After a career that included positions at major financial analyst firms and his own hedge fund company, Mark Sellers quit the world of finance at age 38 and returned to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. But he was too young to retire and unimpressed with the bars where he grew up. So in 2008, Sellers opened HopCat, stocking it with 48 draft brews and some 200 bottled beers.
From that first restaurant, Sellers has grown HopCat into a regional powerhouse and expanded with additional drinks-focused venues under the umbrella of BarFly Ventures. The company is on pace to reach $36 million in revenues this year and is projecting $65 million for 2016, buoyed by expansion that will double its unit count by the end of next year. The beverage program is critical to the company’s success, slightly edging out the culinary component in the drinks-to-food ratio. But the cuisine is by no means an afterthought, and Sellers takes pride in his upscale bar fare. For a business with humble roots, BarFly Ventures has evolved immensely in its eight years. “I started HopCat as a hobby because I wanted to open a bar that I also loved,” Sellers says. “I never planned to make it a career, but it took off, so I decided to expand.”
HopCat has become a Midwestern beer destination, with six locations in Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin and a seventh slated to open this fall in Kentucky. BarFly Ventures also operates the drinks-focused Stella’s Lounge, McFadden’s Restaurant & Saloon and Grand Rapids Brewing Co., all within blocks of each other in Grand Rapids. Each venue is different, emphasizing its own style of drinks and showcasing a distinct design and atmosphere. The newer HopCat locations boast more than 100 beer taps, while Stella’s lists 250-plus whiskies.
“The bar is the star and the centerpiece of the room,” Sellers says. “We built our reputation on drinks at HopCat, and a little more than half our sales come from beverage alcohol. It’s the key component of our business. That said, our secret weapon is our food. Anyone can put 100 beers on tap with enough money, but a lot of bar operators skimp on food because it’s more expensive and complex. Drinks and food are equally important, but beer is what made our name and helped us build the HopCat brand.”
HopCat highlights craft beer and has received a slew of accolades from the beer press, including the honor of being named among the world’s best beer bars by several outlets. The success of the first HopCat unit paved the way for the brand’s expansion. After five years of focusing solely on the Grand Rapids market, Sellers launched a second HopCat in East Lansing, Michigan, in 2013 and added Indianapolis and Detroit in 2014, followed by Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Madison, Wisconsin, earlier this year. A Lexington, Kentucky, location will debut in the fall, and six units are slated for 2016. More than 1,000 people waited in line for the grand opening parties in East Lansing and Detroit.
“We have a reputation for beer not just in Michigan, but nationally, and that’s really helped our brand,” Sellers says. “We’re focusing on Midwestern college towns and larger Midwestern markets, such as Detroit and Cleveland. But we’ll avoid cities like Chicago because they’re too competitive.”
The original HopCat’s bottled beer selection focuses primarily on specialty brews, which are aged in the venue’s cellar. It’s also the only unit with its own in-house brewery. The draft-to-bottle ratio has shifted in newer HopCat locations, with Detroit boasting 130 taps and 36 bottled offerings. Sellers says the proliferation of new craft breweries has boosted the company’s drinks menu tremendously. Beer makes up more than 90 percent of HopCat’s beverage sales.
Garry Boyd, director of food and beverage for BarFly Ventures, says IPAs dominate beer sales, adding that Belgian-style domestic brews and sour ales are also garnering interest. HopCat’s beer menus change rapidly and are usually reprinted three times a week to keep up with rotating draft selections. The company makes an effort to emphasize local brews at each location.
“We have the Local 30 list, which comprises 30 beers that best represent the styles popular in a specific area,” Boyd explains. “They’re always local and they stay on the menu for one year, and depending on the region, there can be a lot of variety. The other 70 to 100 beers rotate all the time, but the Local 30 gives guests a starting spot of standard beers that act as entry points.”
The Michigan venues feature labels by such local brewers as Short’s Brewing Co., Brewery Vivant, Founders Brewing Co., Bell’s Brewery and Atwater Brewery. Along with wheat beers, strong and Scotch ales, stouts, ciders, and meads, the Detroit location also includes MillKing It Productions’ City Red IPA, Left Hand Brewing Co.’s Introvert Session IPA and Saugatuck Brewing Co.’s The Reverent Monk tripel (draft pours range from $5 to $12). The Grand Rapids HopCat’s extensive bottle menu boasts offerings like Moonlight Meadery’s Kurt’s Apple Pie, Saint Somewhere Brewing Co.’s Lectio Divina saison and Brouwerij Van Steenberge’s Gulden Draak Brewmasters Edition Belgian ale (bottles range from $4 to $35). HopCat also has a full bar with cocktails, including some monthly specials that incorporate beer.
“Brewers use HopCat as a showcase for their beers,” Boyd says. “Every week we add a dozen to two dozen new beers. The menu is always evolving. I want the bartenders to always be thinking about beer and about engaging ways to use it.” Sellers notes that the bottled beer list in Grand Rapids has earned a lot of attention for some of its rare aged labels. “When I started the bar, I didn’t care about pleasing everybody,” Sellers adds. “But we’ve found that the beer geeks love our bottled beers and the average consumer wants something on draft.”
