American Dream winner is irrepressible restaurateur

May 27, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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In 2005, Hurricane Katrina drove Angie K. Anderson away from New Orleans and her budding career there as a chef. A few months later, she and her partner, Sara Fiorenzo, scraped together $500, rented a small space, bought a toaster oven, a George Foreman grill and a used espresso machine and opened up a small café in Holland in 2006.

They have another restaurant now, but that early struggle to open the Grass Cup Café impressed the National Restaurant Association so much that Anderson was one of the finalists in the association’s 2011 Faces of Diversity/American Dream Award in April.

“I look back on it and I laugh,” said Anderson, noting that the Grass Cup was in a less-than-desirable location on 60th Street. The rented space was a money pit, she said. “I stuck so much money into that place, just to make it work ...”

The American Dream often begins in a restaurant, according to the National Restaurant Association. “Whether born in the United States or abroad, raised in humble or affluent homes, restaurateurs embody drive and ambition. Whatever challenges they face, they persevere to achieve their dream,” states the association website.

Each year, the National Restaurant Association and PepsiCo Foodservice celebrate those who achieve the American Dream in the restaurant industry, honoring restaurateurs whose enterprise and dedication lead to success and inspire others along the way. The restaurant industry work force is more than 12.7 million strong and represents 9 percent of the U.S work force, according to the association.

Anyone who owns and runs a restaurant knows that it demands an enormous amount of time and effort. Anderson wasn’t even able to attend the association’s awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., in April: “I can’t leave the restaurant,” she said.

She is referring to Blue House Bistro, which she and Fiorenzo opened at another location in Holland about a year-and-a-half ago.

Anderson was the only restaurateur from Michigan who was a finalist for the award; the others are scattered across the country. A native of Ohio, she grew up in the South and began learning her trade in New Orleans the hard way. In 1998 when she was about 19, she started working as a dishwasher at a New Orleans restaurant with no prior restaurant experience.

She said she’d watched the guys doing the cooking and developed an understanding of what they were doing. “Then one night, both the chefs bailed. They left,” she said. The manager asked Anderson to cook that night. “Here I am — the dishwasher,” she said, with a laugh.

So she began cooking “and I did not make one mistake. Not one. We did $3,000 worth of business in three or four hours,” she said.

From then on she was a chef, learning for a year and a half under another chef at the restaurant who taught her all the basics and a lot of fine details. It was only a three-star restaurant — “nothing fancy,” she said, but a good place to learn the business.

Later, she worked as a sous chef/kitchen manager at the Ambassador Hotel, as sous chef at Adolfo’s, and as bartender/mixologist at Igor’s Bar and Grill, all in New Orleans.

In the summer of 2005, Anderson and Fiorenzo came to Holland to help care for Fiorenzo’s father, who was ill with cancer. A couple of weeks later, Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans.

Being in Michigan “kind of saved our lives,” said Anderson, adding she believes it was “divine intervention.” Their apartment in New Orleans was severely damaged, but they had their most important possessions safely with them in Michigan, including their two dogs and four cats.

She made a trip to New Orleans after the storm to check on friends and realized there would be no going back there to live. But she also found it impossible to find a job in Holland, because after the hurricane, there was no way anyone here could contact her work references from New Orleans.

Anderson decided the solution was to open her own small restaurant. She hired some teenagers to help her move some equipment to the space on 60th Street — “kids are the cheapest labor you can get,” she said — and was stopped by the police who were suspicious of her activities.

When asked what she was doing, she replied she was trying to open a restaurant, “and the cop was, like, ‘There’s no restaurant there.’” But by early 2006, there was. It was small and simple, and more of a coffee shop/café. Two or three months after Grass Cup Café opened, the same police officer “showed up and bought coffee and apologized,” said Anderson.

Grass Cup is a play on the word “Graafschap,” a name seen around Holland on businesses and a heritage center at a church. It is Dutch for “the county.” The Grass Cup became known for good food and coffee and live music on weekends. (Anderson plays ukulele and guitar and writes songs.) In 2009, one of her recipes took a prize in the Salsa Showdown in Holland.

After a few years, Anderson and Fiorenzo decided it was time to close the Grass Cup Café and set up shop in a nicer place. It was again a struggle, because the Great Recession was still in bloom. When word got out that the Grass Cup was closing, Butch TerHaar, owner of Butch’s Dry Dock Restaurant on 8th Street in Holland, said Anderson should consider renting another property he had farther down 8th Street that had formerly been a Mexican restaurant.

Anderson said she looked at several locations, but “I did not have a vision like I had” at the 8th Street property. She describes the area as somewhat “awkward,” but quickly adds, “It used to be a hopping place, and it will be again.”

There were the usual roadblocks. The health department initially said no to the property, according to Anderson, but agreed to allow food service when the problems were fixed. Then there was the problem of financing.

“Originally, we wanted to do a full-fledged restaurant, but we fell short on funding. We couldn’t find any, anywhere,” she said, despite receiving praise for the business plan from the Holland SCORE volunteer advisors for small businesses. So at this point, Blue House Bistro is functioning as a delicatessen with on-premise dining, but it also has a license for take-out fine wines and beers. The goal now is to get a full liquor license for service on-premises, and open up the second floor for dining.

Anderson’s participation in community service has made hers a familiar face around Holland. She volunteered her cooking expertise for a month at senior center Evergreen Commons and helped raise money for the March of Dimes by donating her catering services for auction.

Anderson does most of the cooking at Blue House Bistro, where the entire staff is her, Fiorenzo and two others. One of those is Sam Ploeg, who has been with Anderson since the Grass Cup and is “probably one of the best chefs in Holland — but he doesn’t know it.” He has been cooking for several years and isn’t quite 20.

Anderson came up with the name for the fare offered at Blue House: “neo-American Creole fusion.” It includes some classic Cajun food — jambalaya, gumbos — but there are a limited number of Cajun food fans in Holland, so the menu also includes sandwiches, pizza and other typical Midwestern fare. The priciest Creole food is not more than $15 for a dinner, she said, explaining that the downturn in the U.S. economy has made the cost of dining out an issue with many people.

“I think people aren’t spending the $4 on lattes anymore. People are trying to save money, split (meals with others). Small plates, I think, is where we’re headed,” she said. “My theory on the industry is that I should be able to offer fine food at affordable rates, and I’m going to die trying.”

It’s a struggle with the cost of food going up. “For me, it’s really about the love. I don’t feel any love when my customers aren’t happy,” said Anderson.

And that means the food had better be good.

“That first bite is just as important as that bill you put on the table at the end of the meal.”

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