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GR Restaurants are growing, but where are they going? Trends and the future of the local food scene

A spread of food from Sovengard.

In a growing economy in a mid-sized city like Grand Rapids, what sustains the restaurant scene? A few popular restaurateurs discuss trends in the industry, and their hopes and trepidations for the future.
It's no secret. Grand Rapids is in the midst of a bourgeoning food scene. On major streets or tucked into neat corners in your very own neighborhoods, table-service restaurants, take-out joints, bakeries, and trendy brunch spots are constantly popping up. Foodies once able to patronize each of the latest food business on their lists are having a tough time keeping up with the flood of culinary creation at their fingertips; the growth is just too rapid.

But in a growing economy in a mid-sized city like Grand Rapids, what sustains the restaurant scene? Even though millennials and spending more and more money on eating out, is this quality-hungry generation enough to keep butts in seats (and wallets paying hefty tips) throughout the week?

In an effort to explore the evolving GR food scene, Rapid Growth sat down with a few popular restaurateurs to understand the state of the industry, the trends and qualities that drive patrons into their comfy booths or on bar stools, and their hopes and trepidations for the future.

Authenticity is the future

"It's a real competitive landscape," says Darel Ross II, co-owner of 40 Acres Soul Kitchen on Wealthy. "We have to be very very creative."

Darel Ross II, right, and Lewis Williams, left, owners of 40 Acres.
Ross, who opened the full service soul food restaurant and cognac bar in May of this year with partner Lewis Williams, notes that authenticity in food and mission is what's behind current and future successes in Grand Rapids restaurants. Much like the forthcoming Cuban restaurant Danzón Cubano, Ross looks to genuine food that celebrates a particular ethnic tradition. 

"Authentic food is going to be a good niche market …. and the focus on neighborhoods," he adds. 40 Acres is tucked into Eastown on Wealthy Street and Danzón is the newest member of the Fulton Heights neighborhood.

Ross also believes in a restaurant's ability to make a positive impact on the neighborhood it serves. "I think one of the challenges in our businesses is one of our opportunities," he says. "It is sustainability being measured by recycling and these footprints but not taking into consideration neighborhood context … and we've been able to do a lot of hiring from the neighborhood." 

By hiring nearby, "We are continuously encouraged by our ability to find talent in our neighborhood and diversity of our workforce," says Ross. 

Keeping butts in seats

"I think GR is a unique market," says Paul Lee, owner and operator of The Winchester, Donkey Taqueria, What the Truck, and the forthcoming Hancock on Wealthy and Fuller. Though the restaurant market is expanding here, the city doesn't necessarily follow nationwide trends, according to Lee. Though newly opened spaces like Zoko and Linear push the boundaries for innovative cuisine, most Grand Rapidians still only seek out fine dining on the weekends.

Paul Lee, owner of The Winchester, Donkey Taqueria and What the Truck.Here, "People are only looking to go out Fridays and Saturdays, and Thursdays," says Lee. So for him and other restauranteurs, the persistent question is: "How do we keep them in the door five, six days a week?"

For Lee's first food venture and East Hills mainstay, The Winchester, the answer was to stick to the basics: great food, even better service, and an accessibility that included late nights. For many people, jokes Lee, the Winchester "is just there…seven days a week." Though they experimented with changing menus and tactics, Lee and his wife found that consistency was at the core of the Winchester's success. And despite the introduction of new restaurants and the ebb and flow of trend, Grand Rapidians seem to rediscover the American pub again and again.

Instead of opting for change, Lee found that returning the Winchester to its mission of comfort and quality was the key to its success. "We should have just let it be what it is," he says. 

But what works for some restaurants doesn't necessarily work for others, even those owned by the same restauranteur. According to Lee, some trends do hold true for Grand Rapids, like the tendency to eat out more often. "People are very busy, yet they continue to dine out more than they eat at home," he says, asking, "What can we do to make it convenient for people to dine?"

This convenience, building off of Lee's other successes on Wealthy, is at the core of his newest venture: Hancock. Currently redeveloping the former Wealthy Street Station at the corner of Wealthy and Fuller, Lee aims to open this fried chicken takeout stop by the end of this year. "It's all about reuse and sustainability," says Lee, who utilized existing spaces with his first two restaurants as well. 

What the Truck.Elements like the soft brick inside of Winchester or the unique footprint of Donkey's former gas station communicate a history and an energy not possible with new construction. "That in an of itself can be part of the decor of the space…you can't recreate that in a new build out," says Lee.

