Friday, December 9, 2011

A 30-Year Love Affair with Champagne

Tom Verhey, Proprietor, Pops for Champagne, Chicago (Photo © Tom Hyland)


"Champagne has the ability to change how you perceive life. I think it really does. Champagne is magical." - Tom Verhey


If you want to be the best at something, you have to work at it every day; everyone's heard that before, but it remains as true today as it was hundreds of years ago. Tom Verhey is no doubt a subscriber to this theory and it's been 30 years of dedication that has made his establishment, Pops for Champagne, arguably the finest Champagne bar in America.

I sat down recently to conduct an interview with Verhey; I wanted to pick his brain about why Pops for Champagne has been so successful for so long. I wanted to know about the types of customers that he attracts (skewed towards professionals, females, consumers in their 30s and 40s) and how he continues to draw them in during these economically challenging times. Again, it's a lot of old-fashioned work on his part and that of his staff.

Verhey, who in a former life sold camera equipment, was in Vienna, Austria in 1980 and entered a Champagne bar called Reiss. Intrigued by the outer appearance of the building and the concept in general, he decided then and there to open a Champagne bar back in the Chicago area, where he lived at the time. He opened his inital bar at a northside location in Chicago in March, 1982 and moved to his current location in the River North section of downtown Chicago at State and Ohio in the fall of 2006.

While he was successful at his initial location, Verhey said that was too much of a "destination", while the current spot is perfect for attracting a bigger crowd, be they theater goers, conventioneers or just business people leaving their offices for the day. While his business has taken a "hiccup" as he puts it, given the recent economy, he has been able to keep customers coming in, thanks in no small part to his pricing. "We are able to compete against the dwindling dollars because we actually give value to our customers. People still feel that this is a place they want to spend their money, because when they walk out having spent $50 or $400, they got their money's worth."

Display of Champagne at street-level bar at Pops (Photo by Tom Hyland)


What keeps the customers coming back of course, is the outstanding selection of Champagnes and other sparking wines (the lists can be seen here). The task of assembling such an impressive grouping of wines is the responsibility of Beverage Director Craig Cooper, whom Verhey calls "probably the most Champagne-savvy person in America." Cooper and Verhey definitely prefer the smaller Champagne houses, so while you can order a selection from Mumm, Perrier-Jouet or Veuve Clicquot here, you're much more likely to select from outstanding firms such as Gosset, Ruinart, Bollinger or Krug or from an amazing array of small grower-producers such as Cédric Bouchard, Pierre Moncuit or Agrapart & Fils, to name only a few. The list is handsomely presented and organized into numerous categories, encompassing classics such as Blanc de Blancs and Rosé, but also sub-divided into three styles of non-vintage Brut, a nice touch and one that is extremely helpful to customers looking for a particular style of Champagne.

There are also a few dozen sparkling wines from around the world that are not Champagne; these include Prosecco and Franciacorta from Italy, Cava from Spain as well as some lovely examples from California and Oregon and even some from other wine regions in France, such as Alsace, Burgundy and the Loire Valley. Verhey knows the importance of offering sparkling wines other than Champagne on his list; "You have to have sparklers; sparklers start at $30 a bottle, while Champagne starts at $90 a bottle, so you need that bridge. "You've got to have a bridge with this type of business to carry them (the customers, ed.) from the start of their education and taste and experience into Champagne."

Staff training, conducted by Cooper, has given the employees here a strong foundation in their everyday work routine. "You come in here and ask a question about anything with food and beverage and the staff is going to know the answer," Verhey notes. "That the staff is so well educated reflects the fact that they care enough about the business. It takes time, but it eventually makes the difference."


After 30 years, Verhey is proud of what he's done so far and what he is currently accomplishing at Pops for Champagne. "We're trying to bring people's image of Champagne to a more approachable level, so it doesn't have to be a coat and tie, special occasion type of thing," he remarks.

As for advice to consumers as to why they should drink Champagne more often, here are a few final thoughts from Verhey. "Champagne is all about life and energy and quality and it brings those elements to the glass. People are starting to understand that it's part of their life also.

"There are so many different styles of Champagne, from the ultra-dry to the sweeter to the Chardonnay-infused to the Pinot Noir-infused. It's an everyday wine now."


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