Interview with Publican Jim Parker

Publican Jim Parker

By Frank James

If you’ve been around the Portland pub scene during the last decade, it’s likely that you are familiar with Jim Parker. You may know him well, or, like this writer initially, you may have simply been aware of the slender, mustachioed man in perpetual motion at the Concordia Ale House or Oaks Bottom or the Green Dragon and wondered how he could, like the Energizer Bunny, keep going and going and going, never slowing down. I met Jim when he was at the Oaks Bottom Public House in Sellwood. I frequented that neighborhood because the Sellwood Dog Park was a short distance away, and I got in the nice habit of stopping by for a beer and a bowl of their delicious chili. I’d amuse myself as I watched Jim bounce between the bar and the kitchen and the restaurant’s tables, pouring beers or serving hot dishes or busing tables, all the while punctuating his efforts with that unforgettable, boisterous laugh. And then, amazingly and suddenly, he might sit down at your table and take five minutes to describe two or three beer options that might fit your particular tastes. And then he’d pop right back up and get back to the floor and his constant, incredibly efficient motion. Sometimes, I got tired just watching him. For several years, he was seemingly everywhere around town where good beer was being poured, right in the middle of the action. But then, like a benevolent, publican version of Keyser Soze, the “The Usual Suspects” mystery man, Jim Parker just disappeared. Poof! And I wondered… What the heck happened to Jim Parker? Well, he obviously had not fallen off the edge of the earth.  In fact, he’d just relocated a few hours north to Bellingham, Washington. With the help of this blog’s founder, Angelo, I was able to get in touch with Jim and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about beer, brewpubs, the Green Dragon and the bar business, generally, in his remarkably candid, informative and engaging way.

What are you doing in Bellingham?

Jim Parker
: Right now I am a bartender at Bayou’s Oyster Bar, a new addition to an existing Cajun/Creole restaurant in Bellingham. As the name implies, the focus is on fresh-shucked local oysters.

Is it similar to the kinds of things you were doing in Portland?

: It’s similar in the fact that it is serving people tasty adult beverages, but the bar only has four taps, so the focus is not on beer. Actually my last two bartending gigs have been more focused on cocktails than beer. It’s a bit of a departure, but I have been interested in distilling and cocktails for several years now.

How do you like life in Bellingham?

JP: Bellingham has really grown on me. I see a lot of similarities to Portland and other places I have lived, like Fort Collins, Colorado. For the past year and a half, my wife, Beth, and I have been living in a cabin off-the-grid about 10 miles out of town. That really slowed what you might call our “integration” into the community. But as we get to know more people and more of the city, we are feeling more at home.

How is it different from Portland?  Is it similar, at all?  How?

JP: The biggest, obvious difference is size. Bellingham has less than 80,000 people. Also, it is definitely a college town. So it really reminds me more of Fort Collins when I opened my first pub, the Mountain Tap Tavern, back in 1992. But Bellingham has a lot of the same laid back vibe, love of bicycles, coffee, books and, of course, beer, as Portland.

What are your favorite pubs in Bellingham?

: There are really only three what I would call “beer bars” in Bellingham. The Copper Hog has really come into its own as a beer destination (or maybe I just started noticing in the past year.) Aaron, the owner, keeps at least one Belgian on tap. The Green Frog is a tiny little place that crams a lot of great beer and the best acoustic music into a small space. James, the owner, goes to great pains to bring in beers that aren’t normally available in town. McKay’s Taphouse has the largest selection of draft beers and does some fun events.

Then, of course, there are the two brewpubs. Boundary Bay has done an amazing job of becoming a focal point of the community, beyond just selling an ass-ton of beer. Chuckanut Brewery, which is the reason I came to Bellingham, has finally been able to expand production and is still making some of the most clean, precise lagers you’ll find in this, or any, country.

I know some of the people involved in the breweries and pubs might argue with me, but I actually see a need here for at least one or two more breweries, a couple more pubs and at least one good bottle shop. There is a real burgeoning homebrew community up here and plenty of beer lovers to go around. We are bigger than Bend and Hood River, combined, but have fewer brewpubs than either.

Ironically, my “local” in Bellingham isn’t a pub, but a coffeehouse. The Black Drop is the one place in town that I go to more than any other. If they had beer and booze, I might never leave.

