Still Serving After All These Years

September 9, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Local restaurant owner Dan Verhil has a couple of busy, but hopefully rewarding, weeks coming up.

Verhil, who owns a pair of noteworthy and successful downtown restaurants, hosts his 26th annual Chili Cook-Off starting at noon on Saturday. Later this month, he’ll learn if he has won a national award for his humanitarian efforts.

The Michigan Restaurant Association honored Verhil in late July with its Cornerstone Humanitarian Award for his lengthy community service. Receiving that prize made Verhil eligible for the National Restaurant Association’s humanitarian award. A winner is expected to be revealed on Sept. 22 at the group’s conference in Washington, D.C.

“I was quite honored, quite humbled about the whole thing,” said Verhil of the state award.

“It is quite an honor to represent the state,” he added.

The cook-off is one reason the MRA recognized Verhil. The fundraising event features the best and sometimes hottest chili recipes around, and is held every year in front of his Cottage Bar & Restaurant at 18 LaGrave Ave. SE.

“This is the 26th year we’ve had the Chili Cook-Off. We had the big 25th blowout last year, but we’re going to have a good time this year, as well. Every year gets a little better,” he said.

“We limit the entries to 40, and it’s been filled since the end of July.”

For the 10th consecutive year, cook-off proceeds will go to Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids. Gilda’s Club has provided free counseling to cancer patients and their families from its location on the city’s West Side since 1998.

“We were just an idea — our doors hadn’t even opened — and he understood the importance of what we were doing,” said Leann Arkema, president and CEO of Gilda’s Club. “(Verhil) said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to mix this Chili Cook-Off, which helps promote my restaurant, and support a wonderful cause like Gilda’s Club.’

“I just think it’s progressive when any business person decides to take a stand and says, ‘The community supports my business, and I’m going to do something to help support the community.’”

Arkema said Verhil was more than deserving of the state award, adding that her organization has received about $57,000 from the nine previous cook-offs. Those dollars are vital to the nonprofit.

“Gilda’s Club is one of the few nonprofits in town that relies 100 percent on charitable gifts. We have no fees for services, no government grants, we’re not a United Way agency, no reimbursements or health care billing. So, truly, we rely 100 percent on the generosity of the community,” said Arkema.

“This gift that comes in every September truly helps us, because the bottom line is, it’s the only way we can keep our doors open.”

Regular customers know “The Cottage” turned 80 years old this year, making it the oldest operating bar and restaurant downtown. The business opened in 1927 as a sandwich shop owned by Earl and Marie Coon. Seven years later, the Coons were serving beer, wine and liquor, and “The Olde Cottage Bar and Grill” was born.

The Coons retired in 1952 and sold the business to Peter Varano. Fifteen years later, John Verhil, Dan’s late father, bought The Cottage. Dan purchased it from his dad in 1980 and has operated it ever since, meaning a Verhil has owned The Cottage for half of its 80-year existence. To commemorate The Cottage’s 80th year, Verhil is selling anniversary glasses for $2 with the purchase of a drink.

So why has the business done so well for so many years?

“I think the consistency of the food and service staff is focal about it. You know the feel you get when you come in The Cottage — it’s like you’ve come home again. My staff is friendly and outgoing and they want to make your experience an extraordinary experience every time you walk through the door,” said Verhil.

Verhil also owns the One Trick Pony Grill & Taproom, just around the corner from The Cottage at 136 E. Fulton St. It is actually housed in two historic buildings. The dining area is located in what once was an upholstery and tack shop, a building that opened in 1885. The taproom sits in a space that was occupied by a general store built in 1856.

The One Trick Pony turned 10 years old this year and it, too, has a history of hosting charitable events. The restaurant has been home to a lengthy series of live music concerts sponsored by WYCE FM, and each concert raises money for a local charity.

So one restaurant turned 10, the other 80. Neither is affiliated with a chain and both have small advertising budgets. In the highly competitive restaurant business, eateries seemingly come and go on a daily basis even with a good menu and a personable staff.

Maybe Verhil, though, has found the enduring key to business longevity.

“The Cottage is such a unique place and it seems like people just love it here. Especially during the holidays, people come in from out of town and say, ‘Good, you haven’t changed a thing. It’s just like I remembered it when I used to live in town,’ or things to that effect,” he said.

“So I listen and we don’t change anything, besides keeping it clean and tidy.”    

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