By Jennifer Passaro
John Akins cannot serve a frozen beef patty. It just isn’t in his DNA.
A young, enthusiastic entrepreneur, Akins grew up in the food service industry and believes in high quality ingredients. It was the guiding philosophy for the Little Olive Greek restaurant in past days, and now it informs the Neighborhood Pub, opened last October.
“We wanted a place where whole families could come in,” Akins says. “We have darts, live sports on TV, pop-a-shot basketball, cornhole outside in the summer, and board games. It is fun. It is rowdy and loud.”
The Neighborhood is an open, bustling two room pub, with dining on one side. On the other are couches, games, a few packed tables, and a bar that looks like a recently felled log polished to a quick shine.
It’s still early Monday, but the place is already hopping. A party of four, clad in Seahawks jerseys, walks in for an early lunch. Akins greets them and heaves an already-tattered accordion file containing Beer Club cards onto the bar.
Essentially a loyalty program without the punch card, Beer Club is designed to keep customers exploring, trying new brews and most importantly, coming back. The customer signs an oath to finish all beers, including ciders. And with ten rotating beers on tap and more than eighty beers in stock, they have plenty of options.
“[General manager Wyatt Langley] and I sat up late with our laptops, facing each other, drinking beer, coming up with Beer Club,” Akins says.
The club is comprised of four levels. After drinking 50 different beers, you pass the “New Kid on the Block” level and earn your own beer-can shaped Neighborhood Pub glass. Dozens of pub glasses perch on shelves made from skis along the restaurant walls.
“I think we will need an upper echelon, even more levels in the club,” Akins says. “We have a few guys that are already over 100 beers.”
With the Neighborhood Pub, Akins wanted to be busy all year, to reach local people. He and his wife have 20 employees, including chef Charles Crase. Together, they came up with a gastropub-infused menu like nothing else in town.
Take the bon bon sandwich: A thick house-made pork sausage patty set in a tangy Asian slaw of cabbage, carrots, cilantro, and green onions. It’s topped with a spicy red sauce, onions, and tomatoes and served on a toasted hoagie with homemade potato salad.
The beef stroganoff that Akins serves up to a customer at the bar, meanwhile, looks rich, hearty and more authentic than any Grandma’s came-across-the-Atlantic recipe.
The food is all the better since Akins is willing to pay more for local ingredients, despite the tight margins of the restaurant industry. The tofu comes from Newport, the bread from Corey at Bread of Life and the produce from local farmers during summer.
“We finally landed on who we are,” Akins says. “Three times a week in the summer we get produce from local farmers. We make everything from scratch. One hundred percent. Twenty-eight different sauces.”
The fun, anything-goes atmosphere also keeps the booths packed. People are free to bring in games and hang out. On Wednesday, tables play Cards Against Humanity.
“[My wife Tullaya] had been working on the idea for a year before we opened,” Akins says. “The concept was games. If you want to bring Dungeons and Dragons and play all day, that’s fine.”
Before the recession hit, Akins worked as a fashion designer for Zumiez. When the economy soured and there was no job security in fashion, the Akins moved to Sandpoint and used their savings to open the Little Olive. They wanted a better future for their family. With the Neighborhood Pub, that future may be well within grasp.
“This is more us than the Little Olive. This is our personality. I can show up to work in jeans and a t-shirt,” Akins says.
For Sandpoint residents, the Neighborhood Pub provides a place where people drop by to say hello. Strangers become acquaintances. In just about every way, it’s a little slice of neighborhood life.
“Our customers are passionate about what they do here,” Akins says. “It’s not some corny line from ‘Cheers,’ where everyone knows your name. [It’s] something better: a quick beer after work with friends and then you can go home.”
The Neighborhood Pub is located at 124 S. 2nd Ave. Sandpoint. Open seven days a week 11 a.m.-10 p.m., 9 p.m. on Sundays. (208)597-7499