Vander Mill Cider returns to its roots
Company uses six-month closure to establish new business plan for original Spring Lake location.
Vander Mill Cider has scaled back to its roots at the company’s original Spring Lake location. The location closed shortly following Thanksgiving and didn’t reopen until June 8, after calls from regulars became more vocal about their desire to visit Vander Mill Spring Lake, 14921 Cleveland St.
The lengthy hiatus of operation came on the heels of the cider maker’s massive Grand Rapids production facility and restaurant, which took much of the focus from management, said Paul Vander Heide, owner of Vander Mill.
Vander Mill Grand Rapids, 505 Ball Ave. NE, opened in April 2016 to better accommodate the growth in hard cider production, as well as offer an outlet for a way to change the way food and cider are looked at together.
The Grand Rapids facility helped boost hard cider production to more than 300,000 gallons last year.
“Frankly, we struggled with both getting the production equipment moved and getting this very large facility and restaurant opened in Grand Rapids,” Vander Heide said. “We had a real struggle adequately managing the team in both locations.”
Prior to the Grand Rapids location, Vander Mill Spring Lake was the first and only location for Vander Mill, a cider maker that sends its hard ciders across the Midwest, as well as a classic cider mill. As a lakeshore business, summer was steady, and as an orchard, fall was the primary business time. The company went from a sweet cider and doughnut establishment to making hard cider in 2006.
Once winter approached and loss of management focus was realized, Vander Heide had a decision to make, and the company’s emphasis was shifted solely to Grand Rapids.
“As a lakeshore business, winter time is a struggle either way,” he said. “We got to a point where we had to cut labor and food costs, which were running out of control, and we didn’t feel we had a team in place to turn it around.”
The closure could have been worrisome for Vander Mill drinkers in Spring Lake, as Dutch Girl Brewery, which was located across the street, closed permanently in March.
In reality, the closure gave the company six months to get settled in Grand Rapids and establish a new plan of attack for Vander Mill Spring Lake.
“We got to reset, get things organized and figured out, and from there we can start from scratch,” Vander Heide said.
Vander Mill went from about 30 employees to more than 100 with the production move to Grand Rapids and restaurant opening. The current employment climate in West Michigan was not conducive to keeping both sites open without some additional time to seek out the right candidates, Vander Heide said.
“The economy is doing very well here and it’s put a strain on employment, not the people looking for work but the employers trying to find the right people to work,” he said. “We had attempted to have the right teams in place for both locations to be full-service kitchens. We just had some insurmountable challenges in doing so successfully. It made it necessary to take a step back and reset.”
Andrew Buikema came over to be the Vander Mill Spring Lake general manager following a stint as at Pigeon Hill Brewing Co. in Muskegon.
With the new strategy in Spring Lake, Vander Mill will go back to its roots, continuing to make sweet cider and donuts and operate as a tasting room for the company’s hard cider. In the evenings, Vander Mill has food trucks for more substantial food.
“We’re getting back to the basics in a grassroots fashion as we rebuild the business out there,” Vander Heide said. “We’ll lead with our core competency, which is selling cider. That mitigates for us the risks of being an everyday restaurant.”
In Grand Rapids, Vander Heide said there has been nice steady growth since it opened, both on the restaurant side and in production. Hard cider, as a category, has stagnated a bit, similarly to craft beer, but there still is upward growth for Vander Mill, he said.
He said Vander Mill is reaping the benefits of the more efficient space in Grand Rapids, as well. The company also has seen better weekend sales with the introduction of brunch this spring.
With the steady growth in Grand Rapids and the re-launch of Vander Mill Spring Lake, Vander Heide said the company has taken the time to work out an internal strategic plan and core values. Included in those core values is community, for which the company will hold its second “block party” on July 20 outside of Vander Mill Grand Rapids, which has free kids games and off-the-menu BBQ plates. On July 15, the company held Slip Sliders and Cider outside Vander Mill Spring Lake, which featured 75-foot slip-n-slides.
“The effort there is to reach out to the Fulton Heights neighborhood, those who live amongst where we work, to make sure they feel we are doing our best to be part of the community,” Vander Heide said. “We want to be a space where the community can socialize with each other and have fun enjoying the fruits of our labor.