With ambitions of renewing the communal bond of the local watering hole, the Mill Valley Hub, founded by Julian Kaelon and Mill Valley’s own Jack Owens, hopes to be a successful business with intrinsic purposes. Donating 100% of their net profits to patron selected local charities, the innovative duo hope to provide the community with a fun and engaging means to give back, while also enjoying locally sourced food and beverages. Check out our interview with Jack and Julian below to learn more about the origins, goals, and future of this burgeoning business.
Can you guys tell us a little about the origins behind the idea to create the Mill Valley Hub?
Julian: Yeah, I work the concessions stand at the theatre, which is basically like a table in the lobby, and a little over a year ago I was like, oh, wouldn’t it be great if instead of just this table, there was a bar that people could frequent while they attended shows, which also served the general public? I told Jack what I was thinking and from that conversation the charitable aspect of the bar, which kind of plays into what the theatre does, started to form.
Jack: We just started thinking about it a lot and we thought, oh, this would be cool if the bar was charitable, that would be kind of fun. Then we thought, this might have a bigger affect than we originally realized. At first we thought of the fundraising aspect only on the surface level, like, ok, fundraising is something that is good; giving money away is always helpful. Then we started thinking about it on more of a psychological and social level, and figured this could really change the way people feel about philanthropy; if you take an experience that people have fun, and enjoy doing and you add a little bit of ‘giving back’ to that it might connect people in a more positive way with the charities that help their local community.
Is there a process you guys go through when you select which charities you will donate to?
Julian: How it works is, once a quarter, so every three months, we spotlight a different group of charities. So, it will be like 3 different charities that will be listed on the menu at any given time. We like to keep the options as diverse as possible, so if people want to give more towards the environment, there will be an option more geared towards environmental causes or if they want to give more to helping homeless shelters, there will be an option more orientated towards that cause. So, there will be different categories represented and every three months there will be a new grouping of charitable options, which fall under those different categories, to choose from. So, whenever you’re ordering your glass of wine, or beer, or whatever, you will be like, ok, I’ll have the net profits of my purchase go to charity B. We then keep track of the frequency of each charities selection.
Jack: Yeah, we felt that it was a good idea to keep the list of donation options small, because if you just have a big list it might take people a long time to look through and they might not read anything about the charities; so, this is a great way to give exposure to smaller charities as it allows patrons the ability to read a little bit more about them, since there are only 3 options at a given time, while not taking away from the experience of going out; it doesn’t become a chore, it’s more just a fun addition to the experience.
Julian: Yeah, first and foremost, MV Hub is going to be a great place to hangout with friends and family, with this spin on it that makes it more of a unique experience than you would have at your average bar.
Julian: It’s going to replace the rug store, which is connected to the theatre, but not inside it per se; it’s its own separate entity, its own business separate from the theatre; we would still serve the concessions for the theatre, though. Essentially, as far as the space is concerned, it (the Mill Valley Hub) would have its own entrance, its own seating area, its own bar, but it will break into the lobby of theatre over a bar top. So people attending shows and events at the theatre can come up to the passage window and order at the bar.
Where will the products you sell, be produced?
Julian: We will only be serving California produced products: California wines, California beers, the cheese plates that we will serve will consist of products produced in California; we want everything to have a local feel. Supporting local businesses, supporting the community. I mean, there are such great offerings in California, we felt why serve anything produced anywhere else?
You touched on it a little bit in your answer to the question on the origins of the idea for the MV Hub, but in a little more detail, what did you mean by changing the way people feel about philanthropy, and did the addition of the philanthropic aspect of the bar have anything to do with an attempt to change the social perspective on alcohol consumption?
Jack: We’ve thought a lot about the way alcohol is perceived in America and there are a couple of issues that we have particularly focused on, and the way we look at it is: I spent a lot of time in Europe over the past year or two, and if you go over there and you go into a local English pub or you go to a German brauhaus, they’re not places people go to with the sole intention of getting smashed, they’re places people go to be with their neighborhood; sort of like an informal town hall, you know? I went and visited my family in England, and they were like, we have to go to the pub. And I was like we have to go to the pub? To which they would respond, yeah, we told the Jeffersons we’d stop by and say hi. It’s that aspect, that communal vibe that I really like, and I realize that we’ve lost that in America. I think people feel a lot more disconnected, in a personal sense, from their neighborhood nowadays.
Julian: Yeah, so we want to add a central point, i.e. the Hub, where people can gather and create that social environment, that social community where people are having a good time, they’re relaxing and they’re sharing a drink with their neighbor, while also donating to a better cause.
Jack: In reference to the perception of alcohol, I think the MV Hub will be great for the local wineries and breweries because it gives them an opportunity to show the positive influence they can have on the community. I mean, these are people that support our local community, like the Lagunitas Brewing Company gives a lot back to the national parks; like, they do cool stuff and people appreciate them for that, so why don’t we incorporate them (the local breweries and wineries) in our lives in a more positive manner, so that we don’t look at alcohol as this taboo that causes all this ruckus, instead view the act of drinking from a communal perspective, removing the belligerently drunk aspect of the act for a more inviting and engaging interaction between members of the community.
