There is an old adage (some might even call it a cliché) that states ‘actions speak louder than words.’ It is one thing to say that hospitality is the most important aspect of your business, but it is quite another to have it be a way of life. A perfect example of this is Michael Green, who for the last 22 years has owned and operated The Village Tap in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood. As a patron of The Village Tap, I have received exceptional service from courteous and attentive staff, and it is obvious that those virtues start at the top. I met with Michael Green at the The Village Tap on a Monday afternoon a few hours before the bar opened for the night. We grabbed sandwiches from a local shop, and Green not only insisted on paying for my sandwich (completely unnecessary but very much appreciated!) but also thought it would be nice to pick up a sandwich for Miguel, a member of his staff who was working in the kitchen. Later, towards the end of our interview, two young members of the staff arrived to decorate the bar for Halloween. Like a proud father, Green introduced me to a young woman who just finished school and has started helping out with event planning at the bar, and a young man who is working at the The Village Tap to offset the cost of college. Watching the pride on Green’s face as he talked about the people that he works with was a delight to see, and more of an indication of how he runs his business than words could describe. I had no idea that The Village Tap had such a unique history, though. Continue reading for a great interview with one of the true pioneers of the Chicago craft beer scene.
Illinois Craft Brewers Guild: How long has The Village Tap been around? What is its history?
Michael Green: The Village Tap has been officially The Village Tap for a little over 22 years. We opened June 6, 1990. But there has probably been an establishment here since the end of Prohibition, if not before. Our immediate predecessors, it’s kind of a funny story. His name was Fred and he owned the building next door and lived there. And then he ended up buying the bar. And he had called it ‘Freddie Feel Goods.’ So before it was The Village Tap it was ‘Freddie Feel Goods.’ He was a landscaper by day and a bar owner by night. And then he kind of became a bar owner by day and night. And his wife was about to divorce him so he decided to sell the business. It was a pretty crazy place. It was hard to come in here and not find someone passed out. And it’s a place where there might have been some gunfire or crazy rumbles, people flying through windows.
ICBG: So, for the last 22 years, have you owned the bar the entire time it has been The Village Tap?
MG: Yes, I own it with a partner. He moved to Traverse City, Michigan about 20 years ago so he is more of a silent partner.
ICBG: What made you decide to get into this business and buy the bar?
MG: I ask myself that question every day. I can’t tell you how many people tell me it is their dream job to own a bar. It was never my dream. I never worked in a restaurant growing up, I didn’t really understand the hospitality business. I just knew it was really long hours, a lot of work, late nights. It wasn’t really what I thought about for myself. A group of friends and I were all working at the time but we all wanted to be our own bosses, so we started a real estate partnership on the side. We bought buildings and rehabbed them and sold them. There was a group of five of us and we just thought that it would be amazing to combine a business with a real estate investment. So we were crazy enough to give it a try. My friends and I found this building in what seemed like a pretty rough part of town, which is now the DePaul area. I quit my job to help open that business, which was the Local Option. You are probably familiar with the Local Option; it is now one of the great beer bars in town. Once we did get it open one of our partners wanted to run it and be in charge, and I was fine with that. Like I said, it was not my ambition to be in the bar or restaurant business. So I went on and went back into real estate.
The partner I own The Village Tap with and I both moved into Roscoe Village and back then, 22 years ago, it was a very, very different neighborhood than it is today. There were no nice spots you could go to; they were all like Freddie Feel Goods, although Freddie Feel Goods was probably one of the tamer ones. People were just starting to move into Roscoe Village and I felt like we really were urban pioneers. And I think because of our experience with the Local Option we thought we could do it here, and that Roscoe Village really needed a spot like that. So, we did but it was difficult because the economy kind of died back then, just like it did here just a few years ago.
