During a time when economic activity went down and the unemployment number went up, one entrepreneurial couple went bananas, and not just for the money.
In what has been a very rough three-year period for local business owners, Mark Sellers and his wife, Michele, have gone from owning a single downtown business, HopCat, to being on the verge of opening their fifth.
Their flurry of activity in the Central Business District has not gone unnoticed by those who follow such things.
“Mark and Michele Sellers are not only improving Grand Rapids in terms of redevelopment, they are giving downtown extra personality in a significant way. What’s amazing is that the Sellers are able to create several unique businesses that are successful and feel like they’ve been here for years. This variety of choices also attracts a broader community to downtown,” said Anne Marie Bessette, a retail specialist with the Downtown Development Authority.
“What I love about Mark Sellers is that he is creating one-of-a-kind businesses found only in downtown Grand Rapids. He’s not about cookie-cutter projects. He develops unique restaurants and bars with local flavor that enhance the downtown and help establish downtown’s identity. You can tell he has a passion for creating these properties and a passion for downtown Grand Rapids,” said Sharon Evoy, executive director of the Downtown Alliance.
“Mark is a smart business person. He and Michele see a niche and they fill it. Each location is different, but each one has atmosphere, good food and drinks. He makes good use of local resources, also of the local architecture and existing building stock, and in working with local artists,” added Evoy.
The Sellers opened HopCat at 25 Ionia Ave. SW almost three years ago. Since then, the business has been named twice as the planet’s third-best beer bar with food. They opened with a winner that serves dozens of Michigan-made beers, but didn’t stop there — even though the economy was saying one business might be enough for now.
Instead the Sellers opened The Viceroy at 53 Commerce SW. It’s a classic cocktail lounge that features jazz, blues, soul and country music, along with bartenders that are better known as mixologists. Sharing the same address is Stella’s Lounge, where alternative and punk rock music and classic video games are the draws. Although Stella’s has one of the few vegan menus downtown, Mark Sellers said the nightspot’s top sellers are its burgers.
“These latest projects are definitely creating community along the Commerce corridor,” said Bessette.
The Sellers took over management of McFadden’s Restaurant and Saloon at 58 Ionia Ave. SW last month and will assume ownership when the Liquor Control Commission transfers the license to them. Mark Sellers said he doesn’t plan to make drastic changes to the business for now, but is working on fixing some of the problems that have plagued the Irish pub. “I’d say over the next six months, customers will start noticing a few things. A lot of it, customers won’t even notice. It was mismanaged, so there is a lot of waste and just a lot of inefficiencies in the way that it was run,” he said.
The Sellers also have joined with Jeff and Tamara VandenBerg to renovate 68 Commerce St. SW into The Pyramid Scheme, a live music venue expected to open in February. “It will fill a niche in Grand Rapids and will be a venue for bands that can draw from 400 to 500 people. These are nationally touring acts that may not be famous to the average person but are very big in the underground music scene,” said Sellers of the couple’s fifth business venture.
The VandenBergs, who are brother and sister, own the Meanwhile Bar at 1005 Wealthy St. SE and Sellers said he was impressed with their business, calling it a unique and interesting spot. He also said he liked their decision to feature as many works of local artists as they could throughout the bar.
“The city has a lot of great artists, and you don’t see a lot of that art on the walls in almost any restaurant or bar, which is ridiculous. Every restaurant and bar should have local art because there is a lot of great art here. They’ve got a lot of great art and they have a retro theme, which I think is really cool,” he said of the VandenBergs. “They also choose to highlight local beers. … I think bars should highlight Michigan beers; it supports our local economy.”
The ideas behind the Sellers’ unique businesses came from Mark’s travels as owner of the Sellers Capital Fund, which he started when he was 36. He decided to liquidate the fund in 2008, just as the financial market was freefalling, and turned his full attention to downtown.
“When I travelled extensively, I was always interested in going into breweries and interesting bars. It’s just something that I really have a lot of fun exploring when I go to different cities. When my wife and I moved to Grand Rapids, we immediately noticed that the bar scene here was incredibly generic and boring — probably the most boring bar scene of any city of its size in the United States. So we decided to change that,” said Sellers, 42, who started his fund after he earned a master’s in finance from Northwestern University.
“We wanted to make it into a city that we wanted to live in as young people, and luckily I had some financial resources to do that.”
Sellers said he and Michele still see opportunities for more entertainment venues in the district. He said downtowns in Madison, Austin and Milwaukee, which arguably are bigger than Grand Rapids, have vibrant districts with dozens and dozens of bars, restaurants and nightclubs and lots of people walking around. But for Grand Rapids to get there, Mark Sellers felt a missing ingredient has to be tossed into the local mix.
“It seems like in Grand Rapids, no one starts bars for fun. They do it for money, and you can tell because they’re all generic and nobody takes any chances. One exception would be the Meanwhile. They have a really unique, interesting bar. They took some chances. They did it the way they wanted to do it. What makes a city unique and interesting is entrepreneurs starting businesses as much for fun as for money,” he said.
“I got into it for fun and now I’m making some money. If it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it. … I just wish that more entrepreneurs are able to raise capital to start restaurants, bars and entertainment-type cultural venues in Grand Rapids that are not just about making money. Hopefully, that will happen.”
So what’s next for the Sellers after three whirlwind years?
“I think right now what we have on our plate is enough to keep us busy for quite a while. Arguably, we’re pretty overwhelmed right now. The McFadden’s thing kind of threw a wrench into everything because it was an unexpected opportunity that came up, and I never would have dreamed in a million years of owning McFadden’s. So at some point, we will make some changes, but I just can’t talk about that yet,” he said. “So I think our next big thing is redoing McFadden’s.”