Mark Sellers opened HopCat in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., as kind of a hobby. Many of his decisions were not based so much on profit but on making it a place he could be proud of.
The jazz enthusiast named it HopCat as a play on hepcat. At the time, smoking was allowed in bars but not at HopCat. He also banned Miller, Anheuser-Busch and Coors products, preferring to promote local craft breweries. It had custom artwork, and employees could dress as they liked, no uniforms. It also had a recycling program.
“I thought it was just going to be a fun, one-off bar,” Sellers said. “But it just kind of took off with customers. The first year we were open we got named third best beer bar in the world by BeerAdvocate magazine, and the lines out the door kept up.”
That was nine years ago, when Sellers was 38 and semi-retired from the financial industry. Now he has a dozen locations, including one scheduled to open Saturday at 401 Westport Road.
Sellers had been looking for a Kansas City space for a couple of years. The Power & Light District didn’t have his kind of vibe. But he said Westport was a perfect fit, with its boutiques, independent record store, counterculture and street art, “just funky and cool.”
A couple of Westport spaces didn’t pan out, but then a one-story brick building at the prime corner of Westport Road and Broadway went up for lease. The high-profile location would help introduce the concept to Kansas City.
In the 1920s, the site housed a drugstore. The 1953 city directory shows it “under construction.” It later housed a kitchen designer, gift store and more recently such tenants as Starbucks and Peachwave Yogurt.
Still, Sellers said it was structurally unsound. So the new owners of the building, CAD Management, took it down to the basement and put up a new $2.5 million, 10,000-square-foot building with a rooftop deck. It seats 300 people on the two floors and has a kitchen basement with room for a “surprise” on that level later this year.
CAD Management purchased Westport Square, a group of buildings in the heart of the midtown entertainment district, in late 2015.
HopCat will have about 100 rotating taps with about half of the beers from Kansas and Missouri. It also will feature seasonal selections and hard-to-find beers, HopCat’s exclusive collaborations and other craft selections from around the world. HopCat also will have a selection of Belgian and specialty bottled beers, signature cocktails and a full bar.
Partner Garry Boyd also is vice president of food, beverage and innovation. The menu — described as “food your mom would make if she loved craft beer” — includes Madtown grilled cheese sandwiches (Wisconsin dill havarti, smoked Gouda and Muenster on grilled Italian sourdough with apple slices, garlic aioli and honey), and the Kitchen Sink (chipotle black bean patty topped with Spanish rice, corn, veggie chili, avocado, pico de gallo and haystack onions, drizzled with avocado ranch dressing and toasted Italian sourdough bread on the side).
Its signature Bar Zee burger is topped with hickory smoked bacon, pickled jalapenos and bar cheese (a house-made sauce with cheese and horseradish).
“I call it upscale comfort food. Our signature dish is called crack fries, and we came up with that name just because they have black cracked pepper,” Sellers said of the beer-battered fries. “It’s also kind of a play on just how addictive they are, they are so good especially when you dip them in the cheese sauce that comes with them.”
Food Network magazine has named HopCat’s “crack fries” as one of America’s 10 Best French Fries.
The “loaded” crack fries have hickory smoked bacon, red onion and pickled jalapeno smothered in warm cheese sauce. The Vladimir Poutine crack fries are topped with potato and cheese pierogi, Wisconsin cheddar cheese curds, stout caramelized onions and hickory smoked bacon and smothered in spicy sausage and gravy.
HopCat offers a Detroit-style, deep-dish square pizza with cheese caramelized into the crust. Other menu items include quesadillas, Reubens, Southwest salad, veggie chili and chicken salad wraps.
On Wednesday, HopCat did trial runs with employees. On Friday it will do another with members of the community before opening at 11 a.m. Saturday with free crack fries served all day.
Sellers used to be HopCat’s accountant, the guy who picked the beers. Now he has a staff to do all of that.
“And they are a lot better at it than I am,” he said. “My job at this point as the founder is to design the interiors. I pick all the music, every song you hear I picked it for better or for worse. I pick the locations, too. I travel around the Midwest kind of looking for new spots. And I write the checks. When it stops being fun, that’s when I’ll retire and let somebody else take over. I still love it.”