About 300 people lined up outside 311 Maynard St. on Saturday morning, braving frigid temperatures and biting winds, as workers inside finished up preparations for the grand opening of Hopcat, a Grand Rapids-based craft beer bar.

The chain, which focuses on specialty craft beer and sells food as well, announced in July that it would open its fifth location in the 8,600-square-foot space that formerly housed part of the Borders flagship store.

Leading up to the event, HopCat advertised that it would offer free “crack fries,” a signature dish of beer-battered French fries, during the grand opening. It also said the first 200 people waiting in line would receive free crack fries every week for a year.

Though the heat of July may have seemed distant on Saturday, patrons waiting outside — several of whom camped out overnight — said they were especially looking forward to both the free fries and the beer selection.

Public Health graduate student John Lee, along with friends Megan Hayes, physical therapy doctoral student at the University of Michigan—Flint, and Public Health graduate student William Weichsel, scored a spot in line at 5 a.m. Weichsel said the beer selection was the main reason he tagged along.

“Two of the beers they have are super rare, by Founders — Canadian Breakfast Stout and Kentucky Breakfast Stout,” Lee said. “They’re only on tap in a given city maybe three times a year.”

In an interview Saturday morning, HopCat founder and owner Mark Sellers said the beer list was given special consideration for the grand opening.

“We challenged our ‘beer guy’ … to come up with the best 100-tap list any bar’s ever had,” he said. “It’s arguable whether we’ve done that, but we’ve got an amazing list.”

Sellers said most HopCat locations are typically near universities, so they’re used to a customer base of faculty and students, but thus far the clientele here has had slightly different tastes.

“The thing I’ve noticed just in the couple of days that we’ve had some customers come in is that they seem to be very knowledgeable about beer, right from the start,” he said. “That’s not always the case. Some of the places we’ve opened we’ve had to teach the customers a lot about the beer.”

HopCat waitress Meg Schemanske, a University alum, said she had been interested in beer before working at HopCat, but the training process gave her a new perspective.

“It’s definitely a culture,” she said. “That’s one thing that I think I learned the most.”

She said the company put on a week of “beer school” for the staff, in addition to two weeks of general service training.

“We spent an entire week in class learning different beer styles, different aromas, different hops, different yeasts,” she said. “As much as you can learn about beer, we learned it.”

Seller said he thought several factors would distinguish HopCat from the other bars downtown.

“We have a very laid-back family environment with our employees, so it’s like a big family that works here,” he said. “We have 100 beers on tap, all craft beer, and we have a pretty cool interior design, with a lot of interior artwork.”

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