Sights & Sounds: Michael Roper – The Hopleaf
Half Acre’s launching a series of interviews called Sights & Sounds, where we ask questions about things on our mind these days. Hopefully it pulls out some truths that exist below the hood of our times.
Our first installment is with Michael Roper of The Hopleaf . Michael is our neighbor and an industry leader who’s been sharing great beer and food with people for longer than most. The front room at Hopleaf is one of the most distinct bar experiences you’ll find in any city on the map.
#1. Hopleaf, above all, is a gathering place. People choose to go out and be around others in your environment. What are some ways that you believe we should be hopeful for the future of being together?
I hope that people are realizing how important gathering with others is in their lives now that it has been taken away. I have been working in taverns for over 45 years and believe that comfortable, convivial places where friends and strangers gather to drink, eat and talk is an essential part of a full life. However, I fear that habits may change. If people see crowded public places as dangerous we are in trouble. Even before the pandemic, there had been a slow erosion of the desire to be in public places for shared experiences. Movie theaters are losing out to Netflix. Going out for a quick bite is often replaced by ordering from GrubHub. Gathering with friends at the corner pub is replaced by sitting at home in front of a laptop on social media. Neighborhood shopping at real stores where one might have unexpected interactions or be diverted for a cup of coffee or a beer is replaced by ordering from Amazon and having everything delivered to one’s door. I think the future of being together was threatened before we ever heard of COVID-19. The pandemic has added another threat we did not anticipate. If it lasts, many will become homebodies by choice. My fervent hope is that most people will become nostalgic for the pub, the coffee shop, the theater, a ball game, travel, group dinners, sharing a pizza, live music at the neighborhood bar or at concert venues, dancing, sitting on a barstool and talking with a stranger, museums and art galleries, shopping at stores, and all the other places we gathered. I hope that happens. I’d be spiritually crushed if it doesn’t.
#2. When asked to shelter in place, things get real fundamental. How has the ritual of eating and drinking factored into this time for you?
It is interesting. Because I have a weird work schedule that frees me a bit late for eating out, I cook dinner for my wife and myself most of the time anyway. I like to cook. However, we have eaten every dinner since March 16th at home. Every breakfast too. I have had a couple of sandwiches from Taste of Lebanon around the corner from Hopleaf as the only food I did not make at home since this started. Boy, do I ever realize how much I really miss having others cook for me! I am so looking forward to eating and drinking out again. Unlike a lot of folks, I am drinking way less. I am so busy with paperwork and with things to keep some income coming in, in order to save our business from the unthinkable, that I just don’t have much time for drinking. I also drink most often in a public setting. I like drinking in bars with people more than drinking at home. We have a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and after a day at Hopleaf cleaning, selling growlers or bottles, I might have a beer. If only I could sit at a barstool with a couple of friends! Then I would drink some beer.
#3. What’s an unexpected silver lining that you’ve felt during all this?
Obviously, the strength of my marriage has been shown in a way that only a shared crisis could reveal. That so many customers, neighbors, fellow publicans have reached out in concern is heartwarming. You really know who your friends are when the chips are down. I also think that this could be an opportunity like no other in recent history to reset our values and priorities toward the things in life that are really important. The inequities, the excess and unnecessary consumption, injustice, the rat race we are often in, the role of work and its often all-consuming nature, our horrendous polarization and terrible political climate and so much more we are failing to get right can be reevaluated and perhaps reset. I hope that this crisis brings people together. There is no guarantee that will happen. Unfortunately, we have the worst possible leader at a time when we need a Lincoln or an FDR. That means we have to lead from the bottom rather than follow an inspired and inspiring leader. If there is a silver lining it could be this opportunity we’ll never have again.
#4. Let’s step into 2023, do you see time in bars being different or did everything bounce back and regain the same shape?
I think that there will be a lot fewer bars, restaurants, coffee shops in 2023 and that may be a gift to the survivors. I think that eventually some of the empty spaces will fill but financing will be a challenge for some time since banks will be a bit shy about lending money to new operators for a while. With all of the closings, operators will have a lot of really great applicants for open positions. Tight labor will be a thing of the past for a while. Service will be better than ever. Prices will rise and perhaps customers will understand that restaurant and tavern food has been unsustainably underpriced for a long time. I am not sure that things will ever be exactly the same and that is not all bad. I wonder if those who are just under drinking age now will develop the same social habits of those older then them. This event may change their path. I feel the same about those in their early 20’s. This could profoundly affect how they perceive dining and drinking out. Tavern owners who survive this are going to be much, much more prudent about spending and saving money, about expansion and debt and about hiring staff. I know I will not be carrying 234 bottled beers again. I am not going to sit on a vast inventory of wine and spirits either. Our food menu will be more compact and our hours will likely be confined to those where we actually make money. I am going to be gun shy about money and try desperately to have a very large rainy day fund. I and many others are going to be scarred by this for the rest of our careers and at 66 years old ( I’d be 69 in 2023 ), I’d think seriously about any offer to buy my business in a way I would not have a few short weeks back.
#5. During a time when people can’t go to the Hopleaf, what’s one experience specific to the Hopleaf that you’d like people to keep in their minds?
I’d like to think that what people loved most about Hopleaf has nothing to do with how many great beers we have on tap, our wine selection or our great food. I’d like people to remember our continuously fascinating mix of customers. The comfortable convivial atmosphere that draws that mix of people in. Our staff and their service that brings them back over and over. I have always said that what impressed me most about the best taverns I have ever been to has been the people at the tables, sitting on bar stools and standing at the end of the bar. I think when Hopleaf is busy on a typical Tuesday or Wednesday night, you’d find some of the best conversations imaginable, the most interesting people and the potential of making a new friend for life at an adjoining bar stool or table. It is the people we’ve found a way of drawing to our door that we’d hope they remember. All the little details of decor, menus, lighting, music, furnishings, arrangements of space, staff, windows, cleanliness, glassware, house rules, location, and the look from the street have combined to attract a really, really interesting clientele and they are the Hopleaf’s #1 asset.
I could go on but I’d like to do it sometime in person over a pint or two.