What are some of the other good craft breweries/brewpubs in that part of Washington State?

: Skagit River Brewery in Mt. Vernon has done some wonderful stuff since I have been here and Flyers in Oak Harbor consistently makes great beers. And no trip up the Mt. Baker Highway is complete without at stop at North Fork. There is also a great little hidden gem called Skookum Brewery that is on a horse ranch in Arlington, about an hour south of here. There is a great tasting room and beer garden there.

Do you get down to Seattle at all?

: When I worked for Chuckanut, I made at least two trips a week to Seattle, selling and delivering beer. We actually sold a lot more beer in Seattle than in Bellingham, kind of a testament to the loyalty people up here have to Boundary Bay. So I got to know a lot of the good beer bars in Seattle.

If you’re going out for a beer in Seattle, where do you go?

JP: Where do I start? Seattle has a very good “pub culture.” You have everything from the incredible beer shrine that is Brouwer’s to the Pub at Pipers Creek, which looks like any other roadside dive until you look at the tap lineup and try some of Michael Boston’s amazing pub food. In between, there are all three of Bob Brenlin’s pubs (Latona, Hopvine and Fiddlers.) All three nail it in terms of being a good local for their neighborhoods: great rotating beer selections,  knowledgeable publicans behind the bar, good food and great atmosphere. Naked City combines a top-notch small brewery with an unbeatable taphouse, the best of both worlds.

What are your other favorite Seattle craft beer places?

: I didn’t make it there very often, but Black Raven’s tasting room in the middle of a business park in Redmond always amazed me with the beers and the amount of business they did in such an unlikely location. Beveridge Place in West Seattle is my idea of a great Northwest taphouse. And I always tried to get to The Dray, a 500-square-foot place with the most carefully selected nine taps in town. And how could I forget Shultzy’s, a sausage house with a great selection of both imports and local beers.

Which Portland area pubs have you been involved with, and how would you describe your involvement with each?

: When I first came back to Portland, I worked for the Oregon Brewers Guild for five years before getting back into the pub world. My first pub job was with Concordia Ale House. I was one of the opening bartenders and helped put together the initial bottle list. Then, for a while, I bartended at both Concordia and the Horse Brass before opening Oaks Bottom Public House with Jerry Fechter of the Lompoc mini-empire.  That’s when what John Foyston (Oregonian beer writer) likes to call my “beer ADD” really kicked in. No sooner had I gotten Oaks Bottom open, then I decided to help a friend open her own bar in North Portland called PurpleTooth. And then, if that wasn’t silly enough, I decided to leave Oaks Bottom to do something in the old Yamhill Brewing space. I initially tried to talk Jerry into making it into another Lompoc project. Fortunately for Jerry, he had better sense. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t. My original backers wisely pulled out and I ended up forming a three-way partnership without any of us really realizing what we were getting into. It taught me that partnerships are much like martinis… and breasts: Sometimes one can’t get the job done, but three is often more than you can handle. Then, about the time we finally got the doors open at the Green Dragon, my friend at PurpleTooth, who was by then my girlfriend, needed to change her bar into something else. So I helped her turn it into the Belgian Embassy. It was a cool idea, but we did not have the money to sustain it and by that time I was pretty fried from the stress of a contentious partnership situation and money problems at the Dragon, personal money problems and the end of my relationship with my partner at the Belgian Embassy. In short, it was a pretty awful couple of years.

After I left the Dragon and the Belgian Embassy, I bartended at the Muddy Rudder in Sellwood, which was just what I needed: a job where I wasn’t the boss and just had to serve people food and drink. Not only that, but I met my wife there, so it was definitely the best move I made during that stage of my Portland life. I also did contract work for Rogue, primarily on their hop and barley farm projects and in marketing. It proved a little awkward that I was working for them when they bought the Dragon. But other than giving Ed Schwartz, the majority owner of the Dragon, Brett Joyce’s phone number when he asked if I knew anybody who might be interested in buying the Dragon, I had no role in the buyout.

Have you been to the Green Dragon recently?  If you have, what are your impressions?

