Pete and Niki Hoppins are English ex-pats living the American dream in Portland, OR. Married(to each other) with two kids; they are the owners of the English football pub, the Toffee Club in Southeast Portland and the founders of one of the nation’s most original and popular amateur football leagues—the Toffee League. You can now add brewery owners to their list as they opened Away Days Brewery next door to their pub in August of 2019.
Let’s talk about the Toffee Club first, how did that come to be?
How did that come to be? So yeah, this about like four over four years ago, actually it’s always kind of been a dream of ours, like myself and Nikki, to own a bar, but maybe in like retirement, you know, like we’re gonna like finish up the corporate jobs and then move back to the UK or somewhere a bit more tropical and open up a bar and like semi-retire. But it actually all kind of kicked off when my brother Jack moved here, met his future wife, moved over to Portland, and kind of moved here and thought to himself, “Okay, well what are you gonna do?”
We were brainstorming ideas about what he’s going to do in Portland. And then that kind of like snowballed into the idea that we could bring the idea of owning a bar to life sooner than we thought. We were kind of throwing out ideas of what this could be and I think we’d already built like the deck—the concept of what it could be before we even started seriously talking about it. Then we thought we had a really good, solid idea. We specifically thought about Portland. We were like, “what’s Portland missing?” There wasn’t really like a proper pub, like an English pub or that kind of culture that doesn’t really exist. There wasn’t really a definitive place to watch football.
There were a few bars, but there was an opportunity to kind of combine those two things together in an authentic way and then bring that to Portland. So we looked at a bunch of places, like a bunch of different venues and we were semi-serious at the time. And then we saw this, the current space, which was basically a warehouse, but it’s in a really kind of cool kind of part of town, a developing part of town. And as soon as we saw this place, we were like, “This is it.” And then as soon as we locked down the lease and there’s no tenant, you’ve got to do it.
So yeah, I think we, we definitely saw a gap in the market as well for a more inclusive space to watch football and to create a community around football. There are a ton of football parks in Portland, a ton of great football parks. But as a non-football fan, I love the World Cup. I love the social side of it. I love a pint and a game but I don’t have a team. I didn’t grow up as a fan. I would often be in these football pubs feeling quite out of place, or like I didn’t know enough. We wanted to create a space that anyone could come to whether you’ve grown up as a born-and-bred football fan or if it’s your first time watching; whether it’s men’s or women’s as well. So the Thorns obviously have a huge following in Portland, but there are not many places that have given them a focus or a real-life place to shine.
So the pub, in a sense, is very traditional with the food, etc. but it does feel very modern. It is like a modern space with the soul of a pub.
That was our challenge. How do you create an English pub in a warehouse, an ex-strip club in Southeast Portland? How do you take that space and make it feel like a cozy welcoming pub? That was definitely a design challenge when we started and that space has evolved over time. We opened the space with three pictures on the wall and two rugs and a few tables. It’s really grown over the last few years.
We first met you guys when the Toffee Club opened three and a half years ago. How has it evolved since then?
It’s interesting, we went back through the original concept and the deck, which was basically in our heads, the original idea behind it. recently. We were like now feels like three and a half years in four years and whatever we are getting to where we always wanted to be. It was definitely a struggle at first. I think it was a little bit of having the confidence to fully realize what we wanted to do, but also it was how do you convince other people who haven’t grown up on this and with this culture to understand what you’re trying to do.
It’s like you’re creating as something that hasn’t been done before in the space. But you’ve grown up with that your whole life. You know, it’s like, “Oh yeah, why wouldn’t people get into football in Portland? They like beer. They like English stuff. So why wouldn’t this work in Portland?” But you know, it’s a new kind of concept. Just the idea of pub culture and it is going to change over time. Not just the football aspect of it but the community aspect of a pub.
There’s a lot of great bars and fantastic restaurants in Portland, but it’s a different type of culture, a different type of space that we wanted to create which revolves around community and everyone knowing each other and hanging out all day whether football’s on or not. Just a different kind of environment. A different kind of space.
Another thing we always dreamt of is becoming the clubhouse. So in England, you have a team and there’s a clubhouse. And everyone goes and drinks at the clubhouse after matches. It’s the home team and the away team and both go and have a drink at the clubhouse. And there’s just not many places that have that clubhouse here. And that, I feel, has just been this last year we finally have rallied around. We now have over 50s, over forties, over thirties, and first division men’s in our football league. We have an outdoor women’s, an indoor women’s, we have coeds outdoor, we have an indoor futsal men’s team and we encourage them all to come back to the pub afterward. We give them a pitcher of beer and chips for free if they come back. And that means that we are now becoming that clubhouse space as well.
