Even though it was just after 6 p.m., the front lot of the new Hoppers Taproom complex already was packed, so I cruised around back and found a spot pretty easily. I’d been there earlier that morning to interview Glenn Ains about the concept and to get a couple of photos, but I wanted to come back and get beer and better photos. I got plenty of both.
First: This is not technically a beer garden but (and this is critical) that is the best way to think about it. This is a massive indoor/outdoor space where people can come, enjoy a variety of food and some of the best beer the region has to offer in a family-friendly atmosphere. This last part is something really worth talking about. Although the Hoppers complex is only steps from the college, there was a real mix of young families, college kids and middle aged folks like me. Dogs are welcome, but there were none in evidence when I was there. I was in the minority, sure, but Hoppers only had been open a few days.
Earlier that day there still was a lot of buzzing around as staff and contractors continued to try and get the area ready for the evening. A few people sat at tables having lunch, but really a very few. Aside from turning on the sign, Glenn had made no real effort to let people know Hoppers was open. It was the softest opening in the world, and for pretty good reason: Hoppers is so novel a concept there are a ton of operational oddities to be accounted for.
Hoppers is the name of one of the six businesses in the complex, which consists of five casual restaurants—pizza, wings, barbecue, subs and a juice bar—the tap room and the beer garden, all within the shell of a former care repair center. A commercial realtor by trade, Glenn had been out taking photos of the building when the notion of taking it off the market himself became clear.
Inspired by the Ocean City Boardwalk Shops
Glenn hadn’t much hope of selling the place as an auto center, and the few ideas potential buyers proposed were incompatible with either the space or the cost. As he stood across the street trying to update the real estate photo file, he thought of the Ocean City Boardwalk. Each of the different shops were independently owned and operated but, from the outside they still functioned like one business, the Boardwalk Shops.
As he pushed the notion further, it was influenced by the idea of a food court. A craft beer enthusiast, Glenn pictured having the largest local craft selection in the region and also one of the most diverse menus. What if he could build a business around the notion of a craft beer bar and what amounted to five food trucks parked inside? Of course, trucks were impractical, but he began reaching out to some of the local restaurateurs whom he knew were working on projects. He wanted to avoid chains, mostly in deference to the quality and local nature of the complex. Primo Hoagies, a regional brand, was the only exception because it was locally owned.
Beer Garden Logistics
Getting all of the restaurants to work together was a task but not a chore. All of the people who had committed to the project had agreed not to serve competing food (except for soda, chips and the like). There is one place to get fries and another to get pizza. No one will have to compete with their neighbors on price. Glenn said he thought that would be the best way to emphasize quality food.
Since there are six establishments with a central seating area, someone has to be in charge of making certain people have what they need and understood the concept: the waitstaff would bring beer, but the food had to be ordered at the desired place. Only Da Nizza Pizza and Primo Hoagies were open during those first few weeks, and there was a sense of minor chaos as each of the restaurants worked out the kinks of delivering food to tables that weren’t designated by restaurant.
Word got out faster than anyone expected and on a recent Friday night the place wasn’t quite packed at happy hour, but certainly doing a brisk business. There were a lot more people than anyone had anticipated, probably as a result of the gorgeous weather and the enticing layout. Most of the tables were occupied and the two open restaurants had growing lines. There wasn’t much of a wait for beer, however, but there still was a little confusion about getting an assigned staffer. You see, you can choose not to be waited upon (as I did) which takes you off the server’s radar. Getting back on it is as easy as asking, but it seemed to confuse the odd person.
Local craft beer
With the exception of one Guinness tap, the 30-plus beer choices were a generous mix of Shore beers and Baltimore beers. All were fairly-priced and a couple tapped out by the end of the weekend, which really says more about people’s desire for local craft beer than anything else. Hoppers, even as it works to find its operational feet, is a next-level addition to the area. Its proximity to the college doesn’t make it a college bar, instead it is a craft beer place with food. As it continues to attract young families (and older families like mine) who want a night out with great food and beer, expect nothing but great things going forward.
You can find Hoppers on Facebook, or just drive on over.