Berg finds the essence of restaurant success

June 8, 2009
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It all started at a Taco Boy in 1988.

“I loved to eat there. I applied for the job they had, and within two weeks, I was the night manager,” said James Berg, co-owner of Essence Restaurant Group, which includes Bistro Bella Vita and The Green Well Gastro Pub. “Rolling burritos — I was the best burrito roller.”

Without knowing it at the time, his professional career — like those burritos — was all wrapped up: Berg has stuck with the restaurant industry ever since.

Before Taco Boy, Berg attended college, but couldn’t quite find his footing.

“I left school at Michigan State University. I just wasn’t ready for college,” he said.

He came home after two years at MSU and began his foodie career at age 19 while he attended Grand Rapids Community College. Soon, he joined his sister who was working as a waitress at Bill Knapp’s on Plainfield Avenue and Knapp Street. He became a busboy, and within a couple of months, a server.

“I enjoyed that,” said Berg. “All the while, I was going to (GRCC). My sister’s fiancé was working at T.G.I. Friday’s in Kentwood, and that was the restaurant back in the day. There weren’t really a lot of strong, independent restaurants.”

By 1989, Berg was serving at T.G.I. Friday’s and knew he had found his passion.

“I excelled working there and got to a point where I was able to travel, working for their Passport program,” said Berg. “I served and bartended in L.A., San Diego, and lived in Honolulu for about five and a half months in 1992.”

Since the Passport Program typically only ran for part of the year, Berg was able to continue attending classes at GRCC. But he was pretty sure the restaurant biz was where he wanted to be. “Being able to do that traveling while working … that just really gave me the bug that that was probably what I wanted to do,” he said.

When Berg returned from Hawaii in 1992, T.G.I. Friday’s was experiencing some changes with the rise of similar chain sit-down restaurants.

James Berg
Essence Restaurant Group
Position: Co-Owner
Age: 40
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family/Personal: Wife, Hillary, of almost seven years, and two children.
Community/Business Involvement: Local First board member
Biggest Career Break: Meeting Rob Woodrick and working for him while opening Bistro Bella Vita.

“At the time I started, there wasn’t Applebee’s, Chili’s or Ruby Tuesdays in the world. They were the king,” he said. “But with all the increased competition, they were transitioning and just tried to change the whole platform.”

A year later, Berg received an opportunity to work at Egypt Valley Country Club as its lead bartender and beverage director.

“I was a huge, huge golfer, so I figured, let’s fuse my passion for golfing and the food and beverage business together,” said Berg.

Shortly after, he was promoted to dining manager and food and beverage director. His increased responsibilities forced him to put school on hold.

“I had dabbled at Grand Valley (State University) in a degree in financing, but when … the opportunity not only to run the beverage program but to run the dining room, as well, came up, I thought, ‘Maybe this is too many things’ and I just immersed myself in the business in 1994.”

During his time at Egypt Valley, Berg became friends with its owner, Rob Woodrick, whose family represents the “W” in the supermarket chain D&W.

“Rob was just so passionate about the food and beverage industry that I immediately gravitated toward him,” said Berg. “I always made sure I took care of him. He was into the latest vodkas and the beverage scene, and I was really passionate about wine. He and I just kind of hit it off.”

In 1996, Woodrick enticed Berg into leaving Egypt Valley to develop and run the beverage program for a new restaurant he was planning for downtown: Bistro Bella Vita.

“It was pretty cool,” Berg said about the months leading up to the opening. “It was the first time where I didn’t have a place, a restaurant, to work. It was the first time I had a computer at home. It had dial-up and (I was) doing all the research on all the beverage product. It was my job to put together the whole beverage program, and the new thing was martinis, so there was a lot of research on that.”

Berg, who was used to “moving from one thing to the next without thinking about it,” said it was difficult to accustom himself to keeping track of his hours and attending almost daily meetings. Still, he described the experience as amazing, particularly the vision Woodrick had for the site of his new restaurant.

“The building was like rubble. All of the windows were out, so it was literally this shell of a building. At least the Van Andel (Arena) was there at the time, because we were all scratching our heads like, ‘What are you thinking?’ Most of the activity was happening on Ionia, but Rob had great vision,” said Berg. “Today, positioned here on the corner, we’re just so accessible now. It was a gutsy decision at the time, but it was the right decision long-term.”

While the long-term vision for Bistro Bella Vita turned out to be sound, the near-term presented challenges.

“The first couple of years were a struggle. People were not ready for that big city transition. They were not understanding about parking, and the second, third and fourth floors were still just rubble, and none of this was developed around us,” he said.

Not only was the restaurant something new and different for Grand Rapids, many of those who had a hand in running it were experiencing something new, as well. Despite his restaurant experience, Woodrick had never been part of opening a new one.

“When we opened this thing, it was this huge restaurant, and Rob had never worked in a restaurant and the chef that we had hired hadn’t professionally cooked in a kitchen for about six years,” he said. “We had our first concert rush and that was just an absolute nightmare. … We all of a sudden had 500 people in here. But then on a Monday, you’d have 20 people in here. We were just not prepared for that.”

Woodrick brought in a different chef to take over and help with the transition.

“After a while, things started settling in,” said Berg.

One thing that worked out well was Patrick Wise, who came on board as a chef and now is the third co-owner of Essence Restaurant Group along with Berg and Jeffrey Gietzen. Gietzen, Woodrick’s brother-in-law, took over after Woodrick left the restaurant in 2001.

“The change for me, mentoring and working under Jeff — a good leader has to have a good mentor, and Jeff definitely was that for me,” said Berg. “He taught me discipline, and not just about business but about priorities that I really needed to get straightened out in my life.”

2006 marked the official formation of the Essence Restaurant Group, which became the owner of Bistro Bella Vita. In 2007, the group opened a second restaurant, The Green Well Gastro Pub, on Cherry Street. Unlike Bistro Bella Vita, The Green Well opened to an eager crowd and a steady stream of patrons.

“We took all our ‘mads and sads’ of Bistro and flipped those around to create a new concept, and that’s what Green Well is: a reverse mirror image of Bistro. With Green Well, from Monday to Sunday, we literally know within 10 percent how many people are going to come through the door. It’s been a roaring success as far as customer feedback and what we invested into it — our return on it already in a year and a half has been favorable.”

Berg and Essence Restaurant Group plan to take The Green Well’s customer service to a new level.

“The team said, ‘How do we get feedback from our customers?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to do online surveys, and there’s no way we’re doing comment cards,” said Berg.

From that conversation came The Green Well Cartel, a group of 12 people per season who receive special perks in exchange for their opinions and input. The program is topped off at the end of the season with a special dinner.

Berg has also expanded on what he has learned over the years by forming Essence Coaching, which coaches leaders to implement servant leadership and vision.

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