After nearly seven years, Gaia Café is once again serving guests its famous veggie hash and Mean Green Burritos. Andrea Bumstead, a former Gaia Café employee, reopened the restaurant in the Creston neighborhood this past winter. She overcame several obstacles to bring the beloved former East Hills restaurant back to life in the new setting.
In 1982, KC Caliendo opened Gaia Café in the East Hills neighborhood as a place for artists and community activists to come together. “It was just this slim little space where they passed around the coffee pot and sang songs and told stories. That’s how it started,” Bumstead said.
A couple of years later, Rick Van Dam took over ownership of Gaia and added a small vegetarian and vegan menu, turning the café into a local eatery with a unique menu. Over the years, Gaia built a loyal following with regulars returning weekend after weekend. It was a popular spot that often had a waitlist. People would mill about on the sidewalk in front of the building with coffee in hand until their coveted table was ready. Inside, the restaurant was full of all the clanking and banging sounds of a busy kitchen and the mingled chatter of patrons filled the small dining room.
So, it was a shock to many when the restaurant announced in 2014 that it would be closing. Van Dam had decided he was ready to retire. A handful of employees and investors banded together in an effort to save the restaurant, but Van Dam ultimately decided to close the restaurant and sell the building.
He did, however, sell the branding rights to Bumstead and handed over Gaia’s recipes to her, as well.
Bumstead had worked at Gaia for seven years, serving as a manager for the last two years that it was open. She was determined to reopen Gaia as soon as she could find another location. She had no idea it would become a six-year journey before that dream would be fulfilled.
At the same time that Bumstead was scouting out locations around the city to house Gaia, Charity Lytle and a group of former artists from the DAAC, an art and events space that was shuttered in 2013 — again due to a building sale — also were trying to find a new home for their beloved organization.
Lytle reached out to Bumstead to see if she’d be interested in teaming up.
“I had frequented the DAAC years prior, but I didn’t know Charity until she reached out to me, and I met with her and the board members. … It seemed like a natural progression for us to team up together. We looked at several different buildings that could have worked, but without room for growth and within the budget. We found the building in February 2018 and we were finally able to purchase it in March 2019,” Bumstead said.
The new location is in the Creston neighborhood, at 1553 Plainfield Ave. NE, not far from the recently opened Creston Brewery. Bumstead was eager to transform the space into the new Gaia Café. Bumstead enlisted the help of friend and interior designer Sarah Sherman Samuel to create the right combination of vintage and modern charm.
Bumstead said the menu will be very familiar to customers — it’s nearly identical to the original Gaia Café menu. “We have all the same recipes. I had cooked there that last two years we were open, so I’d already acquired the knowledge of how to create them and Rick showed me tons of the tricks of the trade.”
There also will be special features based on the season. Bumstead said for anyone unfamiliar with Gaia’s menu, it’s vegan and vegetarian “American homestyle food with a worldly twist.”
Bumstead said the biggest difference from the original restaurant and the new Gaia is the juice bar. “We added a juice and coffee bar with a full lounge,” Bumstead said, noting she hopes the space will take on a life of its own. “We want to see that flourish with its own identity.”
She also noted after hours, Gaia can be booked for weddings and other special events, and catering will be available, too. The restaurant also hopes once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, it will be able to collaborate with the DAAC.
“We had a lot of big ideas for collaborating with shows and food, and different aspects of community art, but because of COVID, we have had to dial back those ideas for the time being. We still have those ideas we’d like to do in the near future,” she said.
But for now, Bumstead is just happy that Gaia’s doors are open, and that the restaurant is still being so well received by the community after so many years. She attributes that lasting loyalty to the customers.
“And that is really what kept me going, knowing that love for this space, and it’s not only about the food or the atmosphere or what we’re doing with the community, but also just the people who walk through the door and the stories they have, and that continue to walk through this door, that’s what does it. It’s for everybody else.”
Andrea Bumstead tapped longtime friend Sarah Sherman Samuel, an interior designer, to help her bring the new Gaia Café to life. Bumstead said she wanted the restaurant to have a similar feel to the original restaurant — with lots of vintage charm and some modern touches.
“The original location was a mish-mash of styles, which was some of the charm of the space. It helped to create a welcoming atmosphere,” Sherman Samuel said. “A place that felt like coming into someone’s home. There was a self-serve coffee station, which also reinforced the feeling that once you’ve been there once you were part of the Gaia family.
“I wanted to keep the eclectic vibe by using a lot of vintage furniture in the juice lounge and a mix of chairs in the dining side. The original location was on an old brick road and the tile on the front bar is a play off that. You were welcomed by a heart in the front door, which we also carried over to the new space.”
The building had already been gutted, so much of the original character had already been stripped away, but the exposed wood beams were salvaged along with layers of different wallpaper showcased in one area, and a few other elements of the building’s previous life as a residential home can be seen.
“Andrea had the idea to get different regulars and artists to decorate and donate their own chairs for the dining room, so they’d always have their own spot,” said Sherman Samuel. “And I curated a gallery wall entirely from local artists. The vision was very much to create a new home for Gaia and the Gaia family.”
The restaurant also is full of vintage touches.
“We used a vintage dresser and shelves for the coffee/water station and furniture that you’d find in someone’s living room in the juice bar lounge,” Sherman Samuel said.
“Gaia is the goddess of earth and as a vegetarian café green was a no-brainer to be a prominent color. Other earth colors like terra cotta and rust show up in a big way with accents of blush and nude to balance all the rich colors.”
This story can be found in the July/August 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.