An earlier version of this article appeared on KPRC-TV.
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When your drink order arrives at the historical OKRA Charity Saloon, it comes with an unusual added bonus: a ticket stub that reads “Order a bar item, get a charity ticket, vote for a charity, cheers!”
The bar nestled in the north end of Downtown Houston aims to satisfy both its patrons’ cocktail cravings and charitable impulses. Each month, the tavern donates 100 percent of its net profits to a different Houston-area charity.
Here’s how it works: With each bar item purchased, customers receive a ticket they can use to cast a vote for one of four selected charities. Every month, OKRA donates its profits to the charity that earns the most votes.
All in all, OKRA Charity Saloon has donated just shy of $1.3 million to Houston-area charities.
Opened in 2012, OKRA, short for the Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs, is run by a group of over 20 independent restaurant and bar owners in Houston who decided to go into business together when they were exploring how to draw the city’s nightlife downtown.
“There was not really a downtown scene at that time and we thought it was strange that Houston, being such a large city, didn’t have a place where everyone went,” said OKRA Charity Saloon Manager Mary Ellen Angel.
Group members were interested in opening their own for-profit ventures but wanted to test whether opening up shop downtown would prove a flop or a success before going all in the downtown district.
“Everybody was like ‘Hey, why don’t we throw in a little bit of money, see if we can get people to come downtown,’” said Angel. “We’ll make it a charity bar. We’ll give back to the community in this way and if it works, awesome, we can open our own for-profit businesses around the corner and turn it into a district and if it doesn’t it’s not a huge loss because we all only threw in a little bit of money.”
The gambit paid off and after witnessing the saloon’s early success, several members opened their own restaurants and bars nearby while continuing to support OKRA Charity Saloon, which, as of early 2020, has donated money to around 100 social causes around the city.
Now, in 2020, OKRA has partnered with Houston-based marketing firm Integrate Agency to expand its charity program. Throughout the year, each charity to rake in the most votes from month to month will receive $7,000 worth of marketing services along with the proceeds from OKRA.
“Whatever charity wins, we’ll have a kickoff meeting with them to really understand what their needs are and pull from our team’s expertise,” said Allie Danziger, Integrate Agency’s founder and president. “And maybe it’s help with a website, maybe it’s help driving traffic to their website, maybe it’s digital marketing, maybe it’s a quick cleanup of some SEO backend work.”
Angel said the marketing services Integrate Agency will offer the winning nonprofits will go a long way.
“These nonprofits, a lot of times they’re really small, the ones that we’re helping,” said Angel. “They don’t have social media, they don’t have effective marketing tools and so for them (Integrate Agency) to donate their time is really awesome and I think it’s going to really help grow these charities just as much, if not more than the actual money that we’re able to give them.”
Nonprofits interested in throwing their proverbial hat in the ring for considerations as a featured OKRA charity can click here to learn how to apply.
The booze, bites and ambiance:
In 2013, Playboy dubbed OKRA one of the best bars in the country but the Bayou City locale couldn’t be more different than the raucous Bunny Mansion poolside parties the publication is synonymous with.
Inside OKRA, loud music doesn’t blast over conversation, televisions don’t crowd the place and the only neon bar sign hanging in the establishment reads: “Drink for a cause.” A shuffleboard runs the length of the front room and an old-timey voting booth sits to one side of the bar.
The building that houses OKRA originally opened in 1882 as the Original Casino Saloon. The bar’s original 19th-century brickwork, high ceiling and massive skylight lend the saloon a historical charm.
OKRA’s interior used to be exterior, as its sweet digs were historically a downtown alleyway.
OKRA serves a selection of classic cocktails, local brews and satisfying snacks. The food menu boasts a rotating selection of paninis and samplers from the group’s members including Anvil Bar and Refuge, Grand Prize Bar and Paulie’s. While the food selection changes often, the bar’s signature dish, fried pickled okra (an apt choice, if we say so ourselves), is a menu mainstay.
The tavern offers 20 classic cocktails, a limited selection of wine plus several local brews on tap, including beer from local breweries like Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co, Eureka Heights and Saint Arnold.
OKRA is open daily from 4 p.m. – 2 a.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 4 p.m. – 12 a.m. Sunday and Monday. OKRA Charity Saloon is located at 924 Congress Street. For more information or to view a list of OKRA’s past beneficiaries, click here.
Do you know an individual, nonprofit, charity group or organization making our city a better place to call home? Tell us about it at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re always searching for new Houston heroes to feature.