Walkable Workplace Profile: Standing Tall at Ashland's Standing Stone Brewing

By Craig Beebe. Photos by George Rubaloff Photography, Courtesy Standing Stone.

Standing Stone Brewing Company is not your run-of-the-mill brewery. From the chickens and cows on its small farm just across I-5 from Ashland, to the jumble of bicycles parked out front where a single street parking space once was, to the advanced compost and recycling system it maintains, its differences extend far beyond what goes in a pint. Even by the considerably high standards of Oregon’s brewing industry, it charts an impressive course for sustainability and supporting local economies.

The differences are apparent immediately upon entering their airy, attractive restaurant in eminently walkable downtown Ashland, just steps from the renowned Shakespeare Festival and the Ashland Springs Hotel. By lovingly renovating a glass and cabinet shop originally constructed in 1926, Standing Stone created a welcoming central gathering place for locals and visitors alike. Distinctive original architecture and brewing infrastructure lend an quirky industrial flavor to the space, while rows of vegetables lining the open kitchen and a huge chalkboard listing seasonal specials provide a direct link to the farms and fields that provide the food diners eat.

“All Locked In Together”: Building Local Connections

Danielle Amarotico, who owns Standing Stone with her husband Alex, makes sure to point out that specials board to visitors. “That board is really important to our business,” she says. “It’s what allows us to bring in anything that’s in season from our area.” On the day of our visit, that meant chard from Barking Moon Farm in the Applegate Valley, arugula from "Farmer Dave", and oysters from the coast.

Connecting with local farmers and producers is especially important to Standing Stone. They estimate that 90 percent of their ingredients come from the Northwest and Northern California. In the summer months much of it is from within Oregon, and at least 25 percent of the products they serve--from coffee to cheese--are from fellow Rogue Valley producers and processers. Most of the hops in the 500 barrels of beer they produce annually come from local farms, including Alpha Beta Hops outside Ashland. Amarotico notes that it’s been fun to support the historic hops industry in the region: some of Standing Stone's hops are actually grown on the historic Hanley Farm owned by the Southern Oregon Historical Society. Even the hand soap in the bathroom comes from a shop next door. Standing Stone also gives many local farms a direct connection to consumers by hosting one of Ashland's two weekly farmers markets in the street outside their restaurant.

Standing Stone is constantly looking for ways to improve its products and local connections, Amarotico says. She points to some French fries going in the fryer. Annoyed by the poor quality of the potatoes they’d been receiving from a major food distributor, they began looking for alternatives. They connected with a smaller distributor down the street, who linked them up with a Klamath County potato farmer. Impressed with the quality, they agreed to purchase 90,000 pounds of potatoes a year from the farmer. Delicious handcut fries from those potatoes now accompany burgers and sandwiches for their 150,000 annual customers. In the process, they’ve given better security to the farmer and to the distributor, and more money is staying in the region.

“It’s all locked in together,” Amarotico says.

For some dishes, the company is taking its commitment to local products even further. Standing Stone must be one of the few breweries in the nation that raises its own cattle for meat and chickens for eggs. Its farm is located just down the road, on 265 acres leased from the City of Ashland. Though the land, a former cattle ranch, is too degraded to grow vegetables currently, Standing Stone is working to remedy the soil through its extensive compost operations. Meanwhile, they’re beginning a heritage chicken breeding operation, which will eventually fill all of the menu's chicken dishes. It’s certainly a better use than the effluent wastewater plant the City had once intended to build there.

Rethink Everything: Energy, Waste, and Resources

Where some restaurants might place Nutrition Facts on a wall, Standing Stone lists “Conservation Facts” in a prominent place in its restaurant. Utilizing an “eco-wheel” that exhorts the company to “rethink everything,” Standing Stone has enacted a wide range of innovations to reduce energy usage and waste. A particularly notable operation is the extensive compost and recycling program, which has reduced the restaurant’s weekly trash pickup to an astonishingly small can once a week. “It’s mostly rubber gloves and twist ties,” Amarotico says with a laugh. The company is so proud of it, it features a whole gallery online devoted to the single garbage can (right).

Then there are the solar panels on the roof, the shaded skylights that reduce heat buildup in the summer, and the automated energy management system providing the optimum balance of heating, cooling and lighting. And there’s the commitment to using only compostable to-go containers and linens and high-efficiency hand dryers in place of paper towels.  It’s no wonder the company has received honors and acclaim from the Oregon Department of Energy, from the local chamber of commerce, and from Travel Oregon for its innovations in responsible resource use.

