As co-owner of Public House 124, Matthew Price-Huntington keeps a creative bar and rarely forgets a face. In just over a year Price-Huntington and business partner Jim Sanders, have taken a retired ski shop and turned it into one of Walla Walla's most popular watering holes. Public House 124's decor exudes a masculine energy and the open kitchen and friendly staff attract a host of local regulars and, on weekends, just about everyone else visiting town. If you're planning a trip to the heart of Washington wine country, include Public House 124 on your itinerary. You may walk in as a stranger, but you're sure to leave as a friend.
Price-Huntington and some of the Public House 124 crew
Since you've been open over a year now do you find there are different times of year or seasons you like better than others?
Well, fortunately we've been very busy. We joke around and wear black on Fridays because Friday makes or breaks a business like ours -- so every Friday is a "Black Friday" for us. We joke about that but thankfully, weekend to weekend we've been very busy. The wine event weekends you'll see regulars look around the room and say, "We still outnumber 'em, yeah!" It's a challenge because people coming into town are awesome too. They all have their own stories and are here for a reason and are excited to be here. This community embraces tourism and really, it's the cherry on top of the sundae local business provides. I can't really pick a specific time that's my favorite because every weekend here is kind of a big weekend. I mean, you get out of town and let your hair down -- that's what people do. If you're from Seattle and go to Portland, that's what you do. You're like, "Ahhh...I don't know anyone here. Let's tear this one up!" And it doesn't matter if it's Spring release or Fall release -- it's the "I'm out of town and no one knows me". That's why Vegas is so successful.
What happens in Walla Walla stays in Walla Walla?
Yeah, but we never forget you. That's a quote from my friend Bo: 'What happens in Walla Walla stays in Walla Walla -- but we'll never forget you." Most of the people in the food and beverage industry have a pretty keen memory for faces and names and you know, we'll give you a bad time next time you're in town, but it is what it is. It's fun. We all realize that's the case and it's always a nice breather when the huge weekends are over but I don't want them to go away. And I certainly don't want the people to go away, because it's always an experience -- to say the least.
How did you get into the food and beverage industry?
I worked at the Marcus Whitman for almost 5½ years and had a wonderful experience there. I ran the lounge for the bulk of that and learned a lot from Kyle [Mussman, owner of the Marcus Whitman hotel]. I honed my bartending skills there and learned a lot about the food service industry. I was raised here in Walla Walla and the food and beverage community is relatively new here as are the people in it so being part of it and getting to know them too has been amazing.
Expand on that thought that the food and beverage community is relatively new here...
Well, you have the classics like Whitehouse-Crawford and the Marc, which has been around for 11 years, but in the scheme of things, this is a relatively new food and beverage community. You know, it kind of followed the wine here and it's been phenomenal. The locals have received it, I think, rather well which is great -- it's been phenomenal because we need their support to do what we do.
And Public House 124 has become a true hangout for the locals?
Yeah, we pride ourselves on that. That's one of the biggest things I learned while working at the Marc was that everybody from outside of town wants to know where all the people from town like to go. There are a few of those places in town and we'd like to think we're one of them. I think we are.
Had you planned on opening up a bar/restaurant or did the opportunity just sort of "present" itself?
It was kind of my bigger plan. I really felt there was a need for it when I was a kid -- I mean, we had three options for my family to go out to and one of those three was Patit Creek, clear out in Dayton, and that was about it. The other places are no longer around, though there are some of the same great Mexican restaurants that are still around. But, if you think about it, a fine dining experience wasn't really an option. I come from a family that loves to cook and loves to entertain -- both my grandparents and my parents were always having dinner parties when I was growing up and I'd be right in there cooking and making drinks. I made my grandma an Old Fashioned when I was in, I think, 5th grade. I just thought it was entertaining and my dad was always in the kitchen mixing stuff up so...he didn't pour me any alcohol or anything but I really liked mixing things.
So what was the inspiration behind Public House 124?
When I moved back to Walla Walla after college I had an idea about a bar/restaurant in mind. I knew that the alcohol side of it was definitely needed in town, specifically cocktails. Jim German was in the area and he was phenomenal in what he did. I took over for him at the Marc when I started there so got handed over a ship that was turning in the right direction. So, the craft of cocktails I learned and enjoyed and knew I wanted to go in that direction.
