UIX: Rick Muschiana toasts to friends, community, sustainability at the Sovengard

Making friends and changing the world through community action is Rick Muschiana’s purpose—he just happens to be doing so by opening the Søvengård biergarten and restaurant on Grand Rapids’ West Side. So raise a glass to cultivating some urban green space, and read on for this week's UIX feature by Matthew Russell.
Making friends and changing the world through community action is Rick Muschiana’s purpose—he just happens to be doing so by opening a beer garden and restaurant on Grand Rapids’ West Side.

Muschiana’s planned social hub will become manifest in the Søvengård. The plan is to use functional and environmentally conscious design as an asset for city living and revitalization, engaging the community and working sustainably in three major aspects: construction, company and community culture, and product sourcing.

Located at 443 Bridge St. NW under and behind the space currently occupied by Denym and Conscious Collective, and including the adjacent wooded area, sections of the Søvengård will be constructed from shipping containers.

“We've chosen to retrofit part of a historic building in an area that used to be a bustling small business corridor, and use reclaimed, upcycled, and environmentally friendly materials wherever possible,” he says.

In finding the proposed space for the Søvengård, Muschiana says he specifically looked for a mix of disused commercial land that could be renovated, with a green space that could be preserved.

“The whole idea behind a beer garden in the middle of a city is to cultivate some awesome green space for the neighborhood,” he says. “That was always a prerequisite for us. We wanted to find some green space, preserve it and revitalize it, and this really connects with the idea of how this all got started. Drive back and forth through the neighborhoods and you’ll see these vacant, desolate lots with weeds or trash, and that really inspired us to ask, what could be done with these areas that really preserve that green space and preserve outdoor community with the neighborhood?”

In keeping with the Scandinavian roots of the Søvengård—the name translates to “land of the lake friends”—the bar’s menu will rely on the bounty West Michigan can produce.

“We're very much interested in being a part of defining a regional Midwest-based cuisine. To me that means finding the best local producers that are also taking care of the land and cooking with the seasons,” Muschiana says. “That's where the ideals of the New Nordic Movement have really had an impact on our thinking, and many of our items will be a nod to those cultures. Caring about one's food and drink and where it comes from is not a fad, it's a movement.”

The Søvengård’s IndieGoGo campaign is nearly finished, and while that money will be used to renovate the building for a commercial kitchen, build and outfit a shipping container bar, and landscaping, Muschiana and company have put much more of their own capital into bringing the bar to life.

“The IndieGoGo campaign is a pretty small portion of our overall budget. We set that aside from the beginning to gauge the community and get people talking about it—people who care about local food and beverages, where their food comes from, and sustainability in small business,” Muschiana says. “But I think the whole idea of putting up a portion of your startup capital for crowd funding is engagement in and of itself. Instead of a small group of wealthy individuals getting to decide everything, anyone can contribute to crowd funding campaigns and actually breathe life into the ideas and projects they want to see in their world. Right now our goals are just ideas waiting to be put into practical application, but we wanted to set the bar pretty high from the get go.”

With his parents Lynn and Bill Parlberg as business partners and brothers Daniel and Matthew involved with creative projects, planning, and management, Muschiana has been aiming the Søvengård in a truly local, grassroots direction, he says. Bill Parlberg, Muschiana’s stepfather, has provided the backbone of the Søvengård’s advisory and financial planning. During his so-far 40 years at Zehnder’s in Frankenmuth, Parlberg has moved up from washing dishes to becoming the first non-family executive. He’s currently president and COO of Zehnder’s, which has itself expanded from a single restaurant to include a hotel, golf course, retail, water park, and more.

“He’s been really great as a sounding board in getting started here, going through all the red tape and helping us raise capital,” Muschiana says of Parlberg. “From an experience level, too, and the day to day stuff, he’s got a lot to offer.”

Muschiana isn’t short on experience either. He’s got over 15 years in the food and beverage industry. Starting at Zehnder’s when he was 16, Muschiana began a career that took him from Michigan to Los Angeles, working as a line cook, pizza maker, barista, server, manager, and many other jobs in between. But with an educational background from Kendall College of Art and Design, Muschiana says he had a hard time connecting his love of quality food and hospitality with artistic creativity. It was when he returned to Grand Rapids with his wife and landed a job at Brewery Vivant that things started to come together.

“It seemed like it was either earn a living or become a starving artist, but my time at Brewery Vivant and exposure to the Michigan craft beer world dramatically changed that perspective,” he says. “After helping open up and manage the pub at Vivant, I moved into a role where I was doing sales and marketing simultaneously with design and branding. My two endeavors had come together and I learned so much from them.”

Above all, Muschiana is hoping the Søvengård breaks new ground in progressive culture in its West Side neighborhood. The idea of a beer garden, or “biergarten,” as the Søvengård will be known, relates back to places in Europe that have been operating for hundreds of years where you could (and still can) find families bonding and connecting, he says. At that point, it’s no longer a bar, it’s an institution.

“That’s sort of what we want to do on the West Side: promote sustainability, promote the community aspect, promote our company culture, excellence in hospitality, cuisine and beverage,” Muschiana says. “As far a culture is concerned, we want to be very progressive with how we treat our employees and make it a great place to work. If the people who work there are happy, successful, and growing, then we as a company will experience those same things. We want to take that same approach with the community; listen to what they need, contribute, and become and asset.”

For more information on the Søvengård, visit http://www.sovengard.com/

Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]
Photography by Steph Harding 

Shipping Containers courtesy of Thermo King Michigan
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