So after opening The Village Tap, it was in the red so I had to find a job to make a living and support The Village Tap. My partner and I hired a manager and worked with him, trying to keep the place afloat. As time went on, I started learning a lot more about hospitality and what it is and figure it out and understand what it is really about. We eventually came up with a mission to guide us: ‘every guest leaves happy. We try to make the world a better place through hospitality. I feel that those ideas were kind of powerful because it was a good mission. And when I started to realize that and feel that, it drew me more and more into the business. And ultimately I think it was just from having the opportunity to gradually work and learn in the restaurant, and the realization that hospitality is a good mission is what ultimately lead me to jump in and just become full time at doing this.
ICBG: How have you seen the craft beer scene in Chicago change since you opened The Village Tap 22 years ago?
MG: It’s been pretty remarkable. In the very early years, there was no craft beer. But then, shortly after opening, we experienced what I call craft beer revolution number one, which was when Goose Island, Bell’s, Summit, and Sierra Nevada came into existence. That lasted for a few years but then it seemed as though it was a fad that died down for a period of time. There was still an audience of craft beer lovers but it had fallen from the spotlight. But just within the last three or four years, it has come roaring back. I call it beer revolution number two in Chicago. It’s come back bigger and better than ever. More breweries, more styles, more intense beers, more flavors. I think we’re seeing a lot of new breweries coming into existence which is pretty amazing. Sometimes I fear that things could be getting overheated again and there might be some fall out, but I hope not. This second revolution is just taking everything to any entirely new level. To me, it’s just been fantastic.
ICBG: You host one of my favorite events of the year: The Local Tap Takeover. What’s great about that event is that there are brewers and/or brewery representatives here to talk to patrons and share a beer with them. How did that event come about? How do you work out the logistics and contact the breweries and get them on board?
MG: Another movement that is going on, separate from craft beer but somewhat related, is ‘buying local’ and experiencing local things. I think it’s particularly applicable to beer because of freshness and you need to support the local brewers to foster a great beer community. So, I think the event came about as a combination of that concept of ‘thinking local’ and then also the fact that suddenly there were enough local breweries and enough beers to fill 26 draft lines. I don’t think that has been the case for very long. I did a combination of working with our distributors and then also contacting breweries directly. In some cases it was pretty remarkable; I just went to the websites and there was a ‘contact us’ email link and I just explained what it was that we were doing and then, surprisingly, just getting an immediate response. In other cases, being in the business, I’ve just gotten to know the brewery owners and brewery people over the years so it was easy to get in touch with them and try to get them on board. And some of the distributors were extremely helpful and encouraging, trying to get their breweries involved and informed, getting people out here for the event. So it was a combination of all of those things.
MG: It hasn’t been that long, we didn’t realize we could be a member until this year during Chicago Craft Beer Week. There were some posters that were made and on the back of the poster, it showed the Guild members and the Associate Members. And I saw that there were associate members that were bars and restaurants and retailers, and I realized that it might be possible for us to join. So I contacted the Guild and they welcomed us with open arms. So we joined and it hasn’t even been a year. Even though we have been a member for only a matter of months and haven’t really gotten involved with any of the activities or been involved with the Guild extensively, they’ve been a big help. The Guild runs Chicago Craft Beer Week which is a tremendous event that brings a lot of business to the craft beer bars. And then getting to know the other members; going to the Annual Meeting at Revolution Brewing, I got to meet a lot of people. When I saw Josh Deth [the owner of Revolution] there, that’s when we conspired to create a Revolution Tap Takeover at The Village Tap. So, to answer your question, Craft Beer Week and then connecting us to the Chicago craft beer community.
ICBG: Where do you see The Village Tap in the future?
MG: No matter what, I see The Village Tap as a house of hospitality. That’s ultimately what we really do. The craft beer is a phenomenal addition. And the beer garden here at the Village Tap is a huge draw. But ultimately, what I feel we need to be, is an institution serving beer, food, and beverage as a house of hospitality. And we have to keep that mission I described earlier in mind. And I believe that more than anything is what brings me in, more than these other things. They are just icing on the cake. But if you don’t have that focus then you’re in trouble. That’s what we plan to be. Moving forward, I think the direction is clear. But below that there are things that happen. The neighborhood’s changing, tastes are changing, we are always trying to tweak, adjust, and adapt. You know, change or perish.