When Hopjacks opened downtown in February 2008, South Palafox was a very different place for nightlife. All the restaurants and bars had different hours, and there was almost nothing open late on a weeknight. Hopjacks is open 365 days a year with a kitchen that never closes before 2 am, so people know they can always go downtown to grab a pizza and a cold beverage. That’s helped create a virtuous cycle, with other establishments opening up nearby and creating a hub of activity. Hopjacks is widely seen as the spark that finally ignited the long-smoldering downtown revitalization.
Owner Joe Abston demurs at such praise. Having just opened a third Hopjacks location this week (at 204 East Nine Mile Road, across from the Carmike Theaters), he says the first Hopjacks only complemented what was already on Palafox: New York Nick’s, Global Grill, Jackson’s, and Intermission.
“Choice and variety is what really drives a city center, in my opinion,” Abston said. “What we wanted to do was come into an area that didn’t have what we had to offer. We looked around and said, ‘alright, what are they missing?’ With us coming in with late-night food, family-friendly atmosphere, and a focus on craft beer — that wasn’t serviced at all downtown. We didn’t come in and try to put a pizza place next to a pizza place.”
Another big change since 2008 is the appreciation of craft beers. Nationally, craft beer is the fastest growing segment of the alcoholic beverage industry, and that is definitely reflected in the local market. Before Hopjacks, it was rare for a bar or restaurant to have more than a handful of beer taps, and they were almost all big-name domestics. There are now a whopping 111 taps at the downtown Hopjacks and 85 at the Nine Mile location (“Not too shabby,” says Abston), with other restaurants and bars — like Mellow Mushroom and the forthcoming World of Beer — adding to the landscape. Pensacola even has its own brewery now.
“What it looks like in general,” said Abston, “is that Pensacola is becoming a beer drinker’s mecca. With the addition of Nine Mile, we have four beer-centric places with more than 50 taps each. I don’t know if Atlanta even has that within a 20-square-mile radius. Pensacola is about to hit the map as a beer destination because of the way that craft beer is treated in this area.”
The Nine Mile location will have all of the same drink specials as the other two locations, like the popular “$3 Holla.” Many of the bands will play at Nine Mile as well, they’ll still host karaoke every Wednesday, and of course, the kitchen will still be open till 2 am, 365 days a year.
“If you like what we do downtown, you’ll like it up here,” he said. “The only difference is we’ve got a pool table and a little bit different video games.”
They only started serving customers a few days ago, without a grand opening or big marketing blitz, but there was already a bustling crowd there late Thursday afternoon — and it wasn’t what you might have expected. While students will no doubt love having Hopjacks just down the road from UWF, yesterday’s crowd was a diverse cross-section of the community, from twenty-somethings to moms and kids to senior citizens.
“To be honest, we didn’t come here to be close to the college,” Abston said. “It is about the demographics, it’s about the area, it’s about the number of houses around here.”
He talks about the “invisible barriers” that separate different parts of the community. Their research told them that Cordova Mall was one of those barriers; people who live north of Cordova Mall don’t like to travel downtown, and vice versa.
“Downtown there was always an invisible barrier with the three-mile bridge that people from Gulf Breeze didn’t really want to cross. Although it’s only three miles, it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s too far.’”
So does that mean he plans to expand even more?
“Absolutely,” he smiled. “I don’t believe in recessions. Especially with this store being open less than a week, it’s showed us that we’ve got the right formula. More importantly, we have the right people.”
Abston is proud of having a workplace where employees can prosper. He points to the 600 or so job applications the Nine Mile location received, and to a full twelve months downtown with zero turnover, as proof that Hopjacks is a place where people like to work.
“I surround myself with people who are smarter than I am — far better and smarter than I am — and my job is to make sure they have a position to grow into,” he said, pointing out that the general manager and kitchen managers at the Nine Mile store started out as bartenders and cooks downtown. “I’ve got too many great people that need a promotion. That’s really how I look at expansion.”