The Crux Series - Pacific City & Pelican Brewing
THE CRUX SERIES
PELICAN BREWING &
MARY JONES &
The Crux Series is a collection of interviews with icons that have a wealth of knowledge about each of the peaks in our glasses. In support of the launch of our Pacific City collection featuring Haystack Rock off the shores of Cape Kiwanda, we connect with Jeff Schons and Mary Jones, founders of the Pelican Brewing Company. Beyond world class beers, Pelican Brewing Company has had a hand in creating and growing a lasting beach culture on the Oregon coast.
With their roots starting in Portland, OR Jeff and Mary are creatives, developers and ocean lovers. In a haze of red wine they purchased the property where the Pelican sits today in Pacific City, OR. Their love for the coastal lifestyle and commitment to the community has helped the Pelican and PC flourish. Over 25 years later they are sharing their stories and visions for the future with us. Pour a cold beer, and dig into how this icon of the Oregon coast came to life.
HOW DID YOUR CONNECTION TO PACIFIC CITY START?
Wow, let's see. So it was about 31 years ago we moved down to Pacific City from the Portland area for the winter on Halloween day, 1990. We moved into an old fishing cabin that I at the time had owned.
We'd been in the construction business in Portland and I sold my part of that business, so Mary and I decided to move down here for the winter while we waited on a project to be approved for development in the Portland area.
So we moved into that little, tiny cabin on the river. We're mostly boats and water people, we love boats and have way too many of them. We've lived off and on, on the river for all the time we've been down here.
We just fell in love with the whole way of life in Pacific City. It's so much slower and friendlier, everybody waves when they're going by.i It was just such a unique and interesting experience for us because we spent our whole lives in Portland,we just loved this small town life and we never left. We'd intended to only be here for a few months and it's turned into 31 years. So that's kind of odd and it doesn't seem like it could possibly be that long, right? It's just whizzed by. We've spent a lot of time fishing,boating, and enjoying the beautiful weather we have down here including the extreme challenges that come with the ocean and wind. It's just really been an amazing journey.
HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO START PELICAN BREWING?
In 1995, a guy who owned several pieces of property around that big parking lot there at Cape Kiwanda. He was trying to sell us the piece where the Pelican is now. He really wanted to sell it. He had built an old brick building 15 years prior to be a pizza parlor. It was called Patio but it was not successful. He closed it after a couple of summers operating it. Then he rented it out to a t-shirt guy one year, and bike guy another year, and he just never could make a go of anything there.
He wined and dined us, and one Saturday night, after enough wine, he finally got us to sign a sale agreement. We just kept thinking, "but we don't know what we would do with it! It's a beautiful piece of property, it's amazing, but we don't know what we would do with it!" He said, "Oh, you know, if you don't buy it, I'm going to sell it to another person who's going to build a high rise on it..." and he had all these stories. So we finally ended up signing a sale agreement that Saturday night. We went home and we were just beside ourselves thinking, "that was the dumbest thing we've done in a long time." That led to a sleepless night...what did we do buying something like that?
So we wake up the next morning, it's a Sunday, we're in our little nook on the river, and Jeff read an article in the paper about a brewing company. Jeff just yells out, "It's a brewpub!" I'm in another room, and I don't even know what he's doing, but as soon as he said it, was like "yeah, that place really wants to be a brewpub! That would be a fantastic brewpub." And that was before brewpubs were really a thing!
We knew nothing about brewing beer. I mean, zero. So we decided, well, shoot, we better go learn something about beer. So we went to the first conference we could find, which luckily was in Portland, and there we met Darron Welch, who is our Brewmaster to this day! He's just a kid at the time, living in Appleton, Wisconsin as an assistant brewer for Appleton Brewing.
HOW DID YOU CONNECT WITH DARRON?
We were standing in line to register at that first beer conference and we quickly realized, gosh, we're going to have to have a brewer. How are we going to find one? Well shoot there's brewers here but we didn’t bring an ad, or a poster or anything to advertise. So I drag a piece of paper out of my purse, and I write on it, "Brewer wanted, Oceanfront Brewery, Call my Cell." And Jeff goes and puts it on this blank bulletin board that's just by the registration desk.
The cell phone was dead, so we put it in the car to charge. It was one of those Motorola's that looked like a loaf of bread. The battery lasted about an hour and then you'd charge it for eight hours. When we go back to get the phone out of the car and there's a bunch of messages on it!
