Starting and ending in Pine River - Restaurant owner made it back home after years on the road

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Roger Hoplin was born and raised in Pine River. He settled down in the area again in 2012.

But in between graduating from Pine River High School and buying Bites Grill & Bar in 2013 was a life of unexpected twists and turns that took him all over the United States.

Hoplin joined the Army after high school but was medically discharged just months into his service. That's when he began to stray from his life plans.

"I really struggled because I'd signed up for six years. I went into the Army Security Agency, so they had gotten letters from our police chief and our game warden and teachers," he said. "So after coming back (home) that fall, I was really at a loss because that wasn't in my plans."

But Hoplin soon married his now-wife of almost 40 years, Wendy, and moved to southern Missouri, where he worked several different jobs.

"Going right into the Army, I didn't go on for any kind of formal education, and so that became kind of a setback when my career in the Army stopped, and at that point I wasn't sure what I wanted to be when I grew up," he said.

While figuring out what he wanted to be, Hoplin worked at a trailer house manufacturing company, a chicken plant, an oil field and as a truck driver, as he and Wendy moved around to Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

Hoplin eventually got a job managing propane plants for Cenex, and in 1989, he moved back to Pine River, where his son and daughter both graduated from high school. That job opened a new door.

"Through Cenex, I actually qualified to go back to college," he said.

Hoplin took that opportunity to start his pre-med studies at Brainerd Community College and the University of Minnesota-Duluth, as he aspired to be a veterinarian. When he realized medicine wasn't for him, Hoplin transferred to the College of St. Scholastica to get a business degree and was able to finish his studies closer to home at was is now Central Lakes College.

But before long, Hoplin left Pine River again and moved around between Iowa and Colorado.

He spent a total of 12 years working with Cenex and traveling around to perform training at various plants.

Hoplin's life then took another turn, and he fell on teaching after a friend suggested he try subbing.

"I had time, and so I started substituting," he said.

After two years of substituting as needed, Hoplin got a longer term position and spent a full school year teaching a K-7 gifted program in Neosho, Missouri.

Because of the students' high intelligence levels, "it was pretty interesting," he said. "But I had probably more fun messing with their sense of common sense sometimes by getting them to think outside of the box and just think in a real structured area."

When the position was eliminated the next year, Hoplin took a job as a route manager for Ecolab. There he helped foodservice and hospitality facilities - such as restaurants, hotels and nursing homes - to maintain healthy and sanitary environments.

Hoplin spent five years with Ecolab, eventually getting transferred to Bemidji for the last year and making his way back to Pine River. Retirement came in 2013, but it didn't last long.

"I retired on a Friday, and we purchased the restaurant (Bites Grill & Bar) on Monday," he said. "It's probably what you'd call the world's fastest retirement."

Buying a restaurant, just like most of Hoplin's life, wasn't originally the plan.

"We really were thinking we'd like to buy a bakery," he said, as Wendy had gone to culinary school and specialized in pastries. "But at that time, the bakery in town wasn't for sale, and they had no plans of selling it."

Bites was a bigger job than the Hoplins thought they wanted.

"We ... were looking for a retirement project, something on a smaller scale - nothing like this," Hoplin said. "But I think it's really been a blessing, and we've really enjoyed being able to use our ability here to help in the community and give back."

Hoplin prides his business for its Good Neighbor Award from the Minnesota Restaurant Association, an honor he got after gaining support from the Pine River Chamber, food shelf and library.

"We're able to help raise funds and things for different organizations like that, so that was an honor for us to be recognized by the community for helping out," he said.

Not only does Hoplin serve the community through his restaurant, but he's also a member of the Pine River Chamber board, the Pine River and Cass County economic development corporations and the Pine River Lions Club. He has served four years as a STRIVE mentor at Pine River-Backus High School, a program he is especially passionate about.

"I'm always looking at opportunities to work with kids," Hoplin said, adding that he has thought about creating a program for kids interested in cooking to go to culinary school and then come back to work at his restaurant.

Though free time away from the restaurant and his various community commitments is often difficult for Hoplin to find, spare hours he happens to come by are spent with his seven grandkids - five of whom live locally - or keeping bees and making honey. The honey barbecue sauce and honey butter served at Bites are made from Hoplin's own honey.

Life may not have gone quite as planned for Hoplin, but he is grateful for all the experiences he had.

"Life has sent me so many different places and so many different opportunities, and I don't regret any of them because I think a lot of that knowledge then has come back to make me more knowledgeable on a broader scale," he said.

But ultimately ending up back in Pine River is a blessing.

"It's always nice to be able to go out into the world, and it's still nice to have a nice place to come home," Hoplin said. "Being raised here, I know so many people around here, and it's just really neat to come back home."