BarFly Ventures executives describe their venues as bars that offer great food. Boyd is a beer lover, but he also oversees the company’s food program, spending a lot of time on menu development and execution. Each of the company’s four concepts has its own distinct food menu and style. They overlap in one area: great hamburgers. GQ magazine named the stuffed burgers at Stella’s Lounge the best in the country in 2012, and they’ve also garnered local accolades in Grand Rapids.
Stella’s boasts a variety of stuffed burgers, from beef patties filled with blue cheese and bacon, aged white cheddar cheese, or jalapeños and pepper jack cheese to veggie burgers stuffed with tempeh bacon and pesto ($10.50 to $12.50). The lounge also offers Buffalo wings, cheddar- and bacon-stuffed tater tots, popcorn drizzled with bacon fat, and sandwiches, tacos and brunch fare (snacks start at $4.50; sandwiches range from $8.50 to $11.50).
Modeled after a 1980s arcade, Stella’s looks like an upscale dive bar. Spirits rule beverage sales, comprising 35 percent of the bar’s total revenues, led by whiskies. The lounge lists more than 250 whisk(e)y offerings, emphasizing American labels and Scotches ($3 to $80 a 2-ounce pour) and highlighting flights ($10 to $13 for three 1-ounce pours). Specialty cocktails include whisk(e)y-based drinks like the Sour Monkey, made with Monkey Shoulder blended Scotch, Cynar amaro, lemon juice and simple syrup (cocktails are $6 to $10). “Stella’s is a tribute to 1986, the year Mark and I both graduated from high school,” Boyd says. “It’s a punk rock whiskey bar.”
HopCat, meanwhile, is famous for its Crack Fries ($4.50), which are beer battered and topped with a cracked black pepper seasoning made in-house. They can be customized with cheese sauce, meat toppings and chili and were recently named among the best French fries in the country by the Food Network. The venue also lists appetizers like mussels and buttered pretzel nuggets, as well as burgers, sandwiches and larger entrées, from fish and chips to mac and cheese to tacos (most food items range from $8 to $17). With expansion plans in the works, newer HopCat locations are getting an updated menu that includes local and regional specialties, such as a beer-battered, pretzel-crusted pork tenderloin sandwich in Indiana.
“We launched 20 new menu items at the location in Madison, Wisconsin,” Boyd says. “It’s the largest menu change in the HopCat brand’s history. We brought in new ingredients and updated some items. By the end of next year, we’ll have multiple menus throughout the concept. About 80 percent of the menu will be the same at each venue, and 20 percent will be reserved for local specialties. It’s bar food and it’s fun.”
Sellers purchased and revived Grand Rapids Brewing Co. in 2012. Along with a roster of 16 house-made beers ($4 to $6 a draft pour), including the classic Silver Foam—a lager that the brewery first made in 1893—the venue has an upscale food menu. Bar snacks include trout dip, bacon meatballs, and shrimp and pineapple kimchee rolls, while entrées range from strip steak to beer-battered perch to spare ribs (food ranges from $3 to $20). Grand Rapids Brewing Co. also boasts a seasonal cocktail menu that highlights fresh produce.
BarFly Ventures’ fourth concept, McFadden’s Restaurant & Saloon, is often called a party bar. The Irish venue, which Sellers bought in 2010, offers Guinness Stew, pulled pork sandwiches and burgers ($8 to $18), as well as discounted Happy Hour drink specials and a range of cocktails ($7 to $9) and beer ($3.25 to $6 a draft pour or bottle).
“We spend a lot of time and effort on interior design,” Sellers says. “Every location looks different. We have a lot of rock and roll artwork on the walls that’s custom made by local artists. We encourage our employees to be themselves, and they don’t wear uniforms. Our menus are irreverent and somewhat humorous.” Boyd adds that the company doesn’t take itself too seriously. “We have a bit of an attitude and we poke fun at a lot of things,” Boyd says. “The idea was always to have fun, not make money. When you open a bar with that mentality, it frees you up to do a lot that you wouldn’t do if profit was your goal.”
Sellers treats his employees like family. He routinely sends his bar staff on brewery trips and plans vacations for employees on their four-year anniversary with the company. Earlier this year, Sellers sent nine beer program managers to Belgium and 19 people to San Francisco. The company aims to hire experienced servers from other restaurants and bars and put them through an intense in-house beer training program, led by their corporate beer maven.
“We hope to rival the Cicerone program with our beer training,” Boyd says. “We call it our beer Jedi program. The employee experience is really important to all of us. We welcome input from everyone, and if someone’s idea is great, we find a place for it somewhere. And we do the same with our employees—they start at one place and move to the others. There’s a lot of sharing between the concepts.”
Sellers puts a heavy emphasis on environmental awareness as well. Grand Rapids Brewing Co. is certified organic by the state of Michigan, and BarFly Ventures composts 90 percent of its waste from all venues and recycles heavily. The company was named one of the country’s most sustainable businesses last year by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and has been called a leader in sustainable business practices by USA Today and other news outlets.
With growth on the horizon, Sellers sought financing to fund his future plans. “About a year and a half ago, we decided to ramp up growth for HopCat,” he says, noting that the company will add five or six units annually for the next few years. “We’re the anti-chain chain. We have reasonable price points and we’ve been very successful in college markets. I currently have no plans to go beyond the Midwest, but seven years ago, I had no plans to do more than one bar. I’ll stop when it’s no longer fun.”