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Jessie Burke’s fearless journey to The Society Hotel


Jessie Burke doesn’t consider failure to be an option.

From the time she and her husband, Jonathan Cohen, put a lien on their house to start the popular Posies Bakery & Cafe in the Kenton neighborhood of Portland back in 2009, Burke has been forging ahead with her entrepreneurial dreams, secure in the knowledge that if she ever hit a bottom, she’d find a way to bounce right back up.

It is a confidence, she notes, that comes from a pretty simple premise.

“You don’t die when you run out of money. You can talk to people. You can ask for help. You do not disappear. That makes me unafraid. I’ve come from the bottom already.”

And it was with this fearlessness that Burke and Cohen have launched their latest project, The Society Hotel in Old Town/Chinatown Portland. In 2013, they and two other partners bought the old Mariners Building on 3rd and Davis, a four-floor structure built in 1881 with a colorful history as a safe house for sailors, a Chinese dance hall, and a McDonald Center for social services.

Their dream was to transform the building, through a complete inside and outside renovation, into The Society Hotel, a unique hostel/hotel hybrid that would be the first of its kind in Portland, and play a key role in the revitalization of Chinatown, an urban area that has been slow to participate in the recent downtown economic boom.

This renovation is nearly complete, and if all goes according to plan, the Hotel will open in October.

But to really get a sense of the entrepreneurial moxie that was required to turn this dream into a reality, we need to step back a few paces—back to when Burke first launched Posies.

Making a difference in Kenton

1010391_10153010440217278_4908613065083742718_nBurke had just left an unfulfilling job in the investment banking industry (an “alternate universe”, she called it) and no longer wanted to be an employee that fulfilled someone else’s vision – she wanted to execute on a vision of her own.

Trouble was, she didn’t know exactly what that business vision would be. She liked the service industry—and had a strong desire to set up shop in an underdeveloped community—owning to her educational background with a Masters degree in public administration, with an emphasis on community development and urban planning.

Clarity beckoned, however, through her love of a certain hot beverage. As Burke recalls, “I wanted the kind of business I’d want to go to every day, and I want to drink coffee every day, so that was the start. I also thought about neighborhood. Kenton was an urban renewal area, so the Portland Development Commission (PDC) had money in the area.

“Nobody was doing anything, and this community development thing interested me. A coffee shop and bakery would be a game changer (for the Kenton neighborhood commercial district). Unlike a restaurant, people aren’t expected to leave. If people started hanging around, more people would hang around, and people would feel safer.”

Burke wrote it all up in a business plan, and above all else, it had to be family friendly. “I thought, I don’t care if it makes a ton of money; if we can survive, and we’ve made a difference, that’s the most interesting thing to me.”

She rented a space on Denver Street, moved her parents out from the east coast so her mother could do the baking, and put the lien on their house for financing, and opened Posies.   It’s been a fixture in Kenton ever since, carving out its niche as a “homestyle” café and coffee shop that has helped revitalize a neighborhood.

And now, it’s the next challenge – jumping into the ultra-competitive hotel business.

Leveraging a community to the hilt

20140129_SocietyHotel_078Back in 2013, they quickly rallied around a hybrid hostel/hotel idea pitched by their friend (and now partner) Matt Siegel, and after checking out a hotel in Chicago that had successfully embraced the concept, started looking for downtown Portland property. Burke notes “It’s a concept that needed to happen downtown –there are not a lot of options for an affordable hotel.”

It wasn’t long before they found the right place. One day, after looking at a neighboring property that was for sale, Burke was walking around Chinatown and paused in front of the Mariners Building, abandoned and empty. She took one look in the window and knew it was the place. She put in a call to their real estate broker, immediately.

Turns out the building was owned by a local Chinese fraternity, called a “Tong.” They were able to get them to accept a cash offer before they officially put it on the market. But there was a small problem, the group didn’t have any of the cash in-hand.

Undaunted, they negotiated some time before closing on the building, brought in another partner (Gabe Genauer), and then all the partners went to work to raise the needed money. Siegel, Genauer and Cohen & Burke (as one partner) each raised $250,000. Siegel asked family, Genauer took out a line of credit, and Cohen & Burke crowd-sourced their share from friends and family.

The next step was to finance the multi-million dollar renovation program, and with help from PDC and Lewis & Clark Bank, they got that money too, in Burke’s words “leveraging to the hilt.” All in all, it was a huge reach-out effort that paid great dividends.

It all involved simply casting aside any fear and asking for help, something Burke does naturally. “Asking doesn’t hurt,” she notes. “The worst thing that can happen is they say ‘no.’”

When asked why so many people are frozen in place by the fear of “no,” Burke counters “They don’t fear no, they fear the humiliation. And maybe that humiliation lasts a lifetime, because you are laughed at. They think something else is going to happen.”

Burke has gotten past all that, because she grew up very poor and worked hard to forge a life for herself, believing all along the journey that if there was a will, there would be a way. She knows she will never disappear, as long as the faith in herself remains.

A piece of Portland in Chinatown

_I0A9469The Society Hotel is a reflection of that faith, as the near-completed renovation heads towards its final touch ups before the grand opening. Its hallowed halls and guest rooms have been lovingly restored with a PDX-modern touch, promising its future guests a true taste of the town.

“We want people to experience Portland, even if they don’t leave the building”, says Burke. A community builder still, she says that they’ll be encouraging guests to interact—a typical element of hostels—and also drawn from her experience as a camp counselor as a youth.

A café in the lobby serving locally roasted coffee, Oregon wines and craft beers, Posies pastries and other treats from Portland chefs will further the same “sit down and hang with us” vibe that Burke created at Posies.

As the opening approaches, does any worry creep into Burke’s head? What about the pressure for profit?

“You can raise prices,” she notes. “But there’s going to be a breaking point. What’s the most you can pay for a bunk bed? We’re not in it for the economics. We want it to do well, but it will do well. I have no concerns about making it, and we don’t have to be zillionaires.”

But what The Society Hotel will have is a unique team behind it with a shared vision that puts community and service over profit. Burke puts it this way – “It’s hard to get a group like ours together with crazy different backgrounds who want to do a business like this. There’s no big corporation behind us, it’s just us – 4 local Portlanders with a lot of ideas who thought they could pull this off.”

It’s as she calls it, “an explosion of weird.”

All in a day’s work for this incurable Oregon optimist who has been liberated to dream big while keeping purpose squarely ahead of profit.

For more information visit www.thesocietyhotel.com, like them on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter

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Terry St. Marie

Terry "Starbucker" St. Marie, when he isn't working with Mitch & Rick on Built Oregon, writes on his own site, TerryStarbucker.com, and is also a business consultant, Director of Finance of PDX retailer/record label Tender Loving Empire, investor in the Oregon Angel Fund, chairman of the board of Social Ventures Portland, and a general man about town (and espresso bars)