The McMenamin Brothers

by Allen Cox | Photo © McMenamin

 “One of the secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others.” 

– Lewis Carroll

If you have ever been to a McMenamins (yes, without an apostrophe), especially one of the company’s hotel properties, you instantly know you’re in for an experience like none other. There’s not a singular reason that makes the experience distinctive—the many visual details surrounding you, or the history of the place, or the generous entertainment options—but it’s the sum of all those. Plus something more enigmatic. It’s as if you’ve stepped into someone’s else’s imagination—or, more accurately, personality. And it just feels good. 

“Whoa!” you may be thinking. “Dude, you’re romanticizing.
It’s just a hotel.”

 

Romanticizing is what McMenamins is all about, and having pure fun with family and friends. Brothers Brian and Mike McMenamin have not only built a business to which their guests return again and again, they have built a world, much as writers of fantasy fiction build worlds that occupy your imagination. But how did this “world” of McMenamins, which has grown and thrived for more then three decades, evolve? To answer that question, look no further than the McMenamin brothers themselves. What you’re experiencing is very much a part of them.

“I’ve always gone with what just feels good,” says Mike McMenamin, 64, the senior of the two.

Few business plans get very far with a “what feels good” engine behind it. Mike’s laid-back persona belies the astute business savvy within. It turns out what feels good to Mike and Brian feels good to a lot of people, not only those who share their boomer generation, but younger guests as well.

“We sell an experience,” Brian says. A McMenamins property is a destination, not just a place you bed down for the night or grab a meal. The “experience” Brian refers to is unique to McMenamins. And the devil is in so many details.

As with many in the boomer generation, wanderings through Europe in the 1970s had profound influences on both men. Mike observed what was happening in the food and beverage industry in Europe, which was vastly different and much more exciting than anything he’d experienced in his homeland of Oregon at the time. Brian saw entire families around the table enjoying food and drink and each others’ company. It was a cultural phenomenon he’d never seen before, one steeped in and surrounded by history. Both men wanted to replicate what they experienced when they returned home, not artificially, but authentically.

Armed with inspiration, the brothers went into business together in the early ‘80s. McMenamins was born. It has since grown to include nine hotels (with two more in the wings), dozens of pubs and restaurants, movie theaters, spas, music venues, a coffee roaster, and a winery, brewery, cidery and distillery.

“We always try to reach out and be part of the community,” says Brian. This is the offspring of an implicit karma philosophy of doing the right thing. For the McMenamin brothers, it’s not amassing an empire that matters, it’s that each property, each venue is a part of the community where it resides—in the community, for the community.

Community citizenship takes many forms at McMenamins. On a small scale, for example, people in the community, even if not guests or patrons, can use hotel pools for free. But community involvement runs deeper for Mike and Brian McMenamin. Preserving historic buildings that have been an important part of the community is at the top of the list. Most of the McMenamin properties are in historic buildings that had outlived their purpose, and each has been saved from doom.

“When we started, we couldn’t afford to buy new, shiny places,” Brian says, “so we bought old ones. These places always come with stories, and we build on that.” They realized that the stories of people and deeds might otherwise be lost in time unless someone preserved them along with preserving the brick and mortar. So important is historic preservation to the brothers that they hired a small staff of historians to research and document these stories. And these stories find their ways into art, murals, menus, place names and architectural details, nearly everywhere you look.

What can be considered their flagship property, Edgefield, in Troutdale, Oregon, is a prime example of a place rich in history. It was once the county poor farm, back when such places actually existed. The institution’s stories are ones of real reversals of fortune, each fascinating, researched and documented. The place is alive with history and equally alive with guests enjoying the dizzying array of amenities on the extensive property.

At any McMenamins, spend some time looking around at the art, both large-scale pieces and smaller architectural adornments. Each has a story tied to the property’s past. Each was commissioned for the property and personally approved by Mike and Brian, who play a personal role in developing what each property becomes. Original art is everywhere and is an undeniable part of the experience.

The fact that each property is a unique historic structure with its own distinctive past and personality makes it impossible for the McMenamin brothers to take a cookie-cutter approach to developing them (not that they would). This distinctiveness is an asset that gives each property a personality as big as life itself.

When Brian is challenged to choose a favorite among the properties (like choosing a favorite child), he hesitates. “It’s the one we’re working on at the time,” he says. At present, that would be Anderson School in Bothell, Washington, scheduled to open in the fall of 2015.

When they started the business and began talking about what they wanted to develop, “people said it couldn’t be done,” recalls Mike. But it could be done, organically, using community, history, art and “what just feels good” as strategic pillars. Doing what feels good and doing the right thing (maybe for the McMenamin brothers, they are one and the same) has proved to be a powerful foundation on which to build a hospitality, food, beverage and entertainment business. Communities, where McMenamins has a presence, like it. Guests like it. It just feels right.