I'm thinking, "great, gosh, we're going to have lots of people to pick from". Turns out ONE guy has left a bunch of messages on the phone. Yeah. Only one. But that's the only one we needed! He met up with us right before he left town to go back to Wisconsin, he grew up in Oregon. And that was the only job he could find in Oregon. The main beer industry and most jobs were in Wisconsin. He was really excited to talk to us, really anxious to get back to Oregon where his family was. We talked to him for maybe 30 minutes or something, and the passion for beer, just flowed out of him. And he told us way more than you'd ever want to know about beer in 30 minutes. So we decided, man, this is somebody pretty special. We like him a lot. So he went back to his job in Wisconsin and we flew him back out to Oregon a couple of weeks later and hired him. Darron came on board when we started construction, so he was able to design and build his own brewhouse.
And you know what's so interesting. We made so many bad hires in the last 25 years. Everybody does. Once in a while, you just hit on something that's perfect. For that to be the first one. Whoa!
And for so many years, we had the best location in the world, the best beer in the world, and the most forgiving site. And we were just stinking up the place. Food was lousy, service was lousy, but the beer was great, and the ocean view was great and people just kept coming back, I guess hoping the food was going to get better. And then we met Ken.
Yeah. We are not operations people. So it took finding the right guy to help us really make the Pelican fully successful. The beer was successful from day one. We won awards and it was always great beer, but we just had a really hard time with all the rest of it. And then we found Ken (both he and Darron are owners now) who he really turned it around for us. When we were beginning to turn a profit we began reinvesting in the business and started remodeling.
WHAT'S THE SIGNIFICANCE OF PACIFIC CITY AND HAYSTACK ROCK TO YOU THESE DAYS?
Jeff has a lot of passion around that, so it's really hard for him to talk about it without getting emotional. It’s so personal, so I’ll jump in here. Jeff was introduced to Pacific city and the Rock by his ex Uncle Jim. We both call him Uncle Jim still, but it's his first wife's uncle. He had a place here in Pacific City and he asked Jeff to come down and look after it for him. He lived in Yakima, which is quite a drive. He asked Jeff to check in on it once in a while. And he knew that Jeff loved to fish and be at the beach, so he was really doing Jeff a favor.
Yeah, Uncle Jim knew I had absolutely no time, no money, and no possible way to have any kind of time off, vacation sort of stuff. So he made up this story that he needed me to come down here and check on his house. It turned out pretty good.
He had a Dory called The Jim Dandy, so he took Jeff out and taught him how to Dory fish, Jim had a commercial license at the time. So they would catch a whole bunch of salmon and bring it in and sell it to the fish buyer. We both fell in love with the Pacific City after that. Who doesn't?!
A personal story about the Rock is when we first moved here, I had a one-year-old, Peter. And he lived with his mom in Amity, which is about an hour from here. And we used to always meet, and trade him back and forth with his mom over in Valley Junction. And on the way back, coming down from the little river, when you break out into the farmland, and you started seeing the Rock. And so we started this thing with Peter where one of us would say, "I see the Rock first!" So we'd have to just wait and wait and wait for him to see it. Is a pretty good reminder of how the rock can build memories that last a lifetime.
WHAT DOES 25 YEARS OF PELICAN BREWING MEAN TO YOU?
It's shocking that it could be 25 years already! It blows our mind when we think about it, because it just doesn't seem like it's been that long! We really accomplished a lot of things over that 25 years. I think one of the great things was the expansion to Tillamook with the production facility, and being able to package it. You don't have to go to Pacific City anymore to buy our beers. I feel like packaging our beers, and the great work from our team, was one of the things that was integral to the success. We packaged it in a very small way in Pacific City with three bottles at a time before that.
And how we were able to invest in Pelican, and the lodging side of our business, which connects back to our early roots in Pacific City here in real estate, second home, vacation home development and sales. And we were very fortunate. We had a partner, John Rupp and his wife Roxi who were so supportive all the time and it was a real good thing for that family, and it was certainly a great thing for our family to have them involved. They were wonderful partners and John would come down once a month and we would visit. Our partnership worked out great and he taught us a lot.
HOW HAS THE COMMUNITY CHANGED IN THAT AMOUNT OF TIME?
