Josh Johnston: Pub Master

Portland’s Pub Master

Years from now, historians may remember this period of Portland history as the heyday of the pub culture. If you made a checklist of the great areas to have neighborhood pubs in Portland, you would have to include Downtown, Northwest, Belmont and Alberta. Restaurateur Josh Johnston owns neighborhood pubs in all four locations.

As an undergrad at Oregon State University, San Francisco area native Josh originally dreamed of being a Yosemite forester. After spending some time in Oregon, he soon found his true passion lay in Portland’s unique amalgam of dive bar culture and fine dining elegance. Now owner of four of the most popular pubs in a city known for its excellent eateries, he caters not only to customers entering the doors of Paddy’s, Circa 33, North 45, and The Station but to his community outside the walls of his establishments as well.

Working with old friend and travel mate James Hall, the two became proprietors of the upscale North 45 at Glisan and NW 21st and were able to acquire and save Irish pub Paddy’s a week before St. Patrick’s Day of 2009. A year later, Josh received the Orange Spotlight award from Oregon State for community service, sustainability and innovation as Paddy’s rose back to its famed local notoriety with a vibrant atmosphere and whole wall of whiskey selections.

Proud to restore the historic Portland institution to all its former glory and then some, Josh also was excited to continue his knack for pleasing Portlanders with that favorite local flavor by extending over the bridge to two prime locations on the east side: The Station on Alberta and NE 27th (previously named The Alberta Station) and Circa 33 on Belmont and SE 33rd.

Carrying the sentiment of their Northwest locations, The Station carries that familiar casual vibe while Circa 33 is a “post-prohibition” spot that comes out of Josh’s true celebratory nature to bring people together for an evening of intoxicated fun. Josh expresses though that there is a balance between keeping up the good times all the time and working hard for the money. From the first pint poured opening up a restaurant is a tornado of detailing design, menus, ambiance, and refining quality product and service for the community.

What personal experiences in your college years at OSU have had an influence on your present position as a restaurateur?

I would say that I’ve always been a very social and gregarious guy. I like being around people, I like entertaining. I was a rugby player in college so there were a lot of extracurricular social activities going on. I didn’t know it then but my desire to be around people and to be entertaining, to be having fun, ultimately landed me a career. And I love it.

Some would say a communications degree, being more of a liberal arts degree, may be less practical in the business world that a business degree. How has your education helped or hindered your business progress?

Well I originally went to school for forestry. So that’s one of the main reasons that brought me to Oregon State actually, forestry and rugby. But when I shifted to communications, I really didn’t know what I was going to do and just ended up taking some courses that I really enjoyed. There was a lot of interpersonal communication and negotiation, and I was good at it and enjoyed it. You’re right it’s not the hard business degree that one would desire normally. Luckily, I have a business partner who has that degree, so we balance each other out pretty well.

Would you say you’re a tough boss or a fun boss, or both?

I think that I definitely started out as the fun boss and my business partner was the tough boss. Over time he’s become more fun and I’ve become tougher. The joke with him and me is that he’s very detail-oriented up in the office – I call him my spreadsheet jockey, I love him to death – if there were two of him, we’d know where every penny was, but we wouldn’t have any customers. If there were two of me, there would be a great party but we’d be out of business within a year.

Was there an about-face moment when your direction in business became more apparent to you? A formative event leading to change that made a difference?

When we first got started, my role was very different than it is now. Like every small business owner you have to do everything yourself and we couldn’t afford to pay both Jim and me. So he kept the day job and I took the bar job, and the bar job was everything from cleaning toilets, to payroll, to ordering, to bar tending, to entertaining – the whole gamut. Once we got North 45 stabilized we ended up buying Paddy’s. I got down here and I had a big phone call with Jim. Once we got him equal with me as far as workload and pay and lifestyle and schedule we were able to map out where we wanted to go as opposed to just having one or two bars to what we really wanted to end up with.

You’re known for supporting a number of charitable causes. Why is it so important that your business participate in giving back to the community?

You know there are a couple different components to that. One is there are people out there that are less fortunate, and there are only so many resources available. We really try to align ourselves with some areas where we want to focus. We’re suckers for anything with kids, so we’re good partners with the Children’s Cancer Association. We’ve done a lot with the Zoo Foundation, we’ve done a lot with the Oregon Food Bank, the Special Olympics. Those are the bigger names, but we also have small little groups we work with.

It sounds like you’ve found a way to utilize your businesses to reach out and help.

All of our bars are these amazing social venues. These big social halls that are very easy for us to get people together at. So that’s a really easy way for us to contribute our facilities. Then going outside our four walls, we just think it’s important to be a part of the community we serve. We’ve decided to take a stake in this community, build this community, and since our customer base is in this community, we want to be a part of it and not just take, but give too.

What does it take to be successfully self-employed? What advice would you give to people considering striking out on their own?

Do it when you can afford to work hard and take the risk, because it’s more time and energy than you can imagine. Until you take the risk, you won’t really appreciate what you’re doing and that’s just kind of the classic owner versus employee mentality. There’s a ton of risks in what we’re doing, and at one point I had my mortgage on the line. Putting your name on a lease is big scary deal, and you’ve just got to persevere and stay positive.

Right. Do you define all of your locations as ‘gastro-pubs’ or restaurants? How would you define them?

I like the phrase ‘neighborhood pub.’ We want to be your favorite neighbor, you know? That place you can go over to just to have a glass of wine, or because you’re in the neighborhood, and you know you will always have a good time.

Aside from being located in Portland, what makes your restaurants quintessentially Oregonian? What makes Portland such a great place for restaurants?

It all starts with the weather and the water. The produce is incredible! We have access to fresh seafood, and there are amazing farms. And then on the beverage side we’ve got the epicenter of the brewery movement in the country, if not the world. And we’ve got beautiful wine country, and the distiller’s movement. That all starts with the water, so I’m going to go with the water as the reason why this place is so great!

What do you do outside work that helps you recharge?

Well, I play with my kids. My wife and I love to travel. We actually love to eat and drink and entertain, so we throw a lot of dinner parties at our house. She and I both travel around the world quite a bit. I’m a big hiker, skier, mountaineer, so getting in the outdoors, eating, drinking, traveling- I think that’s the bucket.

What’s on the horizon? Any new locations in the works?

We’ve got an interest in potentially getting into the brewery business. We are looking to potentially buy a building that we think we can go in and bring our skill set to, get it up and moving. We’re actively looking, and there’s a lot of activity right now. So we’re definitely being patient, and just waiting for the right thing, but we’re not done. We’re going to grow some more, and hopefully bring a couple more cool spots to the city.

About The Author: Justin Fields