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Pops for Champagne Owner Tom Verhey Discusses Iconic Bar's 30-Year History and Plans for D.C. Expansion

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[Photo: Pops for Champagne, original and current locations]

When people hit a big milestone, they often pop a great bottle of bubbly to mark the occasion. So imagine what must be happening this month at Pops for Champagne, which celebrates an incredible 30 years of being in business in Chicago. What started out as an intimate Lakeview spot with dark wood and an upscale vibe has turned into one of the city's most celebrated spots.

After opening in 1982 at the corner of Sheffield and Oakdale, Pops for Champagne was named in 1983 by Esquire as one of that year's best new bars. Following its initial success, in 1985 owner Tom Verhey acquired the space next door and opened Pops' Jazz Club. Then in 1991, he closed down the original space to renovate and launch the slightly more informal Star Bar.

But in 2006, after opening and closing a location in suburban Highwood, Verhey decided to move their "front door to where the market is rather than forcing the market to come up to Lakeview." So he closed Pops up north and moved it down to River North at the corner of State and Ohio, where it, along with lower-level bar WaterShed, has thrived since. Eater talked to Verhey about Pops' 30 years in Chicago, why it continues to draw loyal followers and plans to expand the concept to other markets.

How does it feel to make it 30 years?
I don't really think about that as much as moving forward with things and opportunities here. I am please and proud that we've been able to withstand a lot of things over the years, but at the same time I'm focused on keeping it going. We're still so unique and we're not following any path. We're able to create our own history here and it's a refreshing feel that keeps you engaged and active in the business.

What do you think is the appeal behind Pops that people are still coming after 30 years?
Primarily it's because we've never really altered from our original concept of being a Champagne bar. Effervescence and excellence has always been our main focus. We've been tempted to get into more food and into other elements, but overall it's been a single bullet aimed at the Champagne respect and interest that we have. I think it carries over to the public also when you have a single direction and people can wrap themselves around the concept easier. It seems over the years people have respected us for doing that and it's paid off.

When you first opened in Lakeview, did you ever think you'd be doing an interviewing about the 30th anniversary?
I was probably the only one that did, yes. I can be honest with that and I'm not trying to be cocky. Once I got the name Pops for Champagne and made the decision to do a Champagne bar and found a space, then I said this is the perfect name, it's exactly what it is I want and intend to do. I said it was going to launch us. The name, on top of the location or anything else, was for me the idea for a long future.

Why did you initially want to open a Champagne-focused bar?
I came from St. Paul to Peoria and then to Chicago. I made my way to the big city and once Bell & Howell [where Verhey worked] moved me up to Chicago and once I got into the city I knew the corporate life wasn't going to work. I had won a sales trip that took me to Vienna and I knew I wanted to do something else that I could be on my own—something more in nightlife. In Vienna, I happened to see this bar and I walked in and sat down. Almost immediately, even though it was in foreign country, it felt great. And they were all drinking Champagne. I said, 'There's something about this place that I think will work in Chicago.' I went back the next night to see if I felt the same and I did. It was the Reiss Bar. I couldn't shake that feeling. I got back home and within a week I resigned from Bell & Howell. I knew I had to do it.

You and your wife, Linda, own Pops. Is anyone else involved that deserves credit or thanks?
When we first opened it was Linda and I and then she went home and managed the kids and the home life. After that I was kind of on my own for, well, the rest of time. I've had important management people over the years. When we moved down to State six years ago, my daughter Sara's involvement became the next most important thing in Pops' history. That was a key element in running this location.

What has changed in Chicago the most that you can look back on over the 30 years, something you miss and something you're glad is gone?
We were a pioneer back in Lakeview and there were few nightlife places back then; it was a tough neighborhood. The neighborhood came around and I knew it was going to. That transition was beneficial to Pops. I think what we all share is the amazing leap that Chicago has had in the culinary end of it, and that has benefitted us just like any change. As that improves and expands and encompasses people's interest, that certainly leads into a Pops. As much as the change is, the fact that Pops stays the same, is good. We need to stay the way we are and let everyone else do the experimentations. It's all about the tastes and flavors and visual stuff in terms of the culinary—and the more [customers] appreciate coming in here and having the same kind of experience with beverage. We are more experienced in finding unusual styles and trends in the sparkling wine business worldwide that we bring into our business here that keeps us moving forward

Looking back over the time, what do you love the most about Pops for Champagne?
I have to answer that in two ways. As far as the public is concerned, that they've used Pops as a venue to celebrate their life successes, from business, socially, personally – they've used Pops as a place they share in their life successes. I hear those stories all the time: the birth of a child, anniversaries, a new home. There's more to life than just these dates out there, but there are daily things that used to fly under the radar. The second part is my staff. I think we have invested, and I think it shows, in our staff in the sense we give them a great place to work and we educate them on the products they sell. With that comes a deep respect for the business as well as what they sell. That's one element I see in Chicago that is so hit and miss as far as food and beverage places. Some of them get it as far as the importance of the staff to know why they're there and others that don't.

Why did you decide to move from the original spot on Sheffield down to the heart of River North?
She was getting tired up there. It was time to go. I could have invested a lot of money to try to bring more life back into the joint, but it wasn't going to happen. The tightness of the neighborhood and ability to attract our type of clientele was getting difficult to do. We brought our front door to where the market is rather than forcing the market to come up to Lakeview.

And what was the motivation to renovate the lower-level jazz bar at the current location into WaterShed?
We had a successful run with the live music up on Lakeview. It was in the same room as the Champagne bar and we did lose a little element of people coming by for a quick drink. Here, since we had this beautiful corner, even though it is separated and that we had the lower space, we separated the jazz bar from the Champagne bar. What happened is that our business is driven by what we sell: beverages. The people that were coming down into the jazz club were more interested in the music than the beverage program. The music element restricted what people could do down there as far as having conversations. It was just not working any longer. If I were to ever open another joint, I'd bring the music element back into the room, but do it more on a relaxed in the corner, no cover charge, part of the atmosphere kind of arrangement. I think WaterShed is a perfect compliment to what we're doing up here.

You're planning on taking the Pops concept to other markets, yes?
We're the longest running Champagne bar in the U.S. now. When we opened, there were five or six that were around, but they've closed. With that, I think we have a good reputation around the U.S. and globally; people have heard about us and have visited us from other markets. We'd never do another location like Pops in this area; we'd compromise everything we've built here. We are considering moving this concept to another market sometime this year and we're probably focused on the East Coast to start. We believe that pulls in the largest number of international visitors and business people to the U.S.

Isn't D.C. one of the cities you're considering?
It's one of the top places, yes. It's a large enough market that we can succeed with what we're doing. The culinary scene is out of control. There are a lot of star chefs going out there. And it's small enough that we can get recognized. There aren't really many high-end wine bars in D.C. with a more upscale environment. It seems to be a void in D.C.

So what's your favorite Champagne to drink everyday?
It's probably Bollinger. If I drank it every day, [it'd be] the NV special cuvee. I think they have that little more masculine, richer style that I really appreciate and it connects with my taste buds.

And what's the best for a special toast – like celebrating 30 years in business?
It has to be a magnum for sure. Because visually and what's in the bottle, I'd have to say Gosset. That would be the appropriate one to celebrate. The bottle itself is the most well-designed bottle and then it's a similar style to the Bollinger —rich, well aged —and they're the oldest Champagne house, 14 generations worth. There's a generation connection and the longevity of the business connection.

Pops for Champagne

601 North State Street, , IL 60610 (312) 266-7677 Visit Website