Well, I think actually to me, it hasn't changed that much in its roots. It's still a very friendly town where people wave at you when they drive by. I think the change has been that more businesses can actually survive year round. So it used to be, when they first moved here, somebody would come in and renovate a building and put a shop in of any kind. And they'd do okay in the summer, and then the winter would come and they're like, "Oh my God, I have no business." And they would go under. So we would just cycle through businesses every year, some would come, and some would go, and it was really hard for there to be any services. There just weren't enough people here. And the Pelican was suffering from that as well. We just didn't have enough people year round.
But luckily, we had done well in the real estate development part of our business, and John and Roxi were very supportive in those ugly times. And it usually came around. You think about this economy and the business cycle here on the coast. And as a business person early on, I always thought, boy, that November through February must be really tough. And it was, but really what's tough is like May through June because you're out of money by then. Even if you're a really good business person, you've used it all up by then. And you're just kind of struggling, waiting for the next good weekend.
What was needed was more tourism. And while I think that has changed the town, and I think that a lot of other people would say, "Oh no that's big change," and possibly be negative to them as local people, but it's what enabled businesses to survive, is to have enough tourism here to frequent the businesses so that they could make a living so that they would stay. And then that enabled everyone to have those services.
The other thing about it is that growth allowed other people to be interested in buying businesses that were struggling, like the grocery store. And so now we have a pretty darn good operated grocery store with Chester's. And Bob does a great job, and he's improving the quality of everything that's going on there. He's just about to invest a bunch of more money in it and improve it even more. Those are the things that happen that are so critical and they can't happen if we don't have that growth.
I always look back and laugh and say, "The first few years, you couldn't buy whole bean coffee in town." It was only Folgers or Maxwells and not a piece of clothing to be found in the entire town. You couldn't buy a t-shirt anywhere. So it's different for sure. But for me personally, as a resident, it's much better. There's a lot of great little places to eat that do a really good job, the Sportsman, and the Beach Wok, and Ben & Jeff's, and those different places. And on the one hand, without the hotels and the vacation homes, those businesses wouldn't thrive very well. And without those businesses, those vacation homes and hotels wouldn't thrive. They can't all go to the Pelican! It's a symbiotic relationship that has grown the town and still held a culture that's really special.
SO 25 YEARS IN, WHAT ARE YOUR WILDEST DREAMS FOR THE NEXT 25?
Well, one wild dream that's coming about is the building of the Siletz Bay brewpub. We have broken ground again to build something that's been a dream to have. We've wanted to continue to find great locations along the coast and the site at Siletz Bay is a spectacular location.
We talked a little about the difficulties of doing business in a small, coastal community, and our team has gotten really good at doing business on the coast. We know it's hard, you've got to flex from huge business in the peak season down to almost nothing, and you’ve got to be able to help everybody survive that, and have a balanced life for all your employees. It's so different from doing business in a Metro area. I think we, by nature, are a destination brand. And we're not afraid of the Siletz Bay economy and project. We think we'll do well there. We understand it's going to be a nightmare in parts of the year, it's going to be a different kind of nightmare in the peak season, but our team understands how to make that work. We're a coastal brand, so you'll probably just keep seeing something happening somewhere along the coast.
We didn't have a "master plan" in the early years, but we have spent a lot of time refining our goals and we are constantly on the lookout for what is the next thing we want to do. We are always talking about "What's the next wild adventure we can go on?" I like that because we're not on a mission then to find a site that might not be the right site. We don't have to have it by this time, it doesn't have to be in this place. It's just going to be right when we find it, wherever it is.
I think the other thing that's been really great for us over the last three or four years was the hiring of our CEO Jim Prinzing. Jim came along and helped us develop a well operated professional business with strong direction and vision. He has helped us find a balance between the passion and excitement that we have for just doing stuff, between that and really running a great business and doing the right things, and so what we've concluded is, we want to lay a really solid foundation for a business that's built to last. And there is no exit strategy. We love it. And we love the 300 and some folks that work at Pelican and the 150 others that work in our other businesses. And we love the opportunity that's created for people. John Rupp created a lot of that opportunity for Mary and I, and for all these folks that work with us. This all wouldn't have happened without him and we’re thrilled to pass on this opportunity to others that we’re working with today and into the future.