HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — After sitting virtually empty for months, Holland Civic Center Place is looking to revive its space with a new restaurant.
Following a whirlwind month of planning, Smoke’n Tulip opened to the public Saturday.
“Who opens a restaurant during this pandemic? You know, people think I’m nuts doing that too, but it’s not the first time I’ve been (called) crazy,” said Chris Hart, executive director of Holland Civic Center Place. “My staff is really excited about it. I mean, they are geeked to be able to do something again.”
Hart says the restaurant stands out because it focuses on smoked foods, including brisket, ribs and fish. Smoke’n Tulip will also serve up salads, sandwiches and comfort food desserts like apple crisp and bourbon bread pudding. The menu includes gluten-free options and kids’ meals as well.
Hart says the restaurant will draw on the nearby Holland Farmer’s Market, using its produce and foods and opening for lunch during the event.
Food is prepared in the civic center’s kitchen in advance, then moved to a staging area where it’s plated and sent out when ordered.
“So you’re not going to have long ticket times,” Hart explained.
Guests of the Smoke’n Tulip will likely notice the prices are relatively inexpensive, ranging from $7 for dessert to $25 for a whole rack of smoked pork spare ribs.
“We want it to be affordable to people,” explained Hart. “(With) these types of foods, you could charge a lot more. If we were in Grand Rapids, you’d pay a lot more for this stuff.”
One thing off the menu for now: alcohol. While the civic center has a license to serve alcohol at events, it isn’t the right permit for a restaurant. But Hart says civic center leaders are looking into their options.
COPING WITH COVID-19
Since opening in 2018, the renovated Holland Civic Center Place has welcomed big acts Ron White, Kenny G and The Oak Ridge Boys. It’s also the home court for Holland Christian High School’s basketball team.
Managing company VenuWorks had 367 events booked for the civic center this year before the coronavirus pandemic arrived and restrictions set in.
“Obviously, the ones that were time-sensitive have gone away. A lot of them have rescheduled to try to have their event down the road. Some (have) now moved two, three times,” said Hart.
The civic center was poised to hold many events during Tulip Time, but the festival was scrapped. Hart estimates the venue lost more than $100,000 in sales in May alone.
“This is not going to go away anytime soon. I think everybody knows that. It’s going to take a while before people get comfortable coming back in large groups, I think, into a community,” he said.
Under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s current executive orders, Holland Civic Center Place can only have 10 people indoors and 100 people outside for an event, with social distancing and other health measures in place.
“You’re just sitting dead in the water, so I just want to do something different,” said Hart.
He says he’s grateful the board and city leaders took a chance on making it happen.
“We’ve kind of changed our focus right now to try to survive during all of this,” he said.
Survival meant laying off the majority of the civic center’s staff. Right now, all events — including crowd control at the farmer’s market — are handled by civic center management.
‘THE SAVING GRACE’
All of those managers are also working at the Smoke’n Tulip. For many, their roles in the restaurant aren’t new.
“The funny thing is that most of the people, with the exception of two people, have been in the restaurant business. So that’s a huge plus for me right now,” said Hart, who has decades of experience in the hospitality industry.
Operations employees are bussers and line cooks, a worker who is a former bartender is focused on drink service, and an administrator who worked with Hart at Boatwerks is revisiting her previous role as a head trainer.
“I think they think I’m crazy,” Hart said with a laugh. “(They’re) like, ‘We got out of the restaurant business. We already paid our dues.’ They’re a bit tongue-in-cheek; they’re all really excited just to be able to do something here. I am blessed to have of the people that I’ve got working here.”
The restaurant uses the civic center’s existing cooking equipment, dishes and silverware. A podium serves as the hostess stand.
“We don’t have the budget, quite frankly, to be able to open up a brand new restaurant and let it fail. So everything’s on a shoestring,” said Hart.
Hart says during the civic center’s renovations, he pushed to add a kitchen instead of being “held hostage” by the pricing and availability of outside caterers. That’s also paying off.
“(We) decided to add a kitchen in the last minute, which ends up being the saving grace, which is leading us to where we are today,” he said.
The former executive chef of Firekeepers Casino, Jerramiah Chabitch, runs the kitchen, which can feed up to 500 people at a time. However, under current state restrictions, Holland Civic Center Place can serve up to 72 people inside its glass-enclosed atrium and outdoor patio.
AN EYE ON THE FUTURE
While Hart is hoping the restaurant will be a hit, he says Holland Civic Center Place will stick to its original purpose as an event center.
“My goal would be to get back to where we were,” he said.
“We’ve got hand sanitizers everywhere, we’ve got electric static machines to sanitize everything. So we’ve got all the equipment and all that stuff to do events because whenever they come back, we want to be ready,” he added.
For now, the restaurant will run in tandem with small events at the civic center. The facility’s large footprint and four rooms mean if someone books an event, the restaurant can shift its seating to other areas.
Parking also isn’t a problem. Hart says the adjacent lot and nearby ramp offer 1,000 spaces altogether.
Hart says the civic center is also putting together other socially distanced ideas, including a possible “Sunday Funday” event where people can rent a spot in the lot to set up their lawn chairs and enjoy food trucks and live entertainment on the patio.
If all goes well with Smoke’n Tulip and the civic center can fully reopen to events, Hart says he may pitch expanding the civic center and its kitchen to keep the restaurant.
“I’m just hoping people come out and try it. It’s different, it’s unique. I can guarantee it’s not going to be like something you’ve had before here at the civic center,” he said.
Smoke’n Tulip is open Wednesday through Saturday. Lunch hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner will be available from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Visitors can reserve up to eight seats by calling 616.928.2006. Takeout orders will be accepted beginning Aug. 26 by calling the same phone number.