Why it’s awesome: Simple mathematics: vegan bar food + awesome murals + 200 kinds of whiskey + punk rock juke box = awesome.
Mark and Michele Sellers never open the same bar twice. In the wake of the extremely successful HopCat, a bar which opened in January of 2008, they opened Stella’s just a couple of blocks away. Though owned by the same people, the similarities end there. Whereas HopCat, rated as one of the top beer bars in the world, has a extensive collection of craft beers, a more modern ambiance, and a menu of bar food with a fancy twist, Stella’s is fashioned to emulate a dive bar. While certainly not dirty nor dingy, the dimly lit bar decorated with large murals by local artist Erwin Erkfitz and strange Mexican Devil masks, seems much older than it actually is, serving as a throwback to the bars that the Sellers grew up enjoying.
The Sellers moved from Chicago to Grand Rapids in the spring of 2007 with no intentions of opening a bar. However, by early 2008 HopCat was opening its doors. With no prior experience in the bar industry or even waiting tables, the Sellers aimed to create a place that would appeal to people like them. “We arranged all of our business practices around what customers like us would like,” said Michele Sellers. “Our ultimate demographic is basically us.”
Stella’s came shortly after, as a building became available a couple of blocks from HopCat. “The commercial real estate market is a really good deal right now,” said Sellers. “We wanted to give ourselves a new place to hang out.” Moving from Chicago, Sellers noticed a lack of small, dark bars downtown like those she had frequented in Chicago. “We kind of wanted a place where we felt at home hanging out,” she said. Her vision was truly realized in Stella’s, where her and Mark can often be found.
Getting into Stella’s can be difficult, not because it is exclusive, but merely because finding the entrance to the building can be a little tricky. The main entrance, found in an alley, is easy to miss. However, as you near the entrance, a mural of skulls is painted on the wall, letting you know that you are almost to your destination. Upon opening the door, punk rock music lets you know that you are in the right place. Ascend the stairs and allow your eyes to adjust to the dimly lit bar area and take a seat.
Looking at the menu, it becomes apparent that Stella’s is not dishing up your average bar fare. Each dish draws its name from a hardcore or punk song title, making the menu an interesting read with names like “For Who the Dogs Toll,” “Refuse/Resist,” and “You Suffer.” While many of the bar food staples exist here, such as chicken wings, large burgers, and hot dogs, it is the vegetarian twist that makes the menu truly unique. Vegan “chicken” wings, burgers, nachos, and hotdogs make Stella’s a unique establishment.
At the opening of Stella’s, Michele was a vegetarian, which allowed her to have an insight into the lack of vegetarian friendly establishments. “As a vegetarian, I felt that market was under served in Grand Rapids,” said Sellers. “Here, almost every restaurant that I went to, even salads, I would have to ask for no bacon, no chicken, no whatever.” This observation led to a business opportunity. “When you’re opening a place, you kind of want to tap into an under served market. Not only as a service to those people that are under served but also you kind of have a monopoly on the market.”
Initially, Sellers wanted to fill the menu with healthy vegetarian food such as salads and wraps, but Ryan Cappelletti, the mastermind behind several vegan menus in Grand Rapids and co-owner of Bartertown Cafe had different plans. “He said ‘that’s cool but vegetarians can get that anywhere,’” said Sellers. “If people are slamming back PBR, they want [crappy] bar food. After he put it to me that way, it made a lot of sense.” Following Cappalletti’s vision, Stella’s serves up typical bar food with a vegetarian twist. However, don’t be fooled into think it’s particularly good for you. “It’s vegetarian,” Sellers said. “It’s not health food.”
At its inception, the vast majority of the menu at Stella’s was in fact vegan, except for a small menu section titled “Pet Cemetery,” which featured several stuffed burgers. However, since then, meat has been added to the menu as a free option for the majority of items. It was her husband’s idea to add the option to the vegan items. “He wanted to broaden the appeal,” Sellers said. He didn’t feel that meat eaters were coming here.” Vegetarians rest assured, however; your favorite options are still available. “We didn’t take away a single vegetarian thing,” said Sellers.
While waiting for your food to come, meander to the back of the restaurant and check out the various arcade games. These were Mark’s contribution to the space. Growing up in the 80s, Mark and his brother would spend time in video arcades competing with each other. “They kept notebooks of their high scores,” Michele said. Mark wanted an outlet for his love for video games, but Michele was adverse to the idea of having one in the house, and Stella’s provided a perfect outlet. “It has become a very popular feature,” said Sellers.
Whereas HopCat is built around the Sellers’ love for craft beer, Stella’s is built around whiskey. Over 200 different kinds of whiskey, to be more specific. While of course there are several beers available, including several Michigan craft beers on tap and a number of classic beers served in cans, including Blatz and Schlitz. Beers from the tap are served in mason jars, adding yet another quirk to Stella’s.
Stella’s is best described by Michele Sellers who said, “[Mark] likes whiskey, I like vegan food, and he likes video games. We figured we’d put them all together and see what happens.” The end result is a truly unique bar and restaurant that, once you find it, is absolutely worth your time.
Fun Fact: Stella is the Seller’s pet dog! ~Chad Cramblet. Regional Director
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