Hancock will also play into the national trend of quality and convenience, offering takeout in a corridor teaming with development, young families, and avid foodies. On top of it all, Hancock's menu — hinging on fried chicken — will be almost entirely gluten free. "Gut health is really important for people," says Lee, who seeks to pair health and accessibility to this traditional comfort food genre. "We want people to be able to dine and feel like they can go back to work," he jokes.

And though 40 Acres is just a few steps away and also offers its own twists on fried chicken and soul food, Lee argues that the two are both working to contribute to Wealthy St.'s status as a food destination. And, "It's a different environment … there's is a different type of service," he says, differentiating his forthcoming takeout joint from the cognac-accompanying sit-down ambience of 40 Acres.

And while Lee and his cohort strive to put forth innovative twists on comfortable classics like bar food and tacos and Ross works to educate and create community around the history of soul food, others — like Lee's former employee Rick Muschiano — are going in a different direction, presenting the GR audience with a type of cuisine not typically consumed in West Michigan: Scandinavian, or new Nordic food. 

Branching out by staying local

When asked about being considered a leader in Scandinavian cuisine in West Michigan, The Sovengard owner Rick Muschiana laughs and replies, "It doesn't feel like we're leading the way." Working and innovating in an oftentimes traditional community, he adds "It sometimes feels like we're way in left field with what we're doing."

Rick Muschiano, owner of Sovengard.While working to introduce many West Michiganders to something entirely unfamiliar like smorrebrod (open faced sandwiches) and chicken liver pate, Muschiana has become one of the most popular restaurant destinations on the WestSide. With a biergarten complete with a bar furnished from a shipping container and a brand new lunch and brunch space, it's easy to see why.

Perhaps it's because at its heart, "We are a midwest restaurant with Nordic or Scandinavian inspiration," says Muschiana. And staying true to the midwest mission means sourcing from local farms and purveyors as much as possible, and crafting a menu that celebrates the seasons as much as the countries that inspired each individual dish.

"We really try to highlight the partnerships that we have," says Muschiana . "The farmers and people working in the fields or making cheeses or making livestock … those are really like the heroes of our menu."

An open faced sandwich from Sovengard.By sourcing locally and staying true to the seasons (with things as simple as serving root vegetables in the winter and tomatoes in late summer), Muschiana taps into a local trend, as well as a national one. "There's a rhythm and cycle that is reflected in our menu," he says.

Aiming to showcase the Michigan as the second most agriculturally biodiverse state in the nation (California is first), Muschiana taps into the bounty of fruits and vegetables at our fingertips. "The range of things we can produce is pretty intense," he says.

As for the future of GR's restaurants? Muschiana believes that, as a city, we have to be willing to commit to local businesses. "We as a city have to patronize those places if we want the cool things," he says. "You're voting with your dollars every day. Those dollars have real meaning and real effect and consequence."

A combination of things

Chef Jenna Arcidiacono, half of the team at at Amore Trattoria Italiana in Comstock Park, has operated this authentic Italian eatery since 2010, and has garnered a gaggle of awards, including Best New Restaurant of the Year by Grand Rapids Magazine, Chef of the Year by the Grand Rapids Press, and has been named one of the 50 Most Influential Women of West Michigan by the Grand Rapids Business Journal.

Chef Jenna Arcidiacono of Amore Trattoria.For this gregarious chef, the secret sauce is combining trends with staying power, and personality with ambience. "People who like to go out to eat, always like to go out, no matter what age," she says.

And Amore provides these diverse patrons with authentic Italian food that, at first, grappled with its place among a more traditional landscape. "It was a struggle in the beginning for us to integrate," says Arcidiacono. "Most people expected Italian American food and we definitely aren’t that. We want to stay true to serving what one would find on any given day in Italy!"

And part of this authenticity — much like that of Muschiana — is crafting her dishes with local sourcing. "Local farms have always been very important to Amore. We love our purveyors and continue to use the same farms we’ve used since we opened," says Arcidiacono. "It’s important to recycle money back into our community. It’s the best thing we could do for our local economy."

For her and for many chefs and restaurateurs, working to grow the Grand Rapids food ecosystem is at the heart of an industry that thrives when many restaurants coexist, each with their own model and mission.

"I hope we continue to grow with more ethnic restaurants and small businesses rather than huge franchises," she says. "The more we support local, the more we can grow by helping recycle the wealth locally!"

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio unless otherwise stated.
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