I have a business background so I wrote up a business plan for a bar very similar to this and actually was looking at this very spot. There was a time when this space was vacant and I wrote a business plan specifically for this place. It had been Pete's Ski Shop and it ended up re-opening and I went, "Oh well! I guess I'll have to revisit that at some other point in my life," and just kind of back-shelved that business plan and started working on a new one for a different space. The great thing was at the time I was working at the Marc and Kyle was extremely supportive of me. He always encouraged me to go out my own. I have known him since I was a kid, and I felt like he was kind of grooming me for this and he had the confidence in me to do it.
Pete's ended up going out of business, with people buying their skis online and unfortunately, with the weather, a ski shop is really tough business to be in. But fortunately for me the space opened back up and I got in touch with Jim Sanders, who is now my business partner, who owned the building and who I had heard was interested in opening a wine bar. I handed him the business plan and told him to read through it over the weekend and he came back and said, "I love it!" So we went through the whole SBA loan process and...it worked out! They dig deep, you really feel it, but it's rewarding. You know, everybody says the liquor license is the hardest part but that came through before our SBA loan did.
Has it been what you expected?
It's what I hoped it would be: a blast. Business has been great and customers are wonderful so I kinda pinch myself to make sure it's still real.
I bought my first snowboard from Jim when I was in eighth grade, so I have known him a long time and it's really great to be working with him. The other person I have to give a lot of credit to is my wife, Christina. They realized I had a dream to do this and they're always there with a pat on the back so...that's the trickery of life is finding the balance between work, family and what you love to do and your dreams. Fortunately I have a partner who completely supports that -- she's been amazing. She worked day in and day out with me for the first year. She's getting to spend a lot more time with the kids these days, but she'd be here in a second if I needed her. It's pretty amazing to have that support.
You've also got to have a great team around you, and I do. An amazing team. Everybody that works here is incredible. I can't even tell you how much this team and Christina and Jim mean to me. We all do little bits and pieces of this that make it succeed. There are 12 people working here and we do everything from scratch for the food and bar.
Do you make your own booze?
No, we like to keep it simple. We use all fresh ingredients but I try to steer clear of things like liqueurs as much as possible -- though you can't avoid Triple Sec and the occasional Peach Schnapps. We do make our own cinnamon apple infused Bourbon for fans of those Washington Apple-type drinks, and a few different infusions for Winter cocktails. We use all fresh ingredients for Summer like Thyme, Oregano, Rosemary and things like that.
You have some really creative drink combinations. How do you come up with those?
Yeah, like cucumber, cardamom, black pepper? I was eating a soy cardamom ice cream and it was horrible. But that cardamom flavor really came out in it -- you know when you have something that's bad but there's one thing shining about it? I try to kind of latch onto those and I was thinking about cucumbers for some reason and then black pepper, kind of like a spicy margarita, so I just tried it and next thing you know we're making cucumber, cardamom and black pepper margaritas. And people order them!
They're very unexpected. Do you have any favorite/not favorite drinks to make?
Thank you for saying so. I don't like to make Bloody Mary's at night -- we'll start with the negative. I feel guilty about putting that much sodium in somebody and that's why I don't like it -- I can just see their headache in the morning. But I don't really have any 'hated' cocktails. Maybe Spanish coffee in the middle of summer when you've got 30 or 40 drinks waiting to be made?
I just love creating things for people. Every individual has their own tastes and what they like/ don't like so trying to decipher those is a challenge I really like. I like to think that I understand how different things and flavors work together. I think generally people like what I make, they seem to keep coming back -- there's the occasional person who will look up at me like I'm crazy -- but in general, it's good. That's how you learn! R&D is on the customer in this case. If it's a first and they really like it sometimes they even get involved in naming it. We've got the Martian Sunrise that came from a good friend of mine, Bob, who came in and said, "I want something with Tequila in it. And soda. I don't want grapefruit. I don't want lemon. I don't want lime -- but I want citrus." So I figured I had some blood orange puree so I pulled it out, topped it off. Nothing fancy by any means, a really simple cocktail, but it was exactly what he was craving. I told him he had to name it and he did - the Martian Sunrise. Hopefully people understand it's not named after little green men.
Do you have cocktails that are inspired by your menu items or by any of the season foods available in the area?
Yes. It could be just a drink special we do for a week to run with something. We just had a jalapeno ginger mix that was going into one of the sauces for a food menu item so we played around with it and made it into a drink to suggest as a pairing. That was going into a food special so we did a drink special too. We switch up every two weeks or so -- menu and beer as well -- it's fun mixing it up and trying different things.