He didn’t realize it at the time, but Chris Wessely’s calling dialed him up while he was a poor college student studying abroad in Japan.
Wessely didn’t find his inspiration in his political science or Japanese language textbooks. Instead, the Grand Rapids native whose primary culinary specialty was inexpensive ketchup and mayonnaise sandwiches, got a jolt from cooking for his international housemates.
“About halfway through the semester, one of the English guys asked me to cook them something American and offered to buy the groceries,” Wessely said. “So I cooked them something fun — stuffed peppers, nothing fancy — but these English guys went wild for it.”
The effusive praise for his simple meal spread among the housemates and not long after something of a guerrilla kitchen was born. One of the students on scholarship would bankroll the meal while Wessely would take on cooking duties, and another housemate would clean up after.
“It became this rhythm in the house — and I actually got to eat in Japan,” Wessely said.
After his brief stint as an in-home international chef, Wessely returned to finish his education at Aquinas College, where he graduated with a degree in communications and political science and a minor in Japanese.
The plan was law school. Wessely already had taken the LSAT and was set on attending Fordham University in the Bronx. But those plans were waylaid when he and his now-wife Kim discovered they were expecting. At 23, Wessely was going to have to find a way to provide for a young family.
He took a job doing outside sales, but continued to constantly dream up new businesses, working on them during his free time. None stuck, however, and after a few years he was hired to do sales and marketing for a local manufacturing company. It appeared that sales was becoming Wessely’s career, but shortly after starting his new job, another curveball knocked him back from the plate.
Like millions of other Americans, Wessely lost his job during the Great Recession. The hits kept coming, as the Wesselys’ little starter home in Rockford plummeted in value when two other houses on the block foreclosed — theirs was soon to follow. To top it all off, Kim was pregnant with their third child and once again, Wessely was unsure of how he would provide for his growing family.
After a couple weeks looking for sales and marketing jobs, Wessely recalled something his sister had mentioned a couple years earlier. She had recently moved to Baltimore and joined a sports and social club there. Her experiences clicked with something in the perpetually turning wheels in Wessely’s mind. Why shouldn’t an up-and-coming city like Grand Rapids also offer a social club?
But he still had one hurdle to clear — his wife’s approval.
“She asked me, ‘So, wait, you’re just going to play games and drink with your buddies and that’s a career?’” Wessely said.
So, they came to an agreement. Wessely could pursue the club concept, but he also had to go back to school for a “needed” career.
“Kim’s very logical, so she was thinking of a career that would always be needed,” he said. “They’ll always need nurses — they don’t need another sales guy — but I love to cook and people always need food. So that was something that combined a passion of mine and there was job security there.”
Wessely got to work on Grand Rapids Sports & Social Club, while simultaneously searching for a way to attend culinary school. As the club started to materialize, Wessely prepared for an inaugural season featuring more than 300 participants. But despite his grandiose plans, the inaugural season garnered less than 30 players.
“I was anticipating 330 people to play but at our orientation meeting we had 35 show up,” Wessely said. “Then two teams left because it wasn’t big enough and we were left with 27 players. So, I begged them, if they just stuck it out, they were going to have a great time. And if they told their friends and word of mouth continued, we’d get to where we wanted to be.”
Wessely’s instincts were right and by summer they had more than 100 players. As the club began to succeed, he gained acceptance into the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education program at Grand Rapids Community College, where he would eventually graduate with valedictorian honors. Never content to keep just one plate spinning, it wasn’t long before Wessely found another project to work on, marrying his newly honed culinary skills with his marketing prowess.
Partnering with one of his instructors from culinary school, Wessely co-founded The Personal Chef Group, offering in-home cooking services.
“I realized it’s hard to approach the marketing aspect and accounting, and all the back-end stuff when all you really want to do is cook,” he said. “So we built the Personal Chef Group as sort of a placement agency for these chefs.”
Eventually, the workload with Grand Rapids Sports & Social made it too difficult to maintain both ventures. So Wessely gave up his stake in the Personal Chef Group and committed to the league — leaving open some spare time to teach cooking and mixology classes on the side, of course.
Now in its 13th year, Grand Rapids Sports & Social Club has experienced tremendous growth and boasts more than 10,000 players each year. It recently partnered with the Toronto Sport and Social Club and rebranded as JAM Sports. And after helping to navigate the league through the worst of the COVID-19 shutdown, Wessely decided it might be time to take a backseat and return to his first passion.
Enter Noodlepig — Wessely’s upcoming restaurant to bring fast-casual ramen noodles to Grand Rapids. He’s already locked in a lease at 601 Bond Ave. NW and plans to open for dining and takeout by spring.
With Noodlepig, Wessely can continue to chase his passion for cooking, but he also has a grander plan in mind for the restaurant. He’s partnered with several charities, including West Michigan-based Hand2Hand and Faith In Deeds, as well as nationally focused No Kid Hungry, in an effort to curb child hunger. Each bowl of ramen sold at Noodlepig will cover the cost of a meal for three children — one in West Michigan, one in the U.S. and one overseas.
Wessely anticipates his store will sell about 120 bowls of ramen each day with plans to rapidly scale up and expand its footprint. If Noodlepig grows to its first benchmark of 10 locations operating 50 weeks a year, it could provide more than 1.2 million meals each year for hungry children.
“I feel confident, but I’ve also got a little fear factor in this next venture,” Wessely said. “But if you’re not scared, there’s something wrong.”
It’s a position Wessely has been in a few times before and that experience has helped give him a baseline to approach this new challenge. He’s gone from feeding a handful of hungry exchange students American food in Japan to bringing an authentically Japanese concept to West Michigan and hopefully feeding the world.
“Now I’m able to pair my culinary with the business side and the marketing side, and scratch that entire itch I have — this time with a mission,” he said. “I look at my kids, and as they’re getting older I want to show them that we can help people with our passions.”
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.