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Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

‘A place for everybody’: Former Wichita State students seek to create innovative restaurant space in Social Tap Drinkery

Luke+Luttrell%2C+Justin+Neel+and+David+Hopkins+sit+and+discuss+finances+for+their+restaurant+Social+Tap+on+a+Wednesday+afternoon.+The+alumni+all+attended+Wichita+State.
Mia Hennen
Luke Luttrell, Justin Neel and David Hopkins sit and discuss finances for their restaurant Social Tap on a Wednesday afternoon. The alumni all attended Wichita State.

The logo of Social Tap Drinkery, a tap house with locations on the Wichita State Innovation Campus and North Greenwich, depicts two people sitting across from each other with drink glasses between them. 

The symbol is representative of the culture Social Tap’s founders, Justin Neel, Luke Luttrell and David Hopkins, all former Wichita State students, wanted to instill in their company.

“We wanted to stray far away from what the norm was now,” Neel said. “Bars are nothing but TVs in chaos and not relaxing and enjoying your company.”

Service-centric lifestyles

Neel and Luttrell met in eighth grade, and Hopkins joined the friends at Wichita Heights High School. After graduation, all three decided to attend Wichita State and have remained close ever since.

“For 30-plus years, we’ve been great friends and have continued that, and that’s pretty rare nowadays,” Neel said.

Hopkins enlisted in the army after graduation, while Neel and Luttrell got their first jobs in the restaurant industry and developed an early passion for service.

“I love cooking,” Neel said. “I love science, the research, the inconsistency daily of you never know what’s going on but I also love to serve … And there’s no better industry than serving really awesome food, but being able to change someone’s day for the better just by the service.”

The trio remained friends, but split off career-wise, with Neel managing a Wichita location of Il Vicino Wood Oven Pizza, Luttrell owning a signage company, and Hopkins working for various aircraft companies.

Establishing Social Tap

Justin Neel, one of the three owners of Social Tap, discusses finances with his friends and business partners. (Mia Hennen)

During a 2019 baby shower, the friends were discussing the need for a new event center in Wichita and grew passionate about creating a business. When COVID-19 hit, that idea formed into Social Tap. Neel’s restaurant experience and Luttrell’s business acumen made for an obvious fit, but Hopkins had no experience with either.

“(Neel’s) always had a big overview of what it takes to run restaurants … and he’d always kind of talked about it and been interested in doing that for himself or with his friends,” Hopkins said. “When he finally decided he wanted to pull the trigger, he asked Luke … trying to get the groundwork started … and they asked if I was on board with it. And I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’”

The three developed a working relationship where Neel oversees daily operations, Luttrell manages the business side and Hopkins researches the product on tap.

Building the culture

From the beginning, Social Tap was viewed as a communal space for all different kinds of people to meet and talk.

“I want a spot … where you might have a guy in a suit, might have a guy that just got done working out, might have a college student … a place for everybody to hang out and enjoy it,” Luttrell said.

Neel said they worked to reduce the “friction” customers might feel when trying to get comfortable. Part of that mission was going digital from start to finish. According to Neel, Social Tap was the first restaurant in Kansas to use a QR code at every step, from ordering to paying.

“You don’t have to have a server check you out,” Neel said. “You don’t have to have a payment go through them. You don’t have to wait on your party … But we don’t want to lose the hospitality. They will do anything you need if they want them to take your order.”

The three founders also said that part of their mission is attempting to pay employees better and offer a better culture than many other restaurants. They think that if the bartenders are happy, they’ll reciprocate that to the customers.

“The military is a difficult life,” Hopkins said. “You get yelled at a lot, don’t get treated the best, paid the best. So having that experience, I have also figured out that to get the most out of people, it helps to treat them well.”

Every Wednesday, the three meet at the campus location to discuss how the business is doing and respond to customer concerns. Neel said the prioritization of a digital infrastructure allows the business to adapt quicker than most.

“Not only is it the culture that we’re always constantly growing and changing because we have a very in-depth culture code that everybody goes through, but it’s a living breathing thing, and it changes every year,” Neel said.

Looking to the future

Neel said they are looking to begin accepting Shocker Dining Dollars at their campus location and utilize the Starship Technologies robotic delivery services on campus in the near future. The founders also have a few ideas for expansion into new locations, whether it be around Wichita or other college campuses across the country.

For now, though, the mission of community has continued. Luttrell said they’re looking to give Wichita State more of a “college vibe.”

“We wanted to create … a place where five, 10, 15, 20 years, when they come back to campus, they’ve got some other connection where they want to go celebrate and remember the good times that they had here,” Luttrell said.

The Social Tap Drinkery sign sits in the front of the tap restaurant as the owners discuss finances on a Wednesday afternoon. (Mia Hennen)
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About the Contributors
Jacob Unruh, Assistant Sports Editor
Jacob Unruh is the assistant sports editor for The Sunflower. He is a junior at Wichita State, majoring in journalism and minoring in political science. This is Unruh's first year on staff. He goes by he/him pronouns.
Mia Hennen, Editor in Chief
Mia Hennen is the current editor in chief for The Sunflower. Before becoming editor, Hennen was the news/managing editor. They are a junior at Wichita State majoring in English and minoring in communications and Spanish, hoping to pursue any career involving writing or editing.

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