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How to Build an Activist Bar

Charity saloons, “philanthropubs” and other bars raising money for charity herald the arrival of the bar-as-social statement. Kara Newman on the rise of the activist bar.

It’s getting late, so instead of buying a second round of drinks at NYC’s Coup, I buy a second round of donations for our table, at $5 each. My drinking buddy scoops up the wooden tokens labeled with the bar’s name and plunks them in the various tall, vase-like glass jars placed around the room: one donation for the ASPCA, one for Planned Parenthood, one for the ACLU.

Just a typical night out at the most earnest bar in the world.

When Coup (pronounced “koo,” as in the overthrow of a political regime), opened on April 14, it joined a small but growing number of bars that exist to raise funds for charity. Similar to consumers choosing to purchase shoes from Toms or frames from Warby Parker, two corporations noted for charitable efforts, a growing number of bar-goers are seeking cocktails with a conscience.

Coup is the first charity-focused bar in NYC with a full-time focus on fund-raising. And it’s emblematic of a movement that’s been bubbling up for some time, amid pop-up fundraisers and drink specials—and even postcard-writing parties—at bars designed to benefit political and social organizations.

But before Coup, there was Oregon Public House in Portland, which calls itself a “philanthropub.” The beer-focused bar and restaurant donates 100 percent of its net profits to local non-profit charities, donating almost $25,000 in its first year. In total, the bar has donated more than $128,000 (that’s from opening day in May 2013 to the beginning of April 2017).

OKRA Charity Saloon also opened in 2013, in Houston, benefiting local non-profits or social organizations; it served as an inspiration for Coup. Run by bartender Bobby Heugel, the bar serves up classic cocktails and shots of Fernet. Like Coup, each drink buys guests a vote, and guests can select from one of four charities (“We can’t put animal charities up against anything else—they always win,” Heugel notes). Out of all of the bars he owns, Heugel adds, OKRA is by far the busiest—all of those charities act as “stakeholders,” helping to promote the bar and bring people in. At the end of the month, the single charity with the most votes receives all of the net proceeds. To date, OKRA has donated more than $888,000.

Coup is a bit different from its predecessors in that it has deliberately narrowed its focus to raising money for organizations under threat of defunding by the Trump administration. In its opening weekend, Coup made approximately $20,000; after covering costs, 100 percent of the profits will be donated to six charities, in proportions decided by the number of tokens in each jar.

Unlike Oregon Public House, which took years to scrape together the funds to open its doors, Coup came together in just a couple of months, owner Ravi DeRossi says.

In the aftermath of the presidential election, DeRossi recalls, he felt “traumatized” and “depressed,” and coped with that by spending time at Amor y Amargo, which he also owns, alternately griping and plotting with Sother Teague (head bartender at Amor y Amargo and a partner in Coup) and Max Green (also of Amor y Amargo, and head bartender at Coup). “It was just hard to deal with and believe this is what’s going on in our country,” he says. One day, they had “an instantaneous light bulb moment,” which led to Coup.

Inside NYC's Coup

DeRossi had an empty space, formerly the Manhattan outpost of Brooklyn seafood restaurant Bergen Hill; he also had experience running a non-profit foundation called BEAST, which raises funds for animal rights organizations. Teague, meanwhile, had visited OKRA in Houston, and the vision came together quickly.

“We needed to create a community of like-minded people and be involved on a bigger scale,” DeRossi recalls. “What we’ve created is a cocktail bar that encourages discussion, love, respect, acceptance and, above all, creates a community where we turn our angst and despair into something beautiful and positive.” He’s also contemplating bringing the concept to Los Angeles, he says.

Like OKRA, the drinks focus on well-made classics and riffs, a tight roster of two drinks for each major category (gin, whiskey, rum, agave, vodka). “The drinks are simple and straightforward,” Green explains. “We want people to enjoy the drinks they’re having, but the concern of the space is raising as much money as possible for charity.” Each drink costs a flat $20, including gratuity and charity donation.

From Sunday through Wednesday, a revolving door of guest bartenders donate shifts, bringing their own drink specials and creating a bar-within-a-bar experience. The first week brought David Kaplan (co-founder, Death & Co.) in from LA and Nick Detrich (Cure, Café Henri) in from New Orleans; the guest talent for next week hasn’t yet been confirmed, though there has been “lots of interest” from bartenders keen to show their support behind the stick, Teague says.

Many of the spirits brands used in the drinks were selected because they also support charitable causes. On opening night, Teague pulled down a bottle of Avión tequila from the back bar; he had recently returned from Mexico, where he toured the site of an orphanage the brand is helping to build.

That aspect—boosting spirits brands that support charities—is one that Heugel would like to see magnified. “Restaurants are constantly asked, ‘Where does your product come from?’” he said, speaking at the StarChefs International Chefs Congress in October. “If consumers start to ask that about bars, maybe more sponsorship money will go to charitable efforts.”

Since opening, Coup has been steadily full, signaling that NYC is indeed ready for a full-time charity bar. On the night I visited, a stream of industry regulars and cocktail enthusiasts sipped Eastsides (a Southside riff) and Hemingway Daiquiris as they milled about the space, which is decorated with hand-lettered signs created by artist (and barista/bartender) Natalie Czech, offering inspirational messages of political resistance: “NO you cannot take my rights/I’m still using them.” And, as would be expected, the bar attracts thirsty political rebels, too, like the group that went directly from a Trump tax-return protest rally to Coup, still clutching their signs in hand.

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