So how exactly will your business operate? Are you guys a non-profit organization?
Jack: We are donating all net-profits, so, similar to a non-profit, we retain enough money to cover our operational expenses such as lighting, salary for employees, rent, inventory costs etc. with the rest of our profits, which would normally go to the shareholders, going to the local charities, instead.
Julian: Starting out it was a sticky situation, because originally we were going to be a non-profit, but we couldn’t legally become one because of the type of business we wanted to run. Luckily, this new law came in to effect which enabled businesses to operate as ‘Benefit Corporations,’ which makes it possible to run a business using for-profit business practices, but then have a second set of goals and missions that become your bottom line; meaning, as opposed to just trying to make a profit and get money to the shareholders, you instead have this secondary bottom line of a mission, so to speak, as if you’re a non-profit.
Jack: The issue was that if we tried establish the MV Hub as a non-profit, we’d get into un-fair competition laws with the state, which means that if you look like you’re doing something that could be done by a private business, the state wouldn’t give you the tax-incentives that you get by being a non-profit organization and then you’d get shut down. Then, if we did incorporate as a corporation, just straight up, if we were trying to give away all of our profits to charities, our shareholders could sue us for not maximizing the return on their investment. So a Benefit Corporation allows you to operate as a business, but have it set in your bylaws that you have these goals; our goal, is to give support and exposure to local non-profits and charities, and we can never get in trouble for doing that, which is really important. Transparency and accountability were really important to us as well, so every year our fiscal reports are made public, so everyone can look into what we’re doing and see if we’re being true to our stated goal. This is really important because it holds us accountable, and if we don’t run this forever and it becomes a Mill Valley institution, which we want it to be, this act of transparency insures that the Mill Valley Hub will always be true to its original mission, it won’t get screwed up in the future.
How are you guys raising money for the Mill Valley Hub?
Jack: We’re trying to raise as much money as we can from the community because we see the MV Hub as a community project; we see the return on investment in this as a lot more communal than fiscal. So, the more support we can get from the community, as opposed to investment from shareholders looking for a financial return on their investment, the better this is going to run. We’re trying to raise as much money as we can through donations, so we’re not paying down a whole bunch of debt; the sooner we can start donating money to charity, the better, and the more debt we have, the longer it will take for us to do that.
Julian: Yeah, so it’s really important that the Indiegogo campaign is successful because that would allow us to begin the MV Hub at the best starting point possible, you know? As Jack said earlier, the return on investment for this is going to be communal, so in that same light, we want to be able to fund the project through communal means.
How do you feel Marin has affected you business as well as philanthropic pursuits?
Jack: I think the nature of Marin, the fact that people like to give back and feel like they are part of a community, had an effect on me growing up. I just remember back when I was a kid growing up in Mill Valley, all of the cool shops that used to be here, like Sakes Alive and Snapple Farms, that are all gone now; it’s all clothing shops now, and I feel like this is our chance to try to take the town back a little bit, to sort of make it good for young people again.
Julian: As someone who moved to Mill Valley a few years ago, I really enjoy it here; I think it’s a great community. Everyone seems really into being a part of the Mill Valley community, which is a huge contrast to how it was while I was living in LA, where everyone is their own little planet; you don’t have that unity there that you do here. I found when I came up here, everyone is very much wanting to be involved, wanting to be a part of something, which is something that I really love about this town, but I also noticed that there isn’t a whole lot to do around here. So, I think it would be great to have something like the MV Hub here. I mean it’s not like we’re creating another 2am Club, where it’s going to really cater to the younger crowd necessarily, but what we are doing is creating a space that will be enjoyable for everyone, of all ages, to come and socialize, which is something that I think this town desperately needs.
Jack: Yeah, and importantly, it’s not going to be pretentious; It’s going feel real homey. It needs to feel like it has always been here and it’s always going to be here.
What’s the plan moving forward for the Mill Valley Hub?
Julian: We feel like this is the first trial run, we want to make this a success here and make something unique and special, while also keeping in mind that we can replicate this elsewhere. We feel like this is a template that could work in a lot of different situations, and would be really well received in a lot of different situations; we could see a San Francisco Hub, or a Berkeley Hub, or an Oakland Hub. I think this is something that a lot of people, especially those falling in the younger demographic, could really latch onto, like, yeah, I want to have a good time and I want to do something good for the community, but I don’t have the funds to do both, but hey, here’s one place where it all comes together; I think that could really blossom in other cities and towns in Northern California, as well as California as a whole, and even nationwide. So, this is really like a stepping-stone to something grander, something greater.
Jack: It could have a huge impact. The hardest thing to do is to change the way people think about stuff, i.e. create a societal change in perception, and if we can shift people from thinking that philanthropy is a sacrificial thing to being something fun, that they enjoy doing, that could have a huge impact. So, it may sound like a little bar, but what we are hoping for is a bigger change.
Julian: Yeah, putting the fun in fundraising.