s most distinguished restaurant, coffee shop, and bar owners, including Bobby Heugel (Anvil, Hay Merchant, Underbelly, Blacksmith), Scott Repass (Antidote Coffee, Black Hole Coffee, Poison Girl Bar, Little Dipper Bar), Paul Petronella (Paulie’s), and many more. After successfully collaborating to negotiate with the city over issues pertaining to parking and local businesses, the OKRA team decided to continue to channel their shared viewpoints into a larger project—a charity bar. “It feels like an all-star team of restaurant, bar, and coffee shop owners in Houston,” says Ceci Norman, OKRA’s administrative director. “They are all really good at opening a space, giving it a feel, and having a consistent amount of people come in.”
When asked why the founding team chose a bar setting for their advocacy, Norman responds, “There’s the general mindset of bars being community spaces. There are so many opportunities to use a bar as a space just to get together with friends, and there’s such a huge, long-running American tradition of bars being meeting spaces for community building.”
When looking for the perfect space, the OKRA team chose a location that reflects that same rich sense of history. “It’s been a bar since 1882,” Norman says. “It was originally opened as the Original Casino Saloon. They realized that it had been a bar for that long, and they just wanted to continue [that tradition].”
Since opening in December 2012, the bar has given over $260,000 in donations to its winning charities. Although many question why the bar doesn’t divide its proceeds evenly each month among the four charities, Norman and the OKRA team say they want to keep the donations substantial. In August 2013, Norman says, OKRA was able to give the U.S. Veterans Initiative-Houston Chapter $35,000—enough for the chapter to hire a chef that now trains veterans. This hire wouldn’t have been possible if the bar had only donated a fourth of that amount, Norman explains. “When we’ve given charities their checks, they’ve never really expected to have the amounts that we’ve given,” she says. “It’s just really nice to be able to give a charity something substantial. And I’ve learned so much about the really cool, good things people are doing in Houston.”
OKRA has been very pleased with the positive response the bar has gotten from the community, Norman says. Over 100 charities have applied to be featured so far. Each month’s charity selection process takes about a week, she says, and OKRA team members try to make their final choices as diverse as possible. Several charities that have done extensive work for the LGBT community, including Legacy Community Health Services and The Montrose Center, have been among the bar’s featured charities. “We like to keep it broad,” Norman says. And if your favorite charity doesn’t win in their specific month, OKRA hosts a second-chance tournament each December.
April’s charities include Houston’s chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, Bike Houston, the Monarch Institute, and the Feral Feline Retreat. “[It’s about] fostering a mentality where if you take care of what’s around you, it’ll help everybody grow,” Norman says. “We’re just spilling tolerance and building safe spaces for anybody who wants to go and foster positive community.”