Iconic Bend business, M & J Tavern, up for sale

The owners of M & J Tavern might not know your name when you walk through its doors near downtown Bend, but patrons have enjoyed its hospitality, taking a break from all their worries for 74 years.

Train passengers would come in for a pack of smokes and a six -pack. Area workers would cash their paychecks at the bar and order a beer. Even now, some will start a load of laundry at the adjacent laundromat and savor a brew while the rinse cycle spins. Wednesdays are open mic nights for aspiring musicians. And Fridays, patrons are told to throw their peanut shells on the floor.

All that could vanish, though, relegated to another chapter in Bend’s past.

The iconic venue is up for sale and has been since July. The owners for the past three decades, Richard and Pamela Whittemore, are seeking new buyers of the tavern and laundromat that sit on the corner of Greenwood Avenue and NW Hill Street. The Whittemores did not return calls from The Bulletin.

They’re hoping they can find a buyer who wants to maintain the businesses, said Bar Manager CJ Hitchcock .

So far the only interest has been Hitchcock.

She asked for a bank loan, but was turned down. Now, she has a GoFundMe account. After being up for less than a week, she’s raised $879 toward her million dollar goal.

“I’m looking for investors or partners to help me buy the business,” the 42-year-old said. “I haven’t owned my own bar before, but I’ve been running this one since 2014.”

Hitchcock said that she’d like to see the tavern’s activities and vibe become a lasting legacy.

“The owner has given me an opportunity to guarantee the future of the tavern,” Hitchcock said.

“The building and the businesses have to be purchased together. The owners have a desire to see the legacy go on.”

Musical foundation

The open mic night started in 2005 when musicians come in with their guitars. It became a regular event in 2009, when she and bartender Mike Martin started asking them to play. Now the tavern is considered a downtown living room, a launching place for musicians to play before an audience.

That focus on Central Oregon musicians has helped new bands and musicians thrive in the local scene.

Singer-songwriters such as Johnny Bourbon of Harley Bourbon and The Roof Rabbits, Jess Ryan of The Jess Ryan Band, Kylan Johnson, Ben Watts all started performing at the open mic night and played their first shows at the venue.

“Open mic is nerve-wracking for anybody who’s trying it for the first time, but (M&J) is one of the most laid-back settings to do it,” Bourbon said. “… It seems like it’s a little more comfortable there because there’s enough booze flowing that it seems like if you (mess) up, no one’s really gonna notice, or if whatever.

“You’re not as worried to try new things, and people are generally really supportive too.”

Johnson and Bourbon (born John Forrest) started playing in the venue before they turned 21.

They would wait outside until it was their turn to perform, play their songs and leave.

“Johnny Bourbon — back when I smoked cigarettes, I would go out front while Mike was in here because it wasn’t super busy,” Hitchcock said. “And here comes this kid walking down the street with a guitar on his back, and I was like, ‘Hey, you know we’re doing open mic?’ And he’s like, ‘I’m not old enough.’ And I was like, ‘Well how old are you?’”

Bourbon was 19 at the time. His parents were regulars at the bar before he was born, he said. Martin and Hitchcock gave him an opportunity to perform when no other venue in Bend would, and he would go on to meet his bandmates in Harley Bourbon and The Roof Rabbits at open mic nights.

“A lot of my musical history in this town is hinged upon the M&J,” he said.

Live music went on hiatus at the bar for a seven-month stretch in late 2018 and 2019 after Broadcast Music Inc., or BMI, one of several performing-rights organizations that collect licensing fees for songwriters and publishing companies, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Eugene against the tavern and its owners, the Whittemores, alleging six claims of willful copyright infringement. The bar got its licenses from BMI and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers , and live music resumed in June 2019.

Corner bar

It’s quite common to sell real estate and a business together, said Walt Ramage, NAI Cascade Commercial Real Estate Services commercial broker. Like most real estate, if it’s priced right it sells, Ramage said.

“It does take the right kind of buyer,” Ramage said. “The key is in the financials. It has to be priced right for the market.”

For commercial properties, Ramage said, it’s all about the return on investment. There is demand for commercial property in Bend, he said.

In addition to music, the bar has two pool tables that see frequent use throughout the week. Sundays are free pool days, and two Billiard Congress of America, or BCA, League teams play Tuesday nights.

“Our two home teams fully enjoy the live music on Tuesday nights,” Hitchcock said. “While some of it could, depending on the volume, be home-team advantage, they look forward to that.”

For Hitchcock, it’s more than a community. “We’re a family,” she said.

Bourbon said he hopes Hitchcock succeeds in her bid to buy the business and building. “I’ve been hoping that someday CJ would buy that thing, and I know it’s crossed her mind,” he said.

If the bar does end up closing, it would be a blow to the musicians who developed their art there, Bourbon said.

“In that event, you have to acknowledge that we’ve lost an important part of our coming-of-age,” he said. “We will have lost something that was integral to us becoming who we are as local musicians, I think. It’s almost like losing a relative or a limb, you know. But we go on because that’s what you do.”

While change is inevitable, Hitchcock knows that the crowdsourcing for funds is her last resort to preserving the tavern.

“This tavern has really been a staple,” she said. “We’ve created a community of musicians, artists and for people who want to drink here. I want to make this happen and I believe in it. So, yeah, what I’m looking for is ownership, a guarantee that the place stays the way it is.”

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