HopCat turns 1, and is ranked No. 3 in nation

January 3, 2009
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Following a year when a bad economy grew into a recession, at least one start-up business in downtown Grand Rapids has reason to celebrate and will do just that this week.

HopCat, a popular beer bar at 25 Ionia Ave. SW, will turn a year old on Sunday and will host an anniversary party Saturday starting at 5 p.m. The new business opened Jan. 11 last year. Not only did HopCat survive a brutal economic year that saw consumer spending and confidence drop dramatically, it also had a profitable first year. Its owners, Mark and Michele Sellers, are expecting good things for this year.

But one thing they didn’t expect arrived late last month, when BeerAdvocate Magazine, the only monthly publication of its kind, named HopCat the third best beer bar on the planet.

“I am absolutely elated and shocked,” said Mark Sellers of the ranking.

Sellers said he knew customers rated HopCat third on the online site BeerAdvocate.com. But the magazine uses criteria other than customer ratings for its list of the world’s top 50 beer bars, and he had no idea his business would grab that lofty perch in the publication’s ranking.

“We thought to be listed in the magazine we would have had to be in business longer. We weren’t sure if we were even going to make the top 50 list, and when we got No. 3 — I was just really happy when we saw that,” he said.

As for the profitable year HopCat had, Sellers said bars aren’t completely immune from bad economic conditions. But he added bars do have a better chance at getting through terrible times than other businesses because consumers don’t totally stop spending.

“There is something to be said for small pleasures. Somebody doesn’t mind going out and spending $25. They’re not going to buy a new car, but they’ll spend $20 to go out and have a few beers,” he said.

“We haven’t seen much of an effect — a little bit, but not much in the last five months or so. It’s held steady.”

Sellers said HopCat customers have continued to order their favorite brews over the last five months, which cost more than mainstream beers. The bar, though, does cut the price when a keg is getting close to its expiration date.

“We discount that beer and it instantly sells out. People are always looking for discounts, but I refuse to base the business on that because I think it’s a really bad business model,” he said.

“What happens is, you end up getting customers who only come in for the discounts, and they’re not profitable customers because they only drink the cheap beer. If you don’t do that, then for some reason, they just don’t come in. So you don’t want to train your customers to just search out discounts, and I see that mistake being made by a lot of bars.”

Someone looking to have a few beers at HopCat might end up spending more time than money in choosing which brew to buy, as the bar offers 198 craft beers. These come from local breweries like Founders and New Holland, and also from Belgium, the Czech Republic and Norway. Forty-eight beers are on tap.

Huma Lupa Licious, from Short’s Brewing Co. in Bellaire, Mich., is the single biggest seller at HopCat. The beer is a pale ale and is named after the hop flower humulus lupulus.

“We’re one of the only places in West Michigan that has it on tap, and so I think that’s one of the reasons it sells so well,” said Sellers.

The beer bar, though, offers more than brews. HopCat has a full menu of small plates, soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers, wraps and big plates. Sellers said food sales have been higher than he and his wife initially expected.

HopCat’s liquor license requires that at least 25 percent of total sales come from food; Sellers said he was concerned about reaching that number when the bar opened. But now those sales are closer to 35 percent.

The biggest seller? By far, it’s the Killer Mac & Cheese.

“It is just a plate of gooey goodness,” he said.

The Sellers opened HopCat because both are fans of micro-brewed beers. Mark travels a lot as an investment manager and has been to about 30 of the world’s best 50 beer bars. So he had a good idea of how he would design one. The Sellers moved here in May 2007. Just two weeks later, what they thought would be an ideal spot for a beer bar became available when the Sierra Room closed, and they jumped at the opening.

“I kind of quickly signed the lease. Then over the next few months, I flushed out the idea. Then we did construction very quickly from October to December. In 90 days, we basically built the whole thing. The only things that are the same in terms of the Sierra Room are the exposed brick walls and the ceiling. Everything else is new,” he said.

The name HopCat came about because Sellers is a jazz fan. Jazz has phrases of its own and one is, ‘If you’re a cool cat, you’re a hep cat.’ Beers don’t have heps, but they do have hops. So Sellers linked jazz with the brews and came up with HopCat.

HopCat has 17 employees and all are expected to be at the one-year anniversary party Saturday, which will feature live music from Blue Molly, a local band, specializing in blues and classic rock.

“She has got a great blues voice,” Sellers said, referring to the lead singer. “We’ll have some beer specials and we’ve got some other surprises, too,” said Sellers. “But I’m not going to say what those are in advance.”

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