All hail the bartender! Veteran West Michigan drink-slingers tell their tales

The bartender is a fixture in dives and restaurants and often serves as a sounding board for life's concerns. To celebrate the profession, four veteran bartenders took a moment to open their lives and careers, expressing the heart of bartending in West Michigan. Here are their stories, so raise a glass.
The bartender is a fixture of modern life. Rarely just the hand pouring the glass, the bartender is often a sounding board. A companion. A friend. And although the times, drinks, and atmospheres may change, the role of the bartender remains a steady, comforting, and reliable presence for any restaurant, bar, or brewery worth its salt.

Those in the service industry certainly come to revere the bartender, and for those that have tended bar for decades, the role often means more to them than a steady paycheck and a chance to demonstrate their mixology skills. To explore their dedication for the craft, four veteran bartenders took a moment to open their lives and careers, expressing the heart of bartending in West Michigan. Here are their stories, so raise a glass.

"Slick Rick" Wierenga: "The Apartment is like 'Cheers' live."

After 25 years working in the service industry, Rick Wierenga was happy to make the shift to daytime hours at The Apartment Lounge on Sheldon Ave. "I didn't want all that craziness," says Wierenga, who after 11 years at his post at this particular bar, is content with the quiet and regulars that he visits before the sun sets.

But despite the recent change, Wierenga loves interacting with people from behind the bar. It was this love of service that was instilled in him from a very young age while working in his father's pharmacy in Cutlerville. Watching his father build relationships with his customers inspired Wierenga's pursuit of a career in customer service, and he found himself first tending bar at age 30.

"Slick Rick"

Working his way throughout greater Greater Grand Rapids, at local haunts like the now shuttered Three Crown's Bistro and the recently closed Friday's downtown, Wierenga found that he preferred the local, personal touch over the corporate experience. "It's just so impersonal," he says, of the latter corporate mainstay.

Wierenga took up his post at The Apartment, one of only two Grand Rapids gay bars, 11 years ago, and was happy to make the change. "I feel so at home here," he says. "This is where I belong." Working under the original owners and partners Ed Ladner and Milton Lenox, Wierenga built close relationships with the men who had established somewhat of a cult following after founding the bar in 1978 and moving it to several locations before settling on Sheldon Ave.

"That man taught me so much," says Wierenga when referring to Lennox, who passed away just two years ago.

And after 25 years, Wierenga has learned a lot about customer service and bartending. Most of all? "Going to the bar is social," he says. And the clientele has become a more diverse crowd over time, celebrating and socializing together regardless of gender or sexual orientation. "Our crowd is more mixed now," says Wierenga. "I think this is the best bar downtown for everyone."

Sarah Phillips: "We truly have some of the best beer in the world."

"I tried to do the 9-5 thing a few times and it didn’t really take," says Sarah Phillips, marketing and promotions manager at Billy's Lounge on Wealthy St. "I feel like this sort of life gets in your blood and it’s hard to choose something more ordinary when you have a job that is exciting, low pressure, and is also a great livelihood."

Born in Illinois but growing up mostly in Grand Rapids, Philips got her start at the Shawmut Inn (now Westside Social) in 1997. Cutting her teeth there and at other GR mainstays like the Intersection and the Orbit Room, she grew to love the profession and signed on at Billy's in 2003. "I took it because I really love Eastown and wanted to be back here. It was the right decision for me and I have been here ever since," says Philips.

Sarah Phillips, photo by Annah Dallas

Bartending alongside Rick Dion and Christopher Machala, Philips appreciates the wealth of experience at her fingertips. "I feel really lucky to get to come to work with my close friends that just happen to also be amazing bartenders," she says. Philips also came to love a bar that takes pride in its friendly atmosphere and the regulars that make Billy's their home away from home.

Billy's is also known for its live entertainment, and Philips was able to meet legends like Kid Rock, Train, and Jewel, among others. And this lively atmosphere is not without its share of wild tales. "Everyday something crazy happens. You always have to be on your toes," she says. "Bartend when the power goes out… problem. Passed a counterfeit bill….let me just nonchalantly call the police and try to keep the person in the building. Basement is flooding and you have to open in an hour. Bands were double booked and now we need to find some sort of entertainment quick.

These things can be so frustrating when they happen but ultimately it gives me a lot to look back on and laugh."

John Folkertsma, Flat River Grill - "People really like you if you give them free wine."

"I didn't think I would be tending bar at this point in my life," jokes John Folkertsma, who at 58, is the one of the most youthful bartenders you'll ever meet. With a degree in pychology and social work, Folkertsma was actively pursuing a master's degree when he was 21 and began his first job behind the bar. "I became a bartender and fell in love and didn't finish my masters," he says.

So why the such a drastic change? For Folkertsma, who later worked in a variety of hotels and bars in Detroit before returning to Grand Raids in 1996 for a decade-long stint at Ruby Tuesday, it was simple. "I like the money. It's a really really decent living. I like the flexibility of hours."

On top of it all, he really loves the community that forms with good food, good service, and a tasty beverage. "It's a very important part of my life," says Folkertsma, who says he knows 100-150 regulars at the Flat River Grill in Lowell by name, and is close enough with one couple to house sit for them at their $1 million sheep farm. Even when he goes on vacation, Folkertsma admits, "I really miss my job."

And after over 25 years in the biz, he continues to innovate and educate himself. "I need to work on my beer knowledge. It's so hard keeping up with beer. Unfortunately I'm not a hop guy," says Folkertsma. "I'm much more of a wine guy…I enjoy introducing people to Michigan wines."

And this education is especially important for a changing clientele that are more likely to order a Pim's Cup with their choice local spirit than a classic, bottom shelf margarita. "People are so much more knowledgeable now….and they're just so curious."

Eric Feirick - "It’s nice to have a police station right in the airport."

"Being a airport bartender means there are too many funny stories to tell," says Eric Feirick, a Middleville native who has spent the past 15 years tending bar at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport (first at Home Turf Sports Bar & Restaurant and currently at MI Tap Room). The stress and excitement of travel often causes his patrons to have a few too many, which results in Feirick calling security, which is conveniently located just around the corner.

Feirick, who has also worked in local establishments like Bells Brewery, and Founders, has served a few celebrities like Rosalynn Bliss, Tom Izzo, John C. Reilly, Jessica Simpson, but admits, "My favorite people to wait on are my regulars."

And in addition to those well-known people, Feirick has seen more people in general flying into the once sleepy airport. "The airport is constantly being expanded, more flights being added," says Feirick. "Downtown GR didn’t used to be a popular hang out spot. Now we have people flying in just to visit GR—for business, beer tours, conferences, concerts, ArtPrize, etc."

And Feirick readily meets the increased traffic, happy to provide local recommendations for Grand Rapids sites, sounds, and of course, beers, preferring to pour Bells Two-Hearted or Founders All Day IPA. "I also love recommending the barrel aged beers from Founders," he says.

Tending bar at such a unique location, "I meet all kinds of different people: families, business people, entertainers," says Feirick. The only downside? "It’s hard to see all the awesome places people are traveling to without wanting to travel myself!"

With a growing Grand Rapids and a resurgent passion for beer and spirits, the role of bartender is more important than ever. Whether this person is a friendly face at a local restaurant, an open set of arms at a diverse dive, or simply a quiet, calm presence accompanied by a steady pour, West Michigan bartenders continue to make their mark. So tell us...who's your favorite bartender?

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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