This week, Laura and Sara are joined by Michael Roper owner of Hopleaf Bar. A relaxed neighborhood pub, Hopleaf has been promoting better beers, wines and spirits in Andersonville since 1992. Come experience the Belgian-inspired kitchen featuring their famous mussels and frites in an adults only setting at 5148 N Clark.
“The future is making sure we have a future. To have a future, you have to realize the customer and the neighborhood is changing.”
– Michael Roper
Listen to Episode 61 with Michael Roper!
Here are some references from Episode 61 that you may want to check out:
- Michael Roper is a native Detroiter and worked in the bar and restaurant industry in Detroit prior to moving to Chicago. He attended Wayne State University in 1972.
- Michael moved to Chicago in 1982, working in retail, restaurants and construction. Michael was part of a larger exodus from Detroit in the 80s. While he explored the idea of New York City, he was not a fan of all the rats and trash on the streets. Chicago was more uniquely suited for what Michael wanted to do with his life.
“There is nothing like a hot weekend in New York City to make you appreciate Chicago’s alleys.”
– Sara Dinges
- He saw an ad in the winter of 1991 for an old Swedish bar for sale in Andersonville, and although his friends encouraged him that it was too far north, he pulled the trigger on the space and finally got the keys to the former Clark Foster Liquors in February of 1992.
- Michael talks about a type of bar here in Chicago called a “slashie” which is essentially a liquor store that also has a separate room that you can drink in. The former Clark Foster Liquors was this type of packaged goods meets tavern establishment. Read more from a 2015 article on Thrillist about Chicago slashies. Michael did not want this type of establishment, so first thing to come down was the 35 foot wall dividing the storefronts. The six month renovations also saw the low-drop ceilings come down to reveal high tin ceilings, new bathrooms, booths, etc.
- Michael and his staff held their Grand Opening at least one year after taking possession of the keys. The opening wasn’t celebrated until February 1993. Hopleaf “just squeaked by” during their first year due to a massive sewer replacement that closed Clark Street south of Foster for at least six months and saw the demise of several restaurants and businesses in south Andersonville. Pre-internet days, people received postcard invites for the opening and came out in droves. Read more about Hopleaf’s history here.
- Upon opening, Michael and Hopleaf served food from neighbor Middle East Bakery (1512 W Foster). They did this for several years, as they did not have a kitchen or dining room.
- Michael purchased the Hopleaf building in 2000. This allowed them to eliminate the upstairs apartments and put in a kitchen and downstairs dining room. It took longer to get the second floor mezzanine open. The patio opening followed in 2006, and then in 2009, they purchased the building next door to expand further after the closing of neighboring restaurant, La Donna. This purchase went through right before the market crash, and the extra space sat empty for almost two years. Michael credits the Obama Stimulus Package for allowing Hopleaf to stay in business. It allowed them to borrow money directly from the Small Business Administration. And they turned out to be a model success! The kitchen was expanded, business doubled, 25 extra staff was hired, and Hopleaf became the example for SBA, so much so, that they filmed a video about their success.
- Hopleaf’s beer is purchased through five or six distributors. There are 85 breweries now in the City of Chicago! A large section of the menu is Belgium beers, and Michael chooses beer by the flavor of the beer itself and the personal relationship he has with the owner/brewers. Hopleaf purchase a lot from local farmers and wineries. “We like them to be good stewards of the planet.”
- Hopleaf has always carried Allagash White on tap since it came onto the market 15 years ago. They’ve always had a beer from Sierra Nevada on tap, same with Bells. Michael actually credits Bells with Hopleaf’s survival, as Bells was a cult-type beer in the 90s. Michael had Bells create a neon sign for the window, and “that beer brought people to Andersonville that would not have otherwise come here.” Listen to the full episode to learn more about the beers that have always been on tap and continue to be mainstay at Hopleaf!
- Michael lived in a neighborhood of the eastside of Detroit that happened to have the largest urban Belgian population in America, and it housed a bar built in 1919 called the Cadieux Café, the oldest Belgian bar in the States. It even housed a sport there called Belgian Feather Bowling. Michael recognized that no one in Chicago had been exposed to this Belgian culture and saw an opportunity. After a visit to Belgium, Michael was introduced to local breweries; Hopleaf was way ahead of the curve.
- Michael estimates that Hopleaf goes through an average of 1,000 lbs of mussels a week! They mussels are served six days a week and they arrive at Hopleaf alive, only 24 to 36 hours out of the water. Some weeks even exceed 2,000 lbs of sales.
- Hopleaf started their event, Kegs for Kids, about 12 years ago for Peirce Elementary School in an effort to focus all of their charitable giving to one local cause. The cause evolved from smaller brunches, to a beer festival hosted at Metropolis Coffee, to finally having the event at Hopleaf. The event eventually has gotten to the point where Hopleaf or their brewers are donating kegs of beer with 100% of profits going back to the school. Michael looks at this cause as an investment; his customers turn into parents and he wants them to stay local and feel confident in sending their kids to a good public school in the neighborhood. Hopleaf’s Annual Peirce Day was hosted this past April. Read more here. Michael and his wife Louise are also able to help choose how this raised money is spent at the schools including after school and arts immersion programs.
- Michael finds it extremely important to live in a pedestrian-friendly community with independent businesses, but people have to care enough to maintain it.
“From birth to death, our neighborhood provides services at every stage of life. That’s what makes us such a great neighborhood; you could live here your whole life.”
– Michael Roper
- Looking toward the future, Michael says that “Hopleaf is as big as it’s ever going to be,” but they continue to make improvements including the addition of solar panels last year, a new HVAC system and plumbing. He also wants to continue to adapt and change to customer tastes.
- If given the chance to trade places with another business in Andersonville, Michael would choose to switch with another Andersonville restaurant. He just visited Passerotto (5420 N Clark) recently and found it really cool. On the other hand, Michael’s a huge history buff and wouldn’t mind trying his hand at running Simon’s Tavern (5210 N Clark) for a day and switching with Scott Martin. Listen to Scott’s Episode 39 here!
“A world without Hopleaf is a world in which we do not want to live in.”
– Sara Dinges