Celebrate 20 years of one of Portlands favorite brewpubs, the Lucky Lab, this Saturday

Celebrate 20 years of one of Portlands favorite brewpubs, the Lucky Lab, this Saturday

Lucky Lab’s 20th Anniversary Party

6 p.m. Saturday Oct 18, Lucky Labrador Brewpub, 915 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.;

Celebrate 20 years of a Portland favorite with a special anniversary IPA, ("a real Portland Puckerfest" at 96 IBU and dry-hopped with Cascade and Glacier hops) plus free commemorative pint glasses starting at 6 p.m. while supplies last and the Old Yellers play at 8 p.m.

After many months of work, boyhood friends Gary Geist and Alex Stiles opened the Lucky Labrador Brewpub on October 15, 1994 — in the fullness of time, you might say. Or more accurately, the emptiness of bank.

"We had to open," says Gary Geist, "we had 66 bucks left in our account."

And they owed thousands of dollars to their general contractor, who was also a friend. Luckily for them and for Portland’s prototypical pub, the first night was a huge success, thanks to a loyal cadre of friends and Portlanders wanting to try out the new brewpub on Hawthorne Boulevard.

"It took us years to beat the numbers for that first night," said Alex Stiles.

That perilous bank balance might leave you thinking that Stiles and Geist, both 28 at the time, were just a couple of young, underfunded dreamers, but that’s not the case. Both had worked at BridgePort — Stiles in the brewery and Geist in the pub — and each had a business background. Geist’s three years at an investment firm gave him access to financial backers and the savvy to draw up a real business plan. Plus they both had strong motivation — neither wanted to wear a suit and tie to work ever again.

(Alex Stiles happily wears rubber boots every workday these days. He still brews on the system at the brewpub, as he has for 20 years. Before they opened a larger brewery at the Northwest Portland location in 2006, he was doing as many as 250 brews a year: however you do the numbers, Stiles is one of Oregon’s most experienced brewers.)

"We originally did the numbers for a microbrewery," said Geist over a pitcher of Crazy Ludwig’s Alt on the back porch of the Lucky Lab. "The numbers for distributing and selling beer by the keg didn’t look nearly as good as the ones for selling beer by the pint in a neighborhood brewpub."

That’s a great business model, one that has served the Lucky Lab well and enabled Geist and Stiles to open three more Lucky Labradors, in Multnomah Village, Northwest Quimby Street and most recently in North Portland on Killingsworth Street. Back when they started, the McMenamins pubs and Portland Brewing’s Flanders Street pubs were the obvious role models, but the Lucky Lab evolved its own distinctly Portland persona.

The recipe and brew sheet for Superdog IPA, one of Portland’s best loved beers. It began 12 years ago this month as a happy accident. FoystonFoto

"We wanted a casual brewpub, not a restaurant," said Geist, "it’s more of a community meeting place. You walk into some bars and at a table of four, three people are watching TV and the other is looking at his phone. We don’t have a TV here and if you look around, you see people talking to each other. We cater to groups too, with long tables that people can move around. We have gamers groups, the Reed College alumni group, foreign langauge groups, a trail runners group that meets at Quimby, even the Alfa Romeo car club."

The pub welcomes families and the system of ordering food and drink at the bar means there are no servers eager to turn your table, which contributes mightly to the Lab’s laid-back feel. And, of course, the dogs-allowed rule for the back porch makes the Lab a haven for dog owners — even if things can get a bit too doggerriffic out there for us more reflective types, it’s a big part of the Lab’s personality.

But all that came after a lot of hard work that started with finding investors in 1993. Portland at that time had fewer than a dozen brewpubs — not even the Widmer Brothers had a pub yet. But every one of the 60 or so people who saw the Lab’s business plan asked if Stiles and Geist didn’t think that the Portland market was saturated with brewpubs.

The question is still asked today with five times the number of brewpubs, and any number of other good beer options. But there was more justification to ask it in the early 1990s, which saw the only downturn that craft brewing has really taken in this town. A handful of breweries closed and others found that the double-digit growth of the 1980s wasn’t guaranteed.

Alex Stiles and Gary Geist take a break from learning the meaning of "sweat equity" during the 1994 buildout of the pub. judging from the picture, some work remained to be done. Luck Labrador Brewpub

But they convinced investors, chipped in such money as they had and started with a bankroll of about $190,000. All that was left was to find a building and build a pub. "We found the building in April of 1994," said Geist, "but we spent endless days driving around Portland looking for the right spot."

Celebrate 20 years of one of Portlands favorite brewpubs, the Lucky Lab, this Saturday

They missed out on several likely places before seeing the "for lease" sign high up on the former roofing supply building on Hawthorne Boulevard. They peered through the window and realized that it was a big space inside, then walked around to the back and looked over the sheet iron fence that enclosed the yard. Perfect. They’d found the new home of Lucky Labrador.

Gary and Alex after a hard day of chimney demo. Lucky Labrador Archives

Except that the owner’s lawyer was leery of her leasing the space to a brewpub because of liability issues. But Susan Bates, the owner, liked Stiles and Geist and thought their business plan would work, so she offered to sell them the building. A couple of weeks later, they had a Small Business Administration loan for $236,000 and on July 4 1994, they had the keys to the new building. More importantly to the future of their business, they had a modified plan — they own all four Lucky Labrador properties.

"Susan Bates, thank you for making us buy the building," Alex Stile said, "otherwise we wouldn’t be where we are today."

Not that the building was an unalloyed blessing. You’re familiar with the parable of the cobbler’s children, right? Well, this roofing supply company had a roof that leaked so bad, the former tenants had cobbled up a system of gutters inside the building.

And then there was the chimney spang in the middle of where the mens room would be. The building had to be updated to meet seismic standards and to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the chimney had to go. Because Stiles and Geist were doing most of the grunt work required by contractors, electricians and plumbers to save some money — "sweat equity" is the polite term — they were the chimney demolition crew.

That job was so sooty and grimy that mere showers afterward were of little help. And the retelling of it illuminates the depth of friendship between these two, who were born three days apart, met at the age of four and went to grade school and Lincoln High School together. Even today, after 20 years as business partners, they’re obviously still great friends.

"I was up at the top," said Geist, "and I’d knock a brick loose and drop it down the chimney to Alex, who’d grab it, toss it on the pile and then yell "okay" up the chimney. It took us all day and I felt bad for Alex down there at the bottom."

"Yeah, but I had the respirator," said Stiles.

Leave a Reply