Minh Tran

Three years ago, Carey Bolton walked into the Reel M Inn to meet a friend for a drink. That drink turned into a bartending gig, then a promotion to manager. And on August 26, 2018, she’s going to own the place.

As first reported by Willamette Week, Bolton is buying the bar from its current owners, Paul Meno and Cathy Myers, having signed all the paperwork on September 7. Bolton has been the Division Street bar’s manager for about six months, and has worked behind the bar at the Reel for three years, following that fateful drink.

“I walked into the Reel to have a drink with a girlfriend and asked the bartender, Kaili, if they were hiring,” Bolton says. “She had been there for years and years and told me that she was moving to the coast, could I start tomorrow? I’ve been there ever since.”

The Reel has become one of the best-loved bars in Southeast Portland, due to its fastidious refusal to change amid the rapid development of Division Street and the disappearance of other neighborhood bars like it. (In 2015, The Daily Meal called it the second best dive bar in America.) It’s also got the best chicken in town; the Reel’s familiar exterior sign announces “Chicken & Jo-Jos,” a beacon for lovers of perfectly fried bird and potato.

Bolton says there will be no immediate changes to the Reel when she takes over next summer. “Maybe a few updates, but nothing major,” she says, offering welcome reassurance to longtime Reel patrons who have heard scuttlebutt about the cozy bar’s possible closure after the building transferred hands earlier this year. The property’s new owner, and the Reel’s new landlord, is Douera LLC, a group led by Chris Briggs and family members. Briggs’ other ventures in Portland include Loyal Legion beer hall (co-run with Kurt Huffman of ChefStable), and he told the Mercury back in June that the very last thing he ever wanted to do was close the Reel, thoroughly debunking all the rumors that were circulating at that time. Briggs also said that there would be something to announce in the coming months—presumably that something has turned out to be the Reel transferring ownership to Bolton.

It’s not just fantastic news for lovers of the Reel M Inn; this is also a pretty wonderful story about an employee becoming owner of the workplace she loves and preemptively protecting it from any lingering possibility of closure. “I started in this industry as a dishwasher at 14 years old and have been in the service industry one way or another, ever since. It has been a dream to own my own place!” Bolton says.

Meno and Myers have owned the Reel just shy of 18 years, and will be retiring following the transfer; their plans had left the fate of the Reel up in the air when the lease expires next year. “I’ll be finishing out Paul’s current lease and then signing a new one,” says Bolton. “A new lease is guaranteed; we are currently working out the terms.”

So maybe it’s not exactly breaking news: the Reel M Inn is sticking around. But if that means things are staying the same, then no news is good news. “The most special thing about the Reel would hands down be the regulars. An incredible group of people,” Bolton says. “There is something about the Reel that makes any and all feel comfortable and welcome when they walk through those doors.”

As for now, she says, “It’s business as usual at the Reel, even if I have a million things to do!”

Further ReadingReel M Inn: An Oasis in a Desert of Development