Family First at Hill City Tap Room

by Marcus Harrison Green

Child-rearing may provide plenty of joys, but it also provides an upheaval to life as usual.  Spur of the moment hang outs with friends become non-existent. And bar-hopping with comrades takes place only after painstaking coordination with babysitters, family members, or the other parental unit’s schedule.

The challenge posed by parenting while attempting to enjoy a night out was the foremost reason Mark and Lauren Hipp decided to open a family-friendly bar, Hill City Tap Room, nearly smack dab on the border of Hillman and Columbia Cities.

Parents of two young children themselves, the Hipps, who are also Hillman City residents, experienced first-hand the dearth of drinking establishments in the South End catering to families with children.

After visiting a few North Seattle establishments, and Oregon breweries that featured children’s play spaces, the couple stopped asking why there wasn’t such establishments in South Seattle, and started asking why didn’t they own one?

“We thought a bar with a play area was great because the kids are occupied and having fun interacting with other kids and you’re able to sit and have a conversation; you know when you’re at the dinner table with kids it’s hard to have a conversation some time,” says Matt Hipp about the 110 sq foot children’s play space in the back of Hill City.

He shares he wanted parents to feel free to embrace their adulthood while children played with the alphabet blocks and stuffed animals.

Prior to becoming a parent, Matt long harbored a dream of owning his own watering hole since his college days spent as a bar-backer, prepping ice for beers and stocking liquor.

For Laruen, on the other hand, it was the idea of Hill City providing a hub to balance the needs of modern parenting with the desire for adult socializing that held the primary appeal.

“I’m honestly not the biggest beer fan, but a gathering spot with a community feel was important to me,” Lauren says, adding she never actually envisioned being a small business owner until about a year ago.

Lauren’s itch to open a business arrived after working in South Seattle for five years with the family advocacy group Moms Rising, and finally moving to Hillman from North Seattle about 2 years ago.

“I’ve loved this neighborhood for a long time and, with now being rooted here, the time just seemed right to open a business.” She says.

To those familiar with the neighborhood’s local beer scene, it may appear Hill City stepped into a torrent of competition, as, excluding restaurant-first establishments, there are at least 7 bars between the 2 mile stretch along Rainier Avenue connecting Hillman and Columbia Cities.

The Hipps however see their location, in the middle of the two neighborhoods as a sweet spot, as prime real estate in the heart of a fast- growing part of the South End.

“We view our location as a connecter of Columbia and Hillman cities,” says Mark, who notes that Hill City Taps is located nearly equidistant between the cluster of bars between the two neighborhoods.

He hopes this encourages those on a mini-pub crawl, or bouncing between establishments to meet friends, to think of Hill City as a rest stop between engagements. The outdoor patio area is also a draw for those looking to be sun-kissed while drinking beer on a balmy day.

“Walkability was very important to us,” shares Lauren, who wanted Hill City to be a place on par with a quality tavern found in Capitol Hill for locals.

That’s why a visiting patron will find 23 varietals of beer (along with one root beer), all listed on the giant chalkboard stationed behind the bar counter. Washington beer lovers can delight, as a majority of the Hill City’s brews (75 percent) are produced in Washington, including Silver City, and South Seattle’s own Flying Lion.

The beer selection will fluctuate according to the Hipps, as they intend to factor in customer feedback in their choices. “Seeking input about what to serve is all a part of the exploratory process,” says Mark.

They have also made reaching out to the community and surrounding businesses a priority. Hill City, which doesn’t serve food, has already established a relationship with next door neighbor Emma’s BBQ, so bar patrons can have to-go orders delivered over to Hill City Taps, enjoying bar-b-que with their beer.

With the rapid demographic shift happening across historically POC-dominated areas across the city – and particularly in the South End, the couple wanted to make sure they were being absorbed by an established community and not the other way around.

Some long-time residents have already appreciated the effort.

“It’s really good to see family-orientated business rejuvenating the area.  When you have an establishment that’s kids friendly and where parents can be there too, that makes for a safe environment,” says Kerry Grant, who, until moving to North Seattle last year, had been a Columbia City resident since 1965.

Grant, who is black, says places like Hill City bring additional commerce to Hillman and Columbia City, with consumers spilling over from Beacon Hill, Seward Park and Rainier Beach, which cycles money through the South End.

Additionally, the Hipps are using Hill City as a vehicle to raise funds for local organizations, setting aside one day a month where a portion of drink proceeds will be designated to a non-profit.

A long-time advocate of progressive causes in her day job at Moms Rising, Lauren recently devoted a night to raising funds for Planned Parenthood – an organization that continues to find itself in the crosshairs of a Republican congress nationally.

“As someone who’s been in the progressive trenches, I feel we really need to be involved in protecting the most vulnerable,” says Lauren.

She does add that everyone is welcomed regardless of political affiliation. As she put it:” In this day and age of stark division in this country, there’s no better way to bridge divides than over a beer with the laughter of children in the background.”  

MHG ColorMarcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, the current scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000