For most small businesses, the pandemic presented some incredibly challenging times.
While owners shifted and pivoted through the tough situations, the past 20 months or so also offered a chance for reflection and reinvention.
When Vander Mill opened its Grand Rapids production facility and taproom, 505 Ball Ave. NE, in 2016, the taproom menu was trending toward an upscale farmhouse-type cuisine. A recent stop found a vastly altered menu, one that’s much simpler, and yet, fitting. The main draw: a variety of smash burgers.
The straightforward and delicious burgers were an easy way to keep food streaming out of the kitchen as staffing challenges and lockdown uncertainties kept owners Paul and Amanda Vander Heide on their toes. The menu has continued to evolve, staying true to the scaled-down tone the smash burgers set.
That’s not to say Vander Mill’s original Grand Rapids menu did not shine in its own right, but the new menu accompanies a tall pint of hard cider a bit more naturally. The smashed burger patties and their caramelized edges help cut through the fruitiness of the ciders — sweeter or drier depending on the pour — while the toppings vary and complement and contrast the ciders.
The Classic Deluxe with a double patty, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mustard, pickle and onion hits all the right notes of a diner classic, while the Totally Roaster amps up the spice levels a bit with pepper jack cheese, pickled jalapeños, roasted red pepper mayo and beer-battered onion rings. The Bluish Gold rolls in blue cheese, bacon, caramelized onions and a sauce made with the cidermaker’s Bluish Gold Cider.
The menu also serves of a variety of sandwiches, including a Monte Cristo, a fried chicken sandwich, two oven-roasted turkey sandwiches and a pulled pork sandwich.
Order a crispy side of fries or onion rings and it’s a simple and delicious dinner with world-class cider.
“Coming out of the pandemic, it was making sure we could make a product that we were pleased to serve that we could execute with a limited staff,” Paul Vander Heide said. “We started with kind of a smash-burger-only style menu, a lot of unique variations of a smash burger and utilizing our products, promoting our ciders and the flavor profiles and how they can cross in a contrasting way — sometimes complementary way — with our food.
“Then as we were building out and our staff and people started coming back, the menu has gotten a bit broader.”
Staffing is tight across restaurants in West Michigan and kitchens have scaled back many menus. That all plays into the changes at Vander Mill.
“Being shut down that long, trying to reopen again, we didn’t have the staff come back for the most part,” Vander Heide said. “You kind of went week to week at points where you’re sitting at the bar as you watch Facebook Live, wondering whether or not you’re going to open the doors, close the doors. It certainly brought Amanda and I down to the nitty-gritty details of everything it takes to run a business.”
One major change at Vander Mill came with the sale of the original Spring Lake location — where the Vander Heides started Vander Mill in 2006. It wasn’t because of the pandemic; in fact, the sale was in the works before then as a neighbor expressed interest and the pandemic actually slowed the transaction down.
With the sale, multiple pieces of that original location now have made the trip to Grand Rapids, from decor pieces inside the taproom to a stage outside on a vastly expanded patio area — where Vander Heide said concerts will amp up again in the summer.
When outdoor seating proved popular during the pandemic, Vander Mill expanded its options with big tents surrounding the outdoor fire pit. Each tent comes with a wood-fire stove, and Vander Heide said it’s easy to crank the temperature up to nearly 100 degrees inside.
Unlike a lot of small restaurants, Vander Mill does have the advantage of distributing its line of hard ciders across the Midwest. Plenty was made about the increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic, but Vander Heide said that wasn’t quite the case for smaller craft brands. In fact, a can shortage hit those small manufacturers hard at the height of the pandemic.
“We were on the phone daily, trying to align when we can get cans and when we’re going to be able to sell,” Vander Heide said, explaining he eventually switched suppliers.
With challenges coming from every direction, Vander Heide said it was almost a new start every week.
“It seems like how many lifetimes can you have owning a business for 15 years?” he said. “For Amanda and me, it’s been like starting over a couple of times. In a way, COVID is not unlike any other challenges we’ve faced. But it was certainly a big one and now we’re starting to invest, not just in keeping the facilities, but building a team for growth.”
Vander Mill brought on a new vice president of sales and marketing manager, putting a renewed focus on the “ABCs of getting product to a shelf and getting people to have fun again.”
“We’re in the business of expressing ourselves and Michigan and agriculture through a beverage that’s meant to be had when you’re having fun, right?” Vander Heide said. “So, what we talk about a lot here is that things can be hard, and you can work hard and it can be frustrating, but in the end, we need to be doing the things that are fun.”
Vander Mill, as recognized by the Grand Rapids Magazine’s Best Of poll results, has had a lot to do with the growth of hard cider in the West Michigan market. Still, Vander Heide said the taste of cider drinkers hasn’t evolved to heritage apples. He’s pushed orchards to expand the growing of apples traditionally used in ciders but that had fallen by the wayside over the years of changing tastes and economies of scale.
While Vander Mill’s core ciders, like Bluish Gold and Totally Roasted, are delicious in their own right, some of the company’s shining products are made with those heirloom apples.
“They bring something more akin to wine,” he said. “You get to experience the complexity and terroir, mouth-feel and things you won’t get from a modern cider.”
Regardless of the type of cider Vander Mill is pressing, a consumer can be assured they are drinking Michigan products. Vander Heide wants to share a style of beverage consumers still are working to understand.
“People can come here and experience the ciders and talk to us and it’s a lot of fun,” Vander Heide said. “A lot of times people forget, even relative to local breweries, we’ve got 100% of this liquid coming from fruit grown within 10 miles of where we all live. Even within that, you get different apples from different areas applying different techniques. We’ve got a great opportunity for people, a variance here in local agriculture in a fun way.”
This story can be found in the January/February 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.