That was a really big part of our vision to start with but it has probably taken us three years to get there. People actually just want to come around and just hang out and this is essentially their home as well.
We didn’t have the football angle dialed up when we first opened a Toffee Club. It was to be more of an English pub and an English pub shows football. I’d say the biggest, the biggest change that has happened, and we’ve allowed it to change, is that it’s got the football dial is turned way up now. That’s really where we are at. At the same time, we don’t want to alienate the people who just want to come in for some nice food and a pint, a chat, a quiz, whatever they could have been coming in to do but the football side of things is definitely dialed up and it shows. That’s just the way in which people have taken to it. That’s the thing that has developed more and more over time.
So you built a pub. You’ve started a league with it sounds like over 30 teams. And then you decide, “okay, let’s build a brewery.” How did that happen?
So this was a brewery before. This was Scout Beer. They actually opened around the same time as us. They were doing that build-out at the same time as we were. And they for one reason or another decided to close here at the end of last year. They have a second location, just 40 blocks up the road. Um, so they contacted us at the beginning of November and asked if we wanted to take over the space. And it had been something we’d always talked about very much in theory. And at first I was just like, “no, no, a pub and two kids is plenty.” To take over a brewery sounded ridiculous. Then we started talking about it as a team and actually realized the opportunity of starting a very different business over here, in the same proximity, bringing in a different kind of clientele to this area, using economies of scale with our team in our kitchen, and actually building a brand that had real growth potential was an interesting opportunity.
So we started negotiating and we weren’t 100% set on the idea, by any means, but as soon as we start negotiating, we realized actually we could move in here, have the space turnkey for a very reasonable price cause they were keen to just move on. So then the fun project I suppose was starting to build this and make it very different from what the Toffee Club is. People will know it is the same owner if they dig a little deeper but we didn’t want and didn’t need a bigger Toffee Club. We definitely didn’t need more Toffee Club space. So creating something very different that will bring certain kind of clientele over here that will appreciate the Toffee Club. And the Toffee Club clientele will also appreciate here(Away Days Brewery). You kind of feed each other.
People get it. What separates them is the idea that Toffee Club is this English football pub and then Away Days is like your European away day, your trip. You are going away to watch your game for the weekend in Barcelona or Amsterdam or even Porto wherever it is, somewhere anywhere in Europe and this space represents that. But also that allows us to do open the aperture of what we can actually do with this brand.
The Toffee Club is going to be definitely kind of quite constrained in a way. It’s very much an English pub in Portland. Whereas Away Days, we can literally do anything with this brand. It’s going to be interesting.
Toffee club is much like less about the brand and more about the community, whereas this, like we have real potential with the brand, you know? So that’s actually really fun to think about that. We’re suddenly selling a product rather than an experience as well of course. But it’s almost like the beer has to be the first thing we’re selling.
And this is something that you can potentially do to scale.
Yeah, for sure.
But we don’t need two Toffee Clubs.
But that will always be at the center of it. However big Away Days gets it just kicks off from the pub. Like if we have a massive distribution of Away Days everywhere, it all comes back to the Toffee Club, That’s the original foundation and original spot where the culture was created.
You might just be coming back from warmer climates to visit the Toffee Club.
Maybe, we’ll see. But because you’re so into the football world the Toffee Club and Away Days have such a clear football association but there is only a small percentage of your everyday person(in The States) who gets that. So that actually gives us some flexibility. If this was in England, a Toffee Club pub with an Away Days Brewery next door is clearly in Liverpool with a total football focus. Whereas here we can stretch that concept quite a lot more.
So obviously starting a pub is quite a big undertaking. In my mind starting a brewery is even a bigger undertaking. What have been some of your biggest challenges starting this project?
Opening a second business with two kids while running a business has been just a whole new level. We signed the lease agreement [for the brewery] in January, we got into the space in February, and we were open the first week in June just before the Women’s World Cup, which was a month of madness, anyway. So, yeah, it’s been a crazy fucking nine months. But we have learned so much. Our operations are so much more straightforward here and we have an incredible team. Our main, winning moment was hiring our Brewer. He is creating fabulous beer and has really taken our vision of what we wanted the product to be and is just running with it and honestly, executing above what we ever could have hoped that he would.
That was our biggest fear or concern. We like beer, but we don’t really have like beer geek knowledge of making beer. Jack, my brother, he’s pretty educated in beer. But this is a beer town and we’re coming in with a new point of view. All beer in Portland now is good. It is really good. So we’ve got to be at least really good. So that was the biggest fear we had. But this guy Marshall, the Brewer that we hired, is so, so good.
You mentioned point of view. So when you think about Away Days Beer, what is that point of view?
