Tired of sports bars? The Green House owner Emily Salmonson wants to offer a ‘calming’ alternative

Emily Salmonson, owner of The Green House, poses for a portrait on Thursday, Sept. 15. 2022. The Green House is new plant-themed bar that hopes to bring a cozy and comfortable atmosphere, slightly removed from the busy downtown area. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Emily Salmonson thinks the pandemic brought plant fanatics out of the woodworks. After months of quarantine, people dove into recreation, emerging as hikers or bikers, or they brought the outdoor indoors, becoming plant parents.

“I have just huge love of plants. I’ve always had plants just around me growing up. My mother had tons of plants in our house,” Salmonson said.

Salmonson is the owner of The Green House, a botanical bar that opened earlier this month. It features five plant-themed cocktails, garden sodas with floral syrups, rhubarb bitters, kombucha and more.

Iowa City has no shortage of breweries, taprooms and bars, which Salmonson amiably admits.

“Really? There are?” she says with a laugh. “Feels like a thousand, yeah.”

Salmonson worked as a bartender in many downtown bars, and found it was rewarding work. She loved the social component, having conversations with people, making them feel welcome and comfortable.

Potted plants and flowers at The Green House. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

But bars tend to inundate people with too many distractions, she said. They’re noisy and compact, with loud music and rows of television screens. Especially on game days, the downtown district feels like organized chaos.

Salmonson wanted The Green House to be a relaxed oasis, so there aren’t any TVs hanging above the counter, though she’s considering adding a little board game shelf. She hopes people will use the bar as a meeting area.

The space has plenty of natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows. It feels open but not empty. There are two outdoor patios, and it neighbors the Iowa City Farmers Market and New Pioneer Food Co-op.

Emily Salmonson works by the bar, on Sept. 15, 2022. The Green House took over the former Van B’s Brew area, which closed in November 2020. Salmonson used to walk past the empty space, imagining what it could be. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

“I really wanted to kind of lean into being a sanctuary, a very calm space,” she said. “It’s about meeting with a group of friends, or you know, finding time just to hang out with a glass of wine and read a book.”

But Salmonson doesn’t want to stop at informal gatherings among friends. She’s been branching out to other local organizations to host events. This Saturday, The Green House will be the final stop in the Iowa City Bike Library’s Farm Cycle.

The Green House was built through collocation. Salmonson is close friends with Audrey Wiedemeier, the executive director of the Iowa City Bike Library. Wiedemeier volunteered to plant flowers in the outdoor garden.

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Audrey Wiedemeier, executive director of the Iowa City Bike Library, helped plant the outdoor flowers. The Green House will be the last stop on this year’s Farm Cycle. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Benito Ocampo, owner of Beno’s Flowers and Gift, helped with interior landscaping. His team created three large picture frames filled with preserved moss and fungus pads, which hang on the back wall.

Emma Barber, the owner of Rhubarb Botanicals in Mount Vernon, supplies all the bitters for their cocktails. They have Wild Culture Kombucha drinks and New Pioneer Co-op snacks.

The Green House is also next door to FilmScene, where Salmonson previously worked as the director of operations since 2013. Salmonson has thought about working with the nonprofit cinema to screen a plant movie like Little Shop of Horrors for their FilmScene in the Park series.

“I think that’s just important for any business in Iowa City just to realize that they’re part of a landscape, an Iowa City landscape,” she said. “I’m excited to see what other organizations we can collaborate with … It’s a great space to be able to gather in a way that feels comfortable.”

Plants rest in the rafters over the bar. Salmonson waters them with a big ladder every two weeks-ish. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

The menu has five signature cocktails, including a tequila margarita drink with rose syrup and rhubarb bitters, and a color-changing empress gin and tonic with lavender bitters. Some cocktails have edible flowers or other fresh herbs for garnish. There’s also plenty of wine and local lager options. For nonalcoholic drinks, they have kombucha (fermented tea) and shrubs (a mashup of vinegar, fruit, sugar and club soda).

“And a shrub goes in line with like, the whole shrubs!” Salmonson joked. “I have Busches and shrubs.”

Her Busch is a Shandy, but instead of using lemonade or lime soda, she uses a combination of rose, lavender and lilac syrups mixed with ginger beer and Busch Light. The resulting concoction “sounds crazy, but it’s really delicious and delightful.”

Fishbowl ferns decorate the bar. The bowls were leftovers from Van B’s Brew’s fishbowl drinks. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Salmonson was born in Iowa City, but she spent most of her childhood and adolescence in Nevada, Iowa. She attended the University of Iowa to study art and ceramics.

Besides plants, she loves to travel. After college, she lived in Japan and taught English to preschoolers. She lived in Baton Rouge for a time but decided to put down roots in Iowa City after accepting a position at FilmScene. She had planned to move to the U.S. Virgin Islands, a place she’d never visited, if she didn’t get the job.

The pandemic was The Green House’s impetus. During lockdown, she would wander towards the College Green neighborhood and always noticed an empty lot in Washington Plaza.

505 E Washington St had been vacant for months. It was the former home to Iowa City Brewlab, which closed in 2017, citing declining revenue. The brewing equipment still sits past the bar. Van B’s Brew opened two months later, but it closed in November 2020 due to COVID-19.

The beer brewing equipment are holdovers from Iowa City Brewlab, a brewery that closed in 2017 and gave way to Van B’s Brew. Salmonson wants to repurpose them and make Green House beer. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

“I would frequently kind of just walk around this building, and I would always notice this space,” she said. “And in the back of my mind, I always thought it would be really wonderful to open a place like this, and I would kind of daydream about what that would look like.”

When Salmonson turned 40, she had a “I’m just gonna do something crazy” moment. She had always loved plants — she’d make propagations for her friends and host plant exchanges parties — and the pandemic had only facilitated that hobby. But because of COVID-19 restrictions, she couldn’t travel. After a long winter season, she wanted to see something green.

“I’m going to try very hard to make it as jungle-y as possible here, during the winter months for sure,” she said.

Originally, she’d imagined owning a botanical center so she could sip a cocktail while surrounded by jungle trees, but that seemed too quixotic for Iowa City. A plant-themed bar, however, was the next best thing.

In addition to plants, Salmonson loves UFOs. She travelled to Roswell, New Mexico, but didn’t spot any UFOs, only a strange man with gills. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Right after she decided to open The Green House, she took a trip to Asheville, North Carolina, which has the most breweries per capita of any state. The green Appalachian town provided a fountain of inspiration for her new business.

The Green House came together quickly. Salmonson took possession of the space in June and hired 15 bartenders, many who were avid gardeners, farm workers and environmental studies majors. With the pandemic still on her mind, she hopes people feel comfortable in public spaces again.

“It’s been really validating when people come in and they say, ‘Wow, this is such a calming place,” Salmonson said.

Emily Salmonson, owner of the Green House, poses for a portrait on Thursday, Sept. 15. 2022. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village