Riverwest Public House creates city’s first cooperative tavern

Published Nov. 16, 2010 at 5:01 a.m.

By Molly Snyder Associate Editor

The Riverwest Co-op opened in 2001, offering the neighborhood a member-owned, volunteer-run natural foods grocery store. In 2004, the co-op expanded and opened a cafe.

In January, the area will welcome another co-op, this time in the form of a tavern called the Riverwest Public House. The establishment will be located at 815 E. Locust St., in the building that most recently housed Saylece’s bar and prior to that, The Riverwest Commons.

On Tuesday, Nov. 23, the Riverwest Public House Cooperative fundraiser takes place at Art Bar, 722 E. Burleigh St. The event starts at 8 p.m. and will feature drink specials, raffles and entertainment by the 4th St. Elevator and Sir Pinkerton and the Magnificents. There is no cover, and all proceeds go toward the tavern.

“I would welcome anyone and everyone to come and tip a pint with friends and neighbors alike and work toward the Public House’s tag line: ‘Building community one drink at a time,'” says Gene Gallister, one of the event organizers.

Memberships to join the cooperative tavern cost $40 (or a lifetime membership for $200) and entitles members to receive drink discounts and attend special events throughout the year. The first 100 members will get a glass or mug with their name on it and they will be invited to store it at the tavern. Members will also be able to weigh in on major policy decisions at bi-annual meetings.

The bar will be open to the public.

Sarah Ditzenberger, owner of Fischberger’s Variety, 2445 N. Holton St., is one of the driving forces behind the cooperative tavern. She says the Public House will be, first and foremost, a bar that features live music (a cabaret license is pending), but it will also be used for special events like films, readings or discussions.

“The Riverwest Public House will be a meeting space. We will also have tea and snacks, so people who don’t drink alcohol can hang out,” says Ditzenberger.

According to Ditzenberger, the Riverwest Public House will be the second cooperative tavern in the United States. The first opened in Austin, Tex.

The Riverwest Public House is an arm of a larger group, called the Riverwest Cooperative Alliance (RCA), that plans to bring multiple co-ops to the neighborhood. The overall goal of the RCA, according to the bylaws, is to “create a broader spectrum of cooperative businesses in the Riverwest neighborhood and surrounding area so (Riverwest residents) can do and get more of what we need within walking and biking distance.”

“The idea is to start one co-op and use the proceeds to start another and another to take control of our neighborhood,” says Ditzenberger.

Ditzenberger, along with her husband, River, opened Fischberger’s Variety, which is not a cooperative, in 2006. Fischberger’s offers retro, wooden and quirky toys, housewares, clothing, fabric, books and more. The Ditzenbergers wanted to provide the neighborhood with an alternative to Walmart.

The Riverwest Cooperative Alliance considered opening a cooperative bakery or a butcher shop in the neighborhood, but decided to start with a tavern because it would be more profitable. After the tavern stabilizes, other cooperative ventures will be considered.

The Riverwest Public House will be different from the Riverwest Co-op in that it will be run mostly by paid employees instead of volunteers. However, currently, a group of volunteers — along with Ditzenberger and Gallistel — are getting the Public House off the ground. The volunteers include neighborhood movers-and-shakers Gibson Caldwell, Wendy Mesich, Steve Whitlow and Shea Schachameyer.

“For the first couple of months, we’ll rely on volunteers, but after that, it will be all paid employees,” says Ditzenberger.

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