So lower ABVs are a big thing for us. A lot of people agree that beer just went way too hoppy, too heavy, and too boozy. It was almost like you had to endure a pint rather than enjoy it. So lower ABVs, it is a trend back home, but it is always something that’s always interested us. Just a more sessionable drink. We love a day drink so we want to be able to have three or four pints and still feel okay rather than having one that will knock your head off.
We are figuring out that some people do want a little bit higher alcohol content so we are trying to figure out how to bring in an IPA that has a higher ABV that satisfies the person that comes in and just has time for one.
You know the lower ABV is a trend in New York and in Europe as well. Well, it’s always been in New York. People want to drink more over time and hang out with friends. And that’s like our culture so why shouldn’t we bring that up to Portland. And we combine that with the West Coast flavor.
So you guys have been opened since June, officially since August. Are you guys already starting to see where you want this business to go?
When we started Toffee Club we literally had no clue what we were getting into. Whereas Away Days has been a lot more strategic. We’re taking the learning from three and half years of Toffee Club into this space. The space is great. People love the beer. The branding is on point. But the most exciting part of it is getting the beer out there to the world in terms of wholesaling, getting accounts. That is the new and exciting thing. We are all about new challenges. That is what keeps us going, keeps us interested.
We did this event for Octoberfest and we were packed from start to finish. It was a really good moment. Especially for me because I do all of our marketing, all of our digital, and all of our social media. We had only been existing online for two months and we were doing an event. I was thinking, “Is anyone actually going to turn up?” We did sell all of our 40 presale tickets that came with a Stein Mug but half of those were to a bachelor party that was coming into Portland. They bought 18 of them. But it was busy from start to finish and it was a really good realization that we can do this.
We have the infrastructure now to get our name out there. We can use Toffee Club as a starting point but most of the people who came out were just from the beer community, the Portland community. We’ve really relied on the Toffee Club community to get us started. The first couple of weeks the only people that knew about us and followed us were from there. Since then I have learned a ton of systems of how to market, how to promote, how to connect, how to get people to know about us.
One thing I do know is that our growth here needs to be a lot faster than it was at Toffee Club. And the potential is there for it to be faster. We definitely have to have the confidence to be a lot more aggressive here. Because at Toffee Club we just relied on word-of-mouth. Whereas here…with so much competition…we are doing something different so know we can accelerate but we just need to have the confidence to do it.
We are really impressed with all that your family has been able to accomplish to continue to take chances on creating new things that resonate with and foster community. You have really been able to build a community with the Toffee Club and even now with Aways Days, we can tell it is more than just about selling something. There is a deep connection there to family, to Portland and to the football-loving people here.
You know we talk about the Toffee Club like it’s a community. And that’s been the thing that has kept us going. That’s been the most satisfying part of this. When I think about it, we don’t need to be doing this, really. Considering the amount of effort we put into this we could do something else that would be a lot easier. You know we used to make money(laughs). These things take years as you know. It’s about doing something you’re passionate about and other people will follow, hopefully.
So you have to be really passionate about the thing that you are doing and we have created something that we really are into.
That definitely comes across. The Toffee Club and Away Days are authentic to you guys. It seems like a place where you guys want to be, hang out, and have a pint with your friends. That authenticity shines through and I think that is part of what attracts so many people to you and your brand.
We are still figuring it out every day. It’s not like a formula…Our operations are extremely streamlined but in terms of a brand, a business, and a community—how do we continue to elevate and to grow?
I always like to ask this question to wrap things up: if you could go back a year ago, to before you started Away Days what would be one piece of advice you would give yourselves?
I would go back even further and go back to opening Toffee Club. This is actually a conversation I had with a friend a while ago. We’ve spoken about it a few times. She asked, “if you could back to when you were concepting Toffee Club, what would you change?” I told her, “if you could have told me how much money we would have to spend, how much time, how many weekends wouldn’t have had as a family, how many tears, how many sleepless nights, how many arguments,” I would have said, “definitely not. I’ll keep freelancing with my nice hourly rate and live a comfortable life and be able to pay daycare.” Then she said, “you’ve only talked about the bad things, but what the community that you’ve built and the experiences that you are building for people? What about all you have learned? What about what it has done and is doing for your family?” And I was like, “you’re right. I’d do it again.”
That was a really good moment. When she asked me I went right into the stressful things, In 20 years time we will look back on this and say, “wow!” Or we’ll be like, “we were so fucking stupid what were we doing? But it was amazing. We’ve built something.”
I think if I was to tell myself anything. If I went back three years ago. We could have gone for it more at the start. To be more confident in ourselves and in the vision.