Rock solid: entrepreneurs propose Pyramid Scheme for downtown Grand Rapids

A trio of local bar owners hope to turn a moldy, vacant building in downtown Grand Rapids into a hot venue for live music holding up to 500 people that will rival music legends such as the Beat Kitchen in Chicago and Crofoot in Pontiac.

"There's a gaping hole in the downtown market for a midsize, live music venue," says Mark Sellers, who has partnered with the brother-and-sister team of Jeff and Tami VandenBerg to launch their new business at 68 Commerce Ave. SW to be called The Pyramid Scheme -- a playful jab at metro Grand Rapids' close association with the Amway Corporation.

The Pyramid Scheme will be located in a 6,700-square-foot building at the northeast corner of Commerce and Oakes streets that used to house Maxi's bar several years ago, says Jeff Vandenberg, 39.

The VandenBergs and Sellers plan to gut and chemically clean the entire single-story building, then create a 2,000-square-foot bar following an Art Deco motif and a 4,700-square-foot music venue with a riser around its edges for limited seating. Pipes burst in the building and weren't repaired immediately, causing mold problem that will be taken care of during renovation, VandenBerg and Sellers say.

The partners are scheduled to make a presentation on the project before the Grand Rapids Planning Commission on July 22, and they will be requesting a liquor license from the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority in upcoming weeks. The sale of the building and the project is contingent on the partnership successfully obtaining a liquor license and planning commission approval, Vandenberg says.
He says Pyramid Scheme will cost an estimated $1.5 million including the acquisition of the property, and it is expected to employ up to 35 full- and part-time people.

Starting from a clean sheet
"We definitely want to make it look cool on the inside -- it's not a big blank room," VandenBerg says. "It will be standing room only in the venue, although we may have some removable seating depending on the style of the show."
Tami Vandenberg says that The Pyramid Scheme has just the right size to attract a whole new set of regional and national bands. "I don't do this much anymore, but there was a long period of time when I would drive to Chicago or Detroit on a regular basis to see music," says VandenBerg, 35. "And I don't see any reason why we can't just grab bands as they travel between those cities."
Contrary to its name, The Pyramid Scheme is no fly-by-night operation: it's made up of local entrepreneurs who have solid experience in successfully operating bars and entertainment businesses.
Sellers, 41, owns three bars in the growing entertainment, bar and dining area in the Heartside district of downtown Grand Rapids: HopCat, about two blocks from the pyramid scheme on 25 Ionia Ave. SW known for its wide selections of beers; and Stella's Lounge and The Viceroy that both opened in the past two months at 53 Commerce Ave. SW. In addition, Sellers is the largest investor in a bar that opened last August in Chicago called Old Town Social, which was named one of the best new bars by Time Out magazine in that city.

The VandenBergs are co-owners of the Meanwhile Bar at 1005 Wealthy St. SE, a business emphasizing locally brewed beverages they opened more than two years ago that has established a strong reputation for involvement in the community.

With heart in Heartside
"We always knew that if we were to do another project, it would be in Heartside," Tami VandenBerg says. "I was a social worker for about 10 years before we opened up the Meanwhile, and a lot of my focus during my tenure was on homelessness issue in Heartside."

Jeff VandenBerg is a founding member of the Division Avenue Arts Cooperative, a volunteer arts and music venue in the heart of the Grand Rapids downtown arts district on Division Avenue called The Avenue for the Arts. Tami VandenBerg helped to draft some of the bylaws for the cooperative.

Sellers echoes the sentiment that The Pyramid Scheme will be a good venue to support the growing market for the performing arts. "The thing I really like about the location on Commerce Street is its nearby Division Avenue with all the artists and it's close to Ionia and the arena crowd, so you get the best of both types of crowds," he says.
"I heard through the grapevine that Jeff and Tami were looking to do a live music venue, so I contacted them. It turns out that we've had almost exactly the same idea on what kind of venue was needed. It was a match made in heaven."

The partners say the strategy for making The Pyramid Scheme thrive is to develop a loyal crowd that visit the 2,000-square-foot bar every day of the week, even if there's no live band playing.

"Live music venues are tough businesses because in Grand Rapids were not going to have a hot alternative band playing every night," Sellers says. "You would never just go to the Orbit Room just to go (for drinks), nobody goes to the Intersection just to hang out at the bar. We want to have a mix of the two you go there just to hang out at the bar -- even if there's not a band."

"We are kind of basing it off some venues in Chicago -- probably the closest model is the Beat Kitchen," Jeff VandenBerg says. "The front (of Pyramid Scheme) will be open seven days a week, the venue will be open when the shows are happening, probably three or four times a week."

Location and vocations
Sellers concedes he doesn't know much about running live music entertainment, but says he has a keen sense of place and property values, and 68 Commerce "kind of screamed at me: You gotta do it here in this location."

The partnership will be relying on Jeff VandenBerg to run the live music show. The owner of Friction Records, Jeff VandenBerg is experienced at booking and promoting music acts. As it gets ready to release the 50th album in its 10-year history, Friction Records has a reputation for representing some of the area's best local bands including, Chance Jones and Paucity.

All of the partners say that 68 Commerce is a one-of-a-kind opportunity. Sellers says he has opened his bars Stella's Lounge and The Viceroy recently because property values in downtown Grand Rapids are so reasonable, and what makes 68 Commerce particularly attractive is "it's not an mixed-use. I don't want to be a landlord, and downtown Grand Rapids doesn't have many single-story, single-use buildings."

Tami VandenBerg says she sees it as an opportunity in other ways as well. "Jeff and I have a long, long history of community involvement, and we are not just about opening a bar to make lots of money -- although there isn't anything wrong with making a profit. We are hoping this project will be an extension for more community involvement."

Matthew Gryczan is managing editor of Rapid Growth magazine and principal of SciTech Communications.


Mark Sellers, Jeff and Tami VandenBerg (3)

68 Commerce (2)

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved