GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) -- Microbrew entrepreneur Mark Sellers is bringing his trendy HopCat brand to Detroit this summer, with plans to open a 130-tap beer bar, Michigan's largest, on the site of the former Agave restaurant at 4265 Woodward Ave. in Midtown.
Hopcat Detroit, with an investment of $3.3 million, will include an outdoor beer garden and live music on the second floor. It will employ 120 people.
The new venture adds another spark to an arts, dining and entertainment strip that includes the Majestic Cafe, Union Street and the Whitney restaurants, with TechTown and Wayne State University and MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art), nearby.
Sellers hopes to turn on the taps at HopCat Detroit by August. There are some zoning board actions still ahead, but Midtown Detroit, a nonprofit group that used a grant from the state to buy and protect the property, has already done advance work on brownfield tax credits and other steps to pave the way.
"I've spent a lot of time in Detroit over the years. I've always been a Tigers and Lions fan, and what's going on in the city is really exciting. The new M-1 Rail line will have a stop right near us," Sellers said. He also researched other possible sites with Bedrock, the real estate affiliate of Quicken Loans, headed by chairman Dan Gilbert, one of the major investors in the M1 Rail.
Perhaps even more important than the new business, HopCat brings the inventive Sellers to town. If what Detroit needs is a few more Dan Gilberts, people with bold ideas and the savvy to pull them off, Sellers is definitely one to engage.
"He's already got a really powerful brand in the state with HopCat," said Sue Mosey, president of Midtown Detroit, which had tucked away the property in the state's land bank until a suitable developer came along.
Mosey's group even hatched a plan and started to raise money for a ground-floor restaurant and four studio apartments upstairs. But when Sellers and HopCat came along, about six months ago, she saw a perfect fit.
A Grand Rapids native and Michigan State dropout, Sellers, now 45, taught himself as a young man to play piano well enough to get into Boston's Berklee School of Music. He dropped out from there, too, bounced around with some rock bands out west, then became enthralled with the writings of Ayn Rand and the wisdom of Warren Buffett and set out to be a serious capitalist.
He re-enrolled at MSU and earned an accounting degree, then an MBA from Northwestern. He worked for a couple of financial firms in Chicago, started his own hedge fund in 2005 and parlayed $12 million into $300 million before the markets collapsed ahead of the 2008-09 recession. It wiped out half his gains in three months.
He and his wife moved back to Grand Rapids. Mark was semi-retired and had enough money left to take an old building downtown and turn it into a bar for himself, a place where he and his friends would want to hang out. He called it HopCat. The emphasis was on craft beers - no Bud, no Miller, no Coors. Smoking wasn't allowed, two years before state law banned it in bars.
HopCat took off, winning accolades such as "No. 1 Brewpub in the U.S." by RateBeer.com, and "No. 3 Beer bar on Planet Earth" by Beer Advocate magazine. Grand Rapids, aided by an online voting blitz from HopCat patrons, tied Asheville, N.C., for the title of Beer City USA in 2012.
In the meantime, Sellers, under the name Barfly Ventures, took other old downtown Grand Rapids buildings and turned them into Stella's Lounge, the adjacent Viceroy speakeasy and a live indie rock music joint called Pyramid scheme. He also opened Michigan's first all-organic brewery, Grand Rapids Brewing.
Last year, he opened a second HopCat in East Lansing, and now he's chosen Detroit for the biggest HopCat yet, an 11,000-square-foot building vacant since Agave closed in 2006. Of the 130 taps, about half will be craft beers from Michigan, the rest beers from around the world.
"I grew up in Grand Rapids. East Lansing felt like coming home, since I want to school there. Detroit kind of feels that way, too," Sellers said.
He and HopCat are being courted to invest in many other cities in the Midwest, and he's raising money for further ventures to expand the brand - but not with cookie-cutter places that are all alike. "We do like college areas," he said, "both as a source of customers and a natural base of employees, servers and bartenders."
So, in future, don't be surprised if the HopCat name shows up in places like Chicago, Ann Arbor, Columbus, Ohio.
But for now, "we are laser-focused on the Detroit project," Sellers said. "I'm going to gain 20 pounds spending time there, with barbecue from Slows to Go just around the block."
By Tom Walsh, Detroit Free Press business columnist