Growing OKRA Downtown
Restaurant and bar owners join forces, benefiting their industry, local charities and all Houstonians
by Sandra Cook | 12.01.12

In November 2011, a group of 12 restaurant and bar owners gathered in Bobby Heugel’s 600-square-foot garage apartment to pool their strengths for the good of independent restaurants and bars in Houston – and for the good of all who enjoy visiting these establishments.

This determined dozen named themselves OKRA  –  an Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs. Heugel had been entertaining the idea of forming such a group for some months after collaborating with multiple chefs, bar owners and coffee shop owners to find locations for new business and figure out how to conquer other hurdles to getting their businesses going.

Heugel, who is an owner at Anvil Bar & Refuge, Blacksmith Coffee, Hay Merchant, Underbelly and the soon-to-open Julep, is no doubt committed to unique food and beverage experiences in Houston. The like-minded individuals who attended that first OKRA gathering included Heugel’s business partners Kevin Floyd, Steve Flippo and Michael Burnett, along with Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan, of Pass & Provisions, David Buehrer and Ecky Prabanto of Blacksmith Coffee & Greenway Coffee & Tea, Justin Yu and Justin Vann of Oxheart, Morgan Weber and Ryan Pera of Revival Market and the forthcoming Coltivare.

Heugel says he had to move most of his furniture out of the way to make room for everyone, which may have helped open the gates of creativity for those attending.

“There was this friendly vibe and sort of an adolescent spirit to the discussion that night. I think with all of us in that small space it actually freed up ideas,” says Heugel.

Burnett, who walked away from his career in the advertising industry in 2011 to go into business with Heugel, Floyd, Flippo and Chris Shepherd as they were starting up Underbelly and Hay Merchant, recalls the energy in the tiny apartment that night. “Coming from the creative atmosphere of the advertising/design industry, it was exciting to be in the room for that first OKRA meeting with all these people from the restaurant and bar industry passionately throwing out ideas for this cause,” says Burnett. “It was incredible to see everyone so motivated to do good things for the people of Houston – not just the benefit of one client or company.”  

In short order, Heugel and Siegel-Gardner recruited others to join the effort, including Scott Repass and Dawn Callaway of Poison Girl, Antidote and Black Hole; their business partners Scott Walcott and Miriam Carillo, plus Brad Moore of Big Star Bar and Grand Prize Bar; Ryan Rouse of Grand Prize Bar; and Joshua Martinez of The Modular food truck.

Intense discussions with Houston City Council during the fall of 2011 over proposed amendments to Article VIII, Chapter 26, which would have increased parking requirements for restaurants, bars and dessert shops, shed a bright light on the vulnerability of independent businesses in Houston. 

Rouse explains that the genesis of OKRA came about quite organically. “Several of us had already worked well together in the past –  sharing the phone number of a decent plumber, getting advice on projects we were working on, etc.,” says Rouse.

Walcott, agrees, citing similar neighborly attitudes in the industry. “We have shared freely our method, business plan and receipts with employees and community members who have expressed interest in opening their own businesses,” says Walcott. “Most recently, we helped Robin Berwick and Robin Whalan when they were opening Double Trouble Coffee and Cocktails.” 

 “The major catalyst for OKRA was the proposed change in the city parking ordinance though, we realized it affected all of us and we needed to unify to form a single voice to react,” says Rouse.

“We noticed that many of us from the restaurant and bar industry were already going up to City Hall, trying to meet with council members,” says Heugel. “We ended up with this cooperative scheduling effort that involved about 20 people working to get into see the various council members.”  

Heugel rounded up many of those individuals and several others for the first OKRA meeting. The proposed parking regulations would have greatly increased the number of parking spaces required for all restaurants and bars in the City of Houston’s vast 640-square-mile city limits. These broad-stroke regulations would have applied to establishments in dense urban neighborhoods, such as Oxheart and Last Concert Café in the historic Fifth Ward, as well as every Luby’s and Macaroni Grill in more suburban areas, such as Westchase and Champions.

The business owners who came together to form OKRA realized that if those proposed regulations were passed, they would incur drastic real estate costs, and many restaurant and bar owners would potentially be bidding against each other for the same precious pieces of land for additional parking.  

