Quality Wins For DeVries

February 11, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The walls of the Schnitz Deli are lined with awards and newspaper clippings. There would be more, but some were taken down to make way for holiday decorations.

Even so, there is a line of five plaques anointing the Schnitz “Best Deli” by On the Town magazine and three awards from Grand Rapids Magazine.

“It’s always nice to get recognition,” said Schnitz owner Brian DeVries. “You’re never going to get rich owning a restaurant, but hopefully you can make people happy. There is nothing more satisfying than having somebody say ‘That was the best sandwich I’ve ever had’ on their way out the door.”

A product of Grand Rapids Public Schools through OttawaHillsHigh School, DeVries has been involved in the food business the entirety of his working life. He ran a Detroit hotel for nearly a decade, and then entered the topsy-turvy corporate world.

Eight years ago, DeVries was running the Detroit office of a West Michigan-based food broker. When his firm merged with another broker that had stronger penetration in southeast Michigan, his position became redundant.

“When they laid me off, the guy felt really, really bad,” DeVries recalled. “He had to come to my house and pick up the company car. He was just heads-down and acted like he just felt horrible.

“I told him not to worry about it, I’ll come out all right.”

The Schnitz, located at

1315 E. Fulton St.
, had been open for about seven years at that time, originally an offshoot of the Schnitzelbank Restaurant near downtown Grand Rapids.

The owners of the long-standing restaurant had opened the deli as a meat counter, but its sales were disappointing. The sandwich business was mildly profitable, but not enough to encourage the owners to keep the deli, especially when ill health made it difficult for them to manage the extra venture.

“My mother and I had been talking about opening a deli in Grand Rapids for a number of years,” he said. “I wanted to get my kids out of the Detroit area and move back to where we grew up.”

DeVries had been unemployed for only a short time when his mother called him about the Schnitz opportunity. The deli became available that Friday, the family toured it on Saturday, and made an offer on Monday.

Within two years, the Schnitz began earning recognition as the city’s best deli. DeVries opened a second location in Ada and then a third in Kentwood with separate partners. Eventually, he sold his interest in those locations to his partners.

DeVries also has made several deals in the buildings adjacent to the

E. Fulton Street
restaurant. First, he acquired the Common Ground Coffee Shop next door to the east, and then opened the Schnitz Baking Co. three doors to the west.

He recently added two AfterWords Café locations downtown, launched the Rap & Roll restaurant on

Cherry Street
, and placed Schnitz sandwiches at Founders Brewing Co. and at AfterWords.

He owns both the Fulton and

Cherry Street
properties.

“And along the way, hopefully, you can buy the dirt where you’re at. My retirement is right here beneath us.”

While both neighborhoods are steadily improving, DeVries admits that his flagship location wasn’t always easy on the eyes.

“When someone looks at this place, they say it doesn’t have a great location, it doesn’t have parking, it doesn’t have a great storefront,” he said. “You’ve got three or four strikes right there.

“But sometimes quality wins out.”

The Schnitz bakes its own bread, makes its own pastrami, corn beef and roast beef, and uses real Swiss cheese from Switzerland

“Every salad we serve, every soup we serve, every dessert we serve is made here from scratch, and our prices aren’t a whole lot different than what you pay at a marginal chain restaurant,” he said. “If you order a sandwich here you get a half pound of meat and we cut it ourselves. It’s not $1.50 turkey or some water-added ham.”

Although he said that most of his clientele are “guys in ties” coming from their place of employment, he often sees patrons from as far as Kalamazoo who make special trips just for lunch there.

Recently, DeVries opened a location in Grandville. Despite a lack of competition in that area, sales were disappointing until only recently.

“There’s a big Dutch influence there,” he said with a smile. “And they have this mindset that they can’t go out to eat unless they have a coupon. It’s funny because generally people here can only eat half a sandwich and then take the other half home. But they want that coupon.

“And I can make fun of the Dutch because I’m Dutch.”    

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