Great People: Taking Care of Employees

Working in the restaurant business can be brutal, often with long and unusual hours, no benefits, and lower-than-average pay. But Standing Stone takes a different approach to its employees’ well-being. The company provides full health benefits and 401(k) matching--still rare benefits in the industry--and has a unique attitude toward employee development, encouraging employees to apply their talents and develop skills in a wide range of activities beyond their typical job description. They also provide weekly yoga classes to employees.

It’s the employee bike program that’s garnered the most attention, though. Amarotico describes the program’s creation within the overall arc of developing their sustainability practices: “We had done obvious energy improvements, but we hadn’t done anything for employees. We thought we’d give them all bus passes. But when we did a poll of the staff, we discovered that those wouldn’t be useful to them,” particularly given that many employees work early or late or on weekends, when the area’s small transit service has little to no coverage.

“They told us bikes would be more useful,” Amarotico says. “They didn’t have them—neither did I, actually.” So, taking advantage of a now-expired state incentive program that helped cover the cost, Standing Stone purchased several dozen new bikes from a local bike shop, and gave them free to employees who’d worked more than 1,000 hours (roughly six months) and who would agree to bike commute at least 45 times within a year. The program has been extremely popular with employees, and on our visit several of the 40 Standing Stone Brewing-branded bikes were locked up outside. Employees use them not only for commuting, but to run quick work-related errands to the nearby food co-op or hardware store. They’ve since inspired a similar program at Rogue Creamery in nearby Central Point, who in turn has challenged another company in Klamath Falls to do the same.

In the restaurant business, and particularly in a college town like Ashland, businesses tend to see a fairly high rate of employee turnover. Amarotico says Standing Stone didn't implement programs like the bikes and health benefits simply to retain employees, but because it seemed like the right thing to do. Still, she's aware of the impact it has on their employment prospects. “It helps us find great people in the first place," she says. "They’re attracted to what we have to offer.”  Being consistently ranked among the “Top 100 Green Businesses to Work For in Oregon” can’t hurt, either.

Guiding the Way

A company like Standing Stone naturally attracts attention—from consumers, businesspeople, and media alike. Amarotico says she and her husband give a lot of tours, and many of their customers say they’ve heard about the company’s innovations. “People know what you’re doing, and they come to ask and see it,” she says. “It’s great to be a resource.”

But for more businesses to do what they’re doing, Amarotico says, ultimately requires a leap of faith. “You have to bite the bullet and try it, instead of talking about it,” she says. That includes taking some risks. Not all of their innovations have worked out, and some, like the removal of that street parking space for a bike corral, have involved considerable work with the local community.

“It all takes a champion,” Amarotico says, describing how several of the company’s initiatives were initially the idea of one person. The bike program was her idea, the energy systems were Alex’s, and the yoga program was an employee’s.

Despite the many innovations it's already implemented, Standing Stone still has plenty of ideas for the future. They have eyes on a possible rooftop terrace on the buildings next door someday, adding to the lovely patio they already have, and they hope to continue expanding their farm operations with a more permanent lease. But despite their heightened profile, they plan to stay firmly rooted in downtown Ashland. “It’s got a great thing going,” Amarotico says, and they're glad to be part of it.

Despite all the attention they’ve received, a lot of the innovations are invisible to the thousands of customers they serve every week. Sitting on the patio on a sunny spring afternoon, sipping a pint of (100% Oregon-sourced) I Heart Oregon Ale over a sandwich or burger and fries, it all fades behind a good meal and a fine experience. And in the end, that’s what Standing Stone has always sought to provide over the last 15-plus years.

The icon and namesake of the company, which graces its logo, is Pilot Rock, a monolith just north of the California line that’s visible from several spots in the Rogue Valley and from the other side of the Siskiyous. It’s fitting that Standing Stone should employ the rock, long a beacon to weary travelers headed for the Oregon Country. Traffic into the valley no longer requires Pilot Rock to show the way, but Standing Stone has well established itself as a draw for locals, visitors, and travelers just passing through--whether for a quick lunch, a refreshing pint, or a lingering conversation. One hopes that Standing Stone can be also be a guide for Oregon businesses seeking a similar path, wherever they may be today.

Read more about Standing Stone's sustainability practices, and plan your own visit!