: I stopped into the Dragon for a beer right before their beers came on line. I talked to John Couchot (the brewer) and saw the brew system. It’s definitely a step up from what we (the original partners) could have done. I think Rogue has done a good job of letting the Dragon maintain its own identity.

Is it similar or different from how you may have envisioned it, when you were involved with the pub?  How so?

: First Ed (Schwartz) and then Rogue were able to make some of the original dreams for the place come true, namely the outdoor seating area and the brewery. Our original partnership was woefully underfunded and not on the same page about many important issues. We were doomed to failure and if first Ed and then Rogue hadn’t stepped up, the Dragon would not exist today. I think a lot of people jumped to all the wrong conclusions when that deal went down.

You seem to have a knack for getting good beer bars established and off the ground.  What do you attribute that to?  When you are getting a place established, what are your primary concerns?  Location? Staff?  The physical structure?  Product?

JP: Well, I appreciate the kind words, but from my perspective, what I may have are good ideas. But my track record doesn’t show a lot of success in sustaining any projects after my first pub, the Mountain Tap back in Colorado. I have always maintained that I am a better publican than I am a businessman. But I believe my experiences have taught me a lot in the 18 years since I opened the Mountain Tap. First, I believe you have to have an identity in mind for your pub. What will it be that makes people want to go to your place? Location is important, but having a clear identity, beyond just having a bunch of good beer, is vital. Once you know what that identity is, then you have to get good people. I was very fortunate in Portland to get to work twice with Jonathan Carmean and also with Chris “King C” Ensign. Those are two guys who know how to turn people on to good beers. The physical structure is important, but I would say most beer bars, actually most food and beverage establishments, are designed backwards — from the seating back, rather than from the beer cooler out. If I were to do another place, I would follow the lead of my “Beerological Mother” Judy Ashworth, a famed California publican I met in the earliest days of my “beer career.” When she rebuilt her Lyons Brewery pub after the original burned down, she built the cooler first. Then you have to make sure your staff has room to do their job comfortably. This is so often overlooked. Your staff will be in their workspace hours on end, day after day; your customers come and go. Too often seating comes first when designing a space. Sure it’s important, but not at the expense of your staff being able to effectively serve those seats.

It goes without saying that product is important. You have to have a good product and be passionate about promoting it. And you also have to pay attention to who your audience is and what will bring them back. That’s why I have always rotated beers frequently and tried to follow a kind of “tap matrix” to make sure my list is balanced and interesting.

What makes a good pub?  In other words, what are the elements that you look for, or try to mix in, when you establish a pub?

: Personality, people, product and passion.  People go out to drink, primarily, to have a good time. So you want a place where the staff are happy and friendly, believe in the product and care about giving people a good experience. I know the majority of people are likely looking for something familiar in terms of food or drink (that’s why McDonald’s sells more burgers than Pok Pok sells wings), but I am always looking for something I can’t get other places. And I want to go somewhere the staff are informed and passionate about their product. Nothing turns me off more than to go to a brewpub or beer bar and ask, “Which IPA would you say is the most citrusy?” only to be met with a blank stare or, “I don’t know I don’t like beer.”

Of the Portland pubs you’ve been associated with, which ones are closest to what you may have envisioned when you got involved with helping to get them off the ground?  Any pleasant or unpleasant surprises, in this regard, i.e., how they have or have not evolved?

: I have to admit, I still have never achieved what I have set out to do in any place I have been involved with. Maybe I’m just a malcontent, but I think the main problem is I have always been painfully under-capitalized. I have mistakenly thought I was clever enough to pull things off for less money than is realistic. I’m not that clever.

Any plans to come back to Portland to help establish any other pubs?

JP: Not in the immediate future. I have placed a moratorium on myself trying to own any pubs for a while. I always joke that each of the pubs I have been involved in opening have quickly led to either a divorce or the end of a relationship. I’m not about to risk it with my current wife. That said, I do have a few ideas I would like to pursue some day. But I have agreed not to try to start anything until I have a firm business plan and proper funding. I have to admit I have never finished a business plan before opening a place. I always get “seduced” by a space that I fall in love with and then go off half-cocked and do something stupid. I’m getting too old to do that again. My ideal situation would be to get a business plan finished and then sell the idea to someone with enough money to make it work and have them hire me to be the beer buyer and day bartender.