GRAND RAPIDS — Several new businesses that opened last year are navigating the new landscape of hosting live entertainment during a pandemic.
Live entertainment offerings in Grand Rapids have ebbed and flowed during shutdown orders, capacity restrictions and a sector of the public that remains hesitant to attend crowded events. A notable closure came at the end of 2021 as several venues inside The B.O.B. closed ahead of the building’s anticipated sale.
However, several new spots have opened throughout the city as venue owners help to refresh an independent venue landscape that was under direct threat by the pandemic.
Ambiance GR Kitchen & Lounge
Construction and staffing challenges delayed the opening of Ambiance GR Kitchen & Lounge, but the new bar and nightclub in Grand Rapids’ hotel district debuted with a New Year’s Eve party.
The upscale cocktail lounge and club — located at 106 Pearl St. NW inside the Ledyard building — is owned by Jonathan Jelks, Jamiel Robinson, Lacy Jones, Alvin J. Hills IV, Jamal Chilton and Willie Jackson.
“We’re helping Grand Rapids to evolve into a big city,” Jelks told MiBiz. “You need venues like this to embrace the next chapter of what Grand Rapids needs to look and feel like. We’ll be doing a lot to support local talent and musicians and we’ll be bringing in a lot of national artists as well.”
The space has been upgraded with about $800,000 in renovations. A plush high couch runs down the middle of Ambiance, which has Instagram-able photos displayed of pop culture icons mixed in with local landmarks around Grand Rapids.
Ambiance is currently open Thursday through Saturday. The owners later this year plan to expand hours and add food that will be based off of American cuisine with a cajun bent, Jelks said. The bar menu features specialty cocktails made with local spirits as well as bottle service.
“Most bars and lounges service one niche demographic,” Jelks said. “The key thing about Ambiance is we’ll be able to service every generation, from baby boomers with jazz and blues nights, to younger people with music that’s popular now. And those nights will all be in the same week.”
Karen and Chip VanKlompenberg set out to create a sense of community through coffee and a curated artistic space when they opened The Stray in September.
The large, airy cafe at 4253 S. Division Ave. is a 9,500-square-foot former auto dealership. The cafe serves specialty coffee drinks, wraps, flatbreads, beer and wine.
“For a number of years, we wanted to create a place where the community could just kind of hang out and relationships could happen,” Chip VanKlompenberg said. “Especially over the past couple of years, that’s been more needed and is why we wanted to create a place like a coffee shop — a natural third place where people can hang out during the day.”
The VanKlompnbergs also wanted to create a place with a quality sound system and stage to give a platform for a diverse range of smaller acts. Performances at The Stray so far have included ballet dancers, songwriters, jazz bands, classical groups and rock groups.
“We wanted a place where younger artists could perform and be on stage in a family friendly atmosphere and also host well-established bands that wanted a different scene than just the bar scene,” VanKlompenberg said. “It is more of an intimate, house show atmosphere.”
Anyone who was going to Grand Rapids punk rock shows in the early 2000s likely ended up at Skelletones. The all ages, 1,700-square-foot venue downtown was open from 2000 to 2009. The club reopened in September after a long hiatus with the same mission to provide a space for high schoolers and younger college students to enjoy live music downtown outside of the bar scene.
“Three years ago, the idea really started stirring in our guts (to reopen),” said Mark Leach, who owns Skelletones with his wife, Annette Leech. “There just wasn’t a safe space for young teenagers and musicians to play anymore, it was all bars.”
As with other local music venues, Skelletones has experienced several canceled shows recently because of COVID-19. The alcohol-free venue is open on Fridays and Saturdays.
“This is just a labor of love,” Leech said. “We love the underground community, the same community I cut my teeth on when I was a teenager. It’s important to give high school and college-age kids a place to go as opposed to being at the bar when they can’t drink and feel like a little kid or an outsider.”
Leech is trying to reach out to high schools and let students know about the venue if their band needs a place to play. Skelletones is run by a small staff of volunteers with a goal of making enough money at the door to keep the venue going, Leech said.
“All of our staff understands our mission is not just about putting on a show, but talking to kids and learning their names and why they’re making music,” Leech said.
Grand Rapids Comedy Club
Don Veltman planned to start having comedy shows at the newly reopened Creston Brewery in the fall of 2022. But when Veltman saw news of Dr. Grins Comedy Club closing at the end of 2021, he saw an opportunity to fill a “huge void” by speeding up the pace and opening Grand Rapids Comedy Club sooner than planned.
The new comedy club had its first show on Jan. 14, which was headlined by Erik Griffin from “Workaholics” in Creston Brewery’s Golden Age room. The venue is located on the second floor of the building at 1504 Plainfield Ave. NE. The plan is to have shows every weekend at Creston from mid-October through mid-April.
Veltman has been booking comedy shows in West Michigan for about eight years through his business, Full House Comedy. The first four shows have been sold out, he said.
“We bring in a lot of national acts, but the local Michigan scene is very important to me,” Veltman said. “There are some amazing comedians in Michigan that haven’t gone national just because they haven’t gotten the opportunities to be heard in the right settings.”
When Veltman plans shows, he usually tells the headliner to leave their feature act open that he will fill with local talent instead. Five local comedians opened for Griffin for the opening shows, he said.
“Not to slight Dr. Grins, but I think our focus is higher on getting exposure for local comedians, that’s something that’s important to us,” he said. “I truly think this area has an incredible amount of comedians.”