Washington Tribe Diversifies With Gaming Revenues

Call it the house that gaming built: On June 30, Chehalis Tribal Enterprises in the Pacific Northwest opened a $20 million brewery, distillery and restaurant funded by the tribe’s successful casino enterprise, Lucky Eagle (l.).

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Washington Tribe Diversifies With Gaming Revenues

On June 30, Chehalis Tribal Enterprises in Western Washington State opened a new brewery, distillery and restaurant called Talking Cedar just off Interstate 5 in a community called Grand Mound.

What makes it special is that was funded by revenues generated by the tribe’s Lucky Eagle Casino in Rochester, Washington—although you won’t find a single slot machine in the place.

The $20 million project is the brainchild of Chris Richardson, managing director of Chehalis Tribal Enterprises and the man in charge of spinning economic success from tribal gaming. “I’ve been working on this project for five years,” he said in an interview with GGB News. “I’m the only one left. I feel it’s my child.”

The mission of Chehalis Tribal Enterprises “is to build new enterprises outside of gaming, to diversify off the success of our casino,” which opened in 1995, Richardson added. Unlike commercial casinos, tribal operations are used to fund governmental services such as education and elder care, and are “a 100 percent tax that goes to the tribe.”

The Covid-10 pandemic, which closed the Lucky Eagle in March, “cut down an important cash flow to our government services,” said Richardson. But the flow resumed June 11, when the casino reopened.

A member of the Chehalis tribe, Richardson has a lot of experience in gaming, and was formerly chief financial officer of the Lucky Eagle. His job now is much different. “It all falls under hospitality,” he said. “Casinos are entertainment, hotels. We’re everything but the slots.”

Casino revenues have acted as a catalyst for the tribe’s growing economy, and enterprises that now include a construction company, an RV park and the Great Wolf Lodge Water Park Resort.

“The Talking Cedar project is built around the whole craft food movement: craft beer, craft spirits. That whole wave of people who are interested in locally grown ingredients, sustainability processes and quality. We’re going to try to get our grains and oats and wheat and barley from Washington.” When the tribe creates a flavored beer—say, with raspberries—those raspberries will be locally sourced.

“The source of the water is a well on site, so we are drawing from an aquifer. The grounds are on reservation land. We designed Talking Cedar to be a destination—but not a casino destination. It’s a brewery, and a brand we are developing,” said Richardson.

The tribe fell into the brewery, distillery and restaurant business rather serendipitously. It was conducting a feasibility study for the 88-room Marriott hotel it opened two years ago, and “the experts said there was a market, but that it was on the soft side. We went down the block to our Great Wolf Lodge property and talked to those managers and explained our concerns about the potential for light occupancy. They suggested a sports bar.”

The tribe then searched for a brewer. They talked to people who knew other people, including one who worked for Heritage Distilling. “So from having a hotel and the need to get more heads and beds, we ended up with a 35,000-square-foot operation that’s half-retail and half-production.”

It includes a 200-seat restaurant and upstairs, offices and classrooms where the local South Puget Sound Community College has started an education program offering certificates in brewing. “That’s why the college started this program,” said Richardson. “To bring back beer production locally.”

Despite all the alcohol production, Talking Cedar is “designed for children and families,” said Richardson.

“It’s not like a bar where folks under 21 can’t enter. Kids can enter the whole facility. Nowadays your 20- and 30-somethings bring their families to breweries, which have kiddy parks and sand castles. The younger families don’t have that stigma against places that sell alcohol.”

The facility will distill spirits for Heritage, also plans a white-label beer that can be distributed to other casinos, creating, say a Muckleshoot IPA or a Talking Cedar IPA. “We feel there’s a market for an Indian-to-Indian business model,” said Richardson. “The vision is to reach as far as the East Coast, but one state at a time. We realize we are in a very competitive market.”

Even the name “Talking Cedar” was chosen with great care in a process that involved tribal members and a marketing company. “Originally we didn’t want it to be Indian, because we wanted to appeal to all people,” said Richardson. “But as we did research and focus groups it kept going back that there was interest in native American culture. The ‘Talking’ part involves native culture and storytelling, telling myths. We knew that would resonate with our tribes. The ‘Cedar’ is identifiable with Pacific Northwest, and we like that connection. Our tribe was known as basket-makers, and one of our materials was cedar bark and roots. Take those together, and it echoes our native origins but left our name or specific tribe out of it.”

He added, “We didn’t want to put our culture up for sale and commercialize it. We think this is a pretty good compromise.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the tribe to rethink everything, and “more than rethink,” said Richardson. It delayed completion of the complex, which originally was set to open in April. “But the stills are made in Italy, and we know what happened in Italy. (The stills) on the water on a freighter as we speak, and will get here in July.”

The pandemic has turned many breweries and distilleries into temporary sanitizer manufacturers, and the Chehalis Tribe did the same. “We had eight 83-gallon tanks that were sitting there. We put the system to work making denatured ethanol. We now have the capacity to make 30,000 gallons of sanitizer a day.

We’ve made half a million gallons to date. We did it because we knew reservations were having trouble getting sanitizer, and through our network we made sure our tribes didn’t have to stand in line. We did it out of native social responsibility, although we did make money.”

The tribe also developed a truly Covid-inspired way of hiring new workers. “We had to hire 65 people for the restaurant, cooks, servers, etc.,” said Richardson. “How do you hire 65 people when you can’t get within six feet of each other? So we did something bold. We had the only job fair in the last 90 days that was live, in a very large parking lot.”

About 150 applicants showed up. “They checked in, we took cell phone numbers and when it was their turn for an interview they came to tents. We processed them on the spot and hired. We had all the positions filled in a week. I don’t whether that made us crazy or bold but it was successful and manageable. I’d like to say we got lucky.”

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.