 Grow OKRA, not parking lots

The essence of OKRA is much more than seeking fair parking requirements. OKRA’s mission is to highlight the value of the diversity and individualist attitudes of Houston’s food culture  –  from the food and drink to the atmosphere and experience conveyed by those establishments. They hope Houstonians see that a local restaurant, bar or coffee shop, is more than a place to eat or drink, that each of these independent establishments is a cultural asset that brings people together.

These places provide the backdrop for many of our memories  – victory celebrations, first dates, marriage proposals, reunions with old friends and other festive moments. Such establishments are where many of us go for job interviews, client schmoozing and business meetings.

When Dawn Callaway and Scott Repass opened Poison Girl in 2004, Repass recalls “there were a lot of clubby places and music venues at the time. We saw a lack of casual, low-key bars. We wanted to have an off-beat, neighborhood place that was a change of pace for most of the nearby residents. We wanted to open a bar where a woman could feel comfortable going by herself to have a drink.”

For years Poison Girl has hosted Drink Houston Better, where profits from the first Sunday of each month are donated to a local charity.  “We always wanted our businesses to be community driven and for them to be an asset to the community,” says Callaway. “We always had that in us and now, with this collective group, it’s nice to be doing it together. It gives the concept more resonance.”

OKRA gives a unified voice to these often small, but significant businesses that are a tremendous part of our city’s famously innovative, collaborative, capable, fascinating and unpretentious culture. Collectively, these unique establishments provide an atmosphere that helps sustain what Houstonians identify with as being authentically Houston.

“Our industry engages the recreational side of people’s lives,” says Heugel. “When we discuss how the structural nature of urban planning impacts us, we begin to talk about it in a greater context. We start a conversation about what kind of city we want to have.”

 A Great Convergence

“We are living a really exciting time in Houston, where the city is actualizing at this moment,” says Heugel. “Maybe like San Francisco in the ’60s or Austin in the ’70s, we are in the midst of this transformation where people are trying to develop a sense of community that will influence what it’s like to live here for the next 200 years. Even with opening a restaurant or a bar or coffee shop, you’re creating structures for social interaction. You’re shaping the social interaction that will follow for decades, and I don’t think people always realize that restaurants and bars contribute to their lives as much as those places do.” 

“Now might be the best time in Houston’s history to ever say that you lived in Houston  –  and that’s really cool,” says Heugel with a big smile. “There’s a time and an energy that happens, and you can’t make it happen, can’t force it. It just happens.”

“The members of OKRA are a new breed of Houston entrepreneurs who look at things differently than past generations,” says Burnett. “The world is a lot smaller than it used to be. The members of this group think quicker, are more creative, and pursue more interesting concepts than what this city has seen in the past.”

Brad Moore of Big Star Bar and Grand Prize Bar says he’s excited about this new unity within the industry. “Past generations didn’t get along necessarily,” says Moore. A lot of people either kept to themselves or had a lot of animosity for their competition.”

 “All the people in OKRA are very unique individuals with different backgrounds  –  no one’s the same,” says Burnett. “We are a melting pot just like Houston. We draw from different cultures, regions, educations and experience levels. The common thread is how this group thinks. The OKRA members have the ability to see possibilities, rather than barriers.”   

Houston has a history of daring individuality and audacity – think Allen Brothers, Jesse Jones, Ima Hogg. “I love the fearless nature of this city,” says Moore, who moved to Houston from South Carolina in the late ‘80s to go to college. “Houston’s always been that way. And Houstonians don’t always have to have a bunch of credentials  –  just show up and do it.”

Jesse Jones, for example, only had an 8th grade education.

 Doing Good Downtown  

“Last year, Bobby tells us this idea for a charity bar,” says Brad Moore. “I thought ‘What? That’s amazing! What can I do help?’ ” Moore says downtown was the obvious choice for the charity bar location. “It’s so ripe – there are so many spaces available. This is a big opportunity to make downtown what it should be.”  

