GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Six months after Essence Restaurant Group announced the return of its popular Grove restaurant in Grand Rapids, the transformation inside 919 Cherry St. SE is well underway.
“I said, ‘If we’re going to reopen, we’re going to do it completely different. We’re going to gut the place.’ My intention… and the team’s intention was when somebody comes in that they wouldn’t recognize anything,” said James Berg, managing partner of Essence Restaurant Group.
Gone are the jewel tones, carpeting and darkened dining room. The updated Grove features bright white walls, warm, light wood furnishings, flooring and seating for about 88 people — slightly fewer than before.
“It’ll just feel more airy and spacey a little bit, but still creating a little bit of intimacy. I think it’s going to look really cool,” Berg said. “I want customers that come in to have… their jaws drop like, ‘What happened?’ In a good way.”
Berg said the outside tables will have linens and new seating by Grand Rapids Chair to create “a little more intimate” dining for about 20 people. The interior by the bar “is going to feel more like an outdoor patio” with flooring mimicking patio stones, tables and chairs that evoke courtyard seating and more natural light.
In mid-December, the restaurant was filled with tools, boxes of supplies and unassembled tables. Essence Restaurant Group originally hoped to reopen Grove in November but is now aiming for early next year due to supply chain challenges.
“We’re waiting on a window that won’t be here until like the second week of January. Our bar top that we picked won’t be here until like the third week of January… I mean, I ordered those like four months ago,” Berg said. “It’s just those small things, but they’re hugely important. You can’t open without a bar top.”
ON THE MENU
Earlier this month, Berg pulled the wrapping off a new wood fire-assisted grill, a hint to the entirely new menu awaiting Grove visitors.
Essence Restaurant Group executive chef Jeremy Paquin and chef Chris North will return to Grove’s kitchen along with some other familiar faces and a new pastry chef.
Berg said they’re taking the farm-to-table concept Grove was known for “into the future.” The team went to Chicago and New York over the summer for menu research.
“Anything that we do serve, it’s going to have a story where it came from, how it was raised. We really want to be hyperfocused on the sourcing of the food even more so than it was a couple of years ago,” Berg said. “This is what’s taking place in the bigger markets, so we’re really pushing the envelope on what dining is.”
While Grove’s culinary team is still working out the final menu for opening day, Berg said guests can expect about 15 to 18 items to start, with a focus on smaller plates for sharing.
The menu will feature classically prepared meat, seafood, vegan and gluten-free dishes using seasonal ingredients. Prices will range from about $4 to $38 per item, according to Berg.
“We’re just kind of creating a theater of dining that I think people really like to do. It’s kind of like the staycation to get away from everyday life. You can go out to eat at Grove and enjoy this awesome culinary experience,” Berg said.
On the drink side, Berg said guests can expect a smaller menu with 25-30 bottled drinks, 8-12 options for glass pours, signature cocktails and zero-alcohol cocktails.
“We see as generations get younger, they’re drinking less. So every year we have less people drinking. So that’s where the nonalcoholic stuff comes into play or just having low-alcohol cocktails,” Berg said.
EVOLVING DURING THE PANDEMIC
The refreshed Grove restaurant will open nearly two years after it first closed on March 16, 2020.
“It was supposed to be a two-week shutdown, which we realized shortly thereafter that wasn’t going to be the case,” Berg said.
With a small, intimate dining space at a time of social distancing, Grove’s future was in doubt. When indoor dining restrictions lifted in June 2020, Grove remained closed.
“We said permanently until we have new information. It was sad and we got a lot of… people (who) were just sad or just felt bad about it, that we had to close this great restaurant. Nothing that we did… the concept was doing really well and (was) well-received in the community. It was very difficult to close it for something you had no control over,” Berg said.
Over the months, Essence Restaurant Group used Grove’s space for private dining and a temporary carryout concept called Jimmy Berger’s Chicken Shack.
“It was good, it was fun. It was never meant to be anything other than just like a pop-up and just for the carryout, it was never intended to become a permanent solution here at Grove,” Berg said.
In June of this year, Grove fans got the announcement they hoped for: Their beloved East Hills restaurant would be reopening.
NEW YEAR, NEW INCENTIVES
Berg has seen a lot since he started in the restaurant industry, rolling burritos at Taco Boy on Plainfield Avenue NE. He says the past 21 months have been the hardest of his 35-year career “without question, 100%.”
“I’ve been fortunate, it’s only affected my business. And that I can get over with, that’s temporary. That really is temporary. So we’ve learned, looked a lot inside and (asked ourselves) ‘What can we do differently in the future?’” Berg said.
For Essence Restaurant Group, those changes include closing all three of its restaurants the first week of January and July, starting next year. Berg said all full-time employees and managers at Grove, Bistro Bella Vita and Green Well will get paid time off during both breaks.
The company also came up with a plan to lower employee health care costs and adjust salaries “to be competitive in other industries.”
The hope is the new incentives will help the company build back its 120-person workforce, which was gutted by layoffs, repeated shutdowns and stressful working conditions prompted by the pandemic.
“I had a customer spit at the window at Green Well because he wouldn’t wear a mask. We kicked him out and they like spat and just rubbed it all over the window and the handle. That’s where it was and that was stressful and that was felt throughout our country and certainly in Michigan. So that’s where some people left the industry right away,” Berg said.
About 77 people now work at Bistro Bella Vita and Green Well, according to Berg. “The challenge in January,” he said, will be replacing the employees who shift to working at Grove.
Berg said it’s been a “unique experience” that comes with a lesson he shares with his team: “Never let a good tragedy to go to waste. In the most difficult times in your life… that’s where you grow. And I said, it reveals character.”
“At the end of the day, what’s changed is us,” he continued. “Putting food in a box and doing all this, I mean, that’s not how we’re going to survive in the future. We’re going to survive in the future by serving great food, giving great experiences, great hospitality and creating a work environment that people are attracted to. If we do those things, the rest will take care of itself.”