The Riverwest Public House Would Like You to Visit
Most businesses would rather fail in silence than admit things aren’t going right. Because of the stigma of failure or the fear that any whiff of desperation might scare away customers, bar and restaurant owners hide the fact business is slumping until one day their business simply isn’t there anymore. The Riverwest Public House (815 E. Locust St.) has vowed to avoid that trap.
“After seeing other businesses come and go without much communication about their situation, we want to be upfront with you about the Public House’s status,” the cooperatively owned Riverwest venue wrote in an unusually direct message to its members and patrons last month. “The one-two punch of a sales slump and unforeseen expenses has put us in a precarious place.”
To be clear, the Riverwest Public House is not going under—this is not a crisis situation, at least not yet. But the co-op’s operators would like to keep it that way, so after seeing decreased sales for the first time in its more than five-year run, they made a plea to the community: Please visit a little more often. Bring a friend. Renew your membership. Host a meeting or event at the venue. Remember that as one of the country’s only co-op taverns, the Public House depends on community support to keep going.
“We know people want this space and need this space,” says Erika Wolf, president of the bar’s board of directors. “We know that if more people are exposed to the space, they’ll see the value of it, too. So we have a community responsibility to keep this space going. That’s why we’re so upfront with our finances. It’s our commitment to transparency and being held accountable. We need this business to be resilient financially so we can support the new projects coming to the neighborhood. But we believe that if we’re here for people that need us to support them, that goes both ways.”
As a co-op, the Public House faces unique challenges. It isn’t a traditional business that can simply overcharge customers, book events it doesn’t stand by or resort to similar maneuvering to juice profits. It has values and a mission statement to uphold, and a lot of different constituents to keep happy, since it’s not just a bar and a music venue, but also a community space. The bar’s many uses are reflected in its monthly calendar, one of the most wide-ranging in the city. A typical month features not only weekly music, karaoke and bar trivia, but also comedy, burlesque, community workshops, dance parties, adult sex-ed classes, bingo, knitting groups, comedy and discussion groups like Drinking Liberally and Theology on Tap.
Holding a variety of events is crucial for distinguishing itself in a bar scene that grows more crowded by the year, says Harrison Colby, the bar’s events coordinator. Recently Company Brewing has become one of Riverwest’s more popular semi-upscale destinations, while High Dive has been hosting a lot of the punk and rock shows that were the Public House’s calling card for a time. The Public House has responded by doubling down on its reputation as a hub for activism, a role that suddenly seems a lot more important in the Trump era.
“That’s what sets us apart,” Colby says. “People see this place as a very political, leftist-leaning share space. Last month there was a huge march throughout Riverwest, and we were the starting location for it. Everybody met in front of the Public House. When there were protests against Trump, we held a huge sign-making event. To me, that just shows our role in the community, that because of our values and ethics we’re seen as a meeting place for things like that.”
So far the Public House’s efforts—the outreach campaign, the updated drink menus and specials, and the slew of free events the venue held in February—seem to be working. “People are responding by showing up, by spending money,” Wolf says, and an upcoming campaign timed to the bar’s sixth anniversary next month could further spike sales.“It’s our ‘I Love Riverwest Public House’ campaign, and one of the taglines that we’re using is ‘Drink and Resist,’” she says. “The logic is we’re all going to spend money at a bar anyway, so let’s spend money at a bar that’s supporting making the world a better place.”