The concept for the charity bar, named the Original OKRA Charity Saloon, is a comfortable neighborhood bar that allows Houstonians to support their community by buying a drink. The Charity Salon donates all of its profits to charity each month. The idea came to Heugel almost five years ago while he and Floyd were working at Beaver’s in the Historic Sixth Ward. While the charity bar idea pre-dates all of Heugel’s existing establishments, the founding of OKRA gave the idea a natural support system and momentum.  

 “It was instantly a unanimous agreement,” says Ryan Rouse. “Many of us had talked about wanting a presence downtown for years. I love being downtown. The building is one of the most beautiful bar spaces in the city and its location  –  next to such legendary bars as La Carafe & Warren’s  –  is an enormous plus.”

 “The charity bar, in my eyes, can be a beacon for more businesses to come downtown in the coming months,” says Joshua Martinez, owner of The Modular.

“Opening the Charity Saloon provides us with the means by which we get to do a lot of different things,” says Repass. “It gives us a space, which can function like a headquarters for seminars, meetings and outreach events for the community.”

OKRA hopes their efforts will help to rehabilitate the core of the city for the long term. By building a more cohesive, collaborative downtown there is greater potential for longevity and sustainability for a thriving downtown. Like diversifying the city’s economy so it’s not dependent on one thing, but, rather, ensuring there are several complementary drivers that keep it going and thriving.

 “We always wanted a better downtown, a lot of us have felt that way,” says Repass of Poison Girl. “We could never do that alone, but, now, as a group, we have an opportunity to make that happen. This city deserves a better downtown.”

 Culture of Collaboration

“I recently went to a luncheon put on by Central Houston, Inc. where Bruce Katz of The Brookings Institute was the keynote speaker,” say Rouse. “Katz said during his speech collaboration is the new competition. I think our group really exemplifies that sentiment – except we spell it with ‘K’.”

“Bobby deserves so much credit,” says Moore. “Being involved with OKRA proves it’s possible to be generous and have fun doing it.”

 “There’s a certain energy with this group. We haven’t even gotten started yet, perhaps we don’t even realize what all we can accomplish,” says Burnett.

 Permitting Progress

 “A primary goal of OKRA is to preserve the gateway for independence into the industry, something we see as closing all the time,” says Heugel. “Add to that the rising cost of permit fees, increases in real estate costs due to parking requirements, limitations on food trucks and all these different obstacles. It’s clear we need more education so that people can keep up with the way the industry evolves and the changes in laws and regulations.”

Members of OKRA have been working with the City Planning Department to set up classes on how to successfully navigate through the permitting process to open their own restaurant or bar. “We want to do more how-to classes oriented on the pathway to ownership,” says Heugel. 

OKRA members also plan to host monthly events, such tastings, food pairings and dinners to engage the public with their collaborative ideas and purpose. “And we’d like to have a broader interaction and involvement with more independent restaurants and businesses across the city,” says Heugel.

 

 The Original OKRA Charity Saloon - 924 Congress

Expected to open: December 2012

OKRA members named the charity bar, located at 924 Congress (initially known as 72 Congress), after the Original Casino Saloon. The Original Casino Saloon was the first occupant of the space, which opened in 1882 and remained open until Prohibition.  

The concept for the Charity Saloon is a simple, neighborhood bar that allows Houstonians to support local causes by buying a drink. Anvil bartender Mike Criss will serve as the general manager, while the bar staff will include personalities from Anvil, Hay Merchant, Poison Girl, Grand Prize and others. Patrons can expect a modest selection of classic cocktails, craft beer, wine and a small food menu. 

Each month, a featured charity will receive 100 percent of the bar’s profits. Yes, 100 percent. Guests will be able to influence which charity receives those dollars by voting for one of four nominees for the month, with casino chips given with every drink purchase.

Starting one month before the Charity Saloon opens, OKRA will begin accepting official applications from local charities. Charities must be Houston based to be eligible for the each month’s voting line-up.

To find out which charities are selected each month and stay current on OKRA’s activities, be sure to:

 

Bar, Charity Saloon, Congress, Historic District, Nightlife, OKRA
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“We always wanted a better downtown, a lot of us have felt that way,” says Repass of Poison Girl. “We could never do that alone, but, now, as a group, we have an opportunity to make that happen. This city deserves a better downtown.”
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