GRAND RAPIDS — Siciliano’s Market Inc., the family-owned specialty store and launching pad for countless West Michigan breweries, is changing ownership after a decades-long run selling craft beverages and foods and the equipment used to make them.
Owners Steve and Barb Siciliano on Dec. 31 signed a sales agreement with Jeff Boorsma, the former owner of multiple Adobé In & Out restaurants. A longtime family friend of the Sicilianos, Boorsma will turn over operations to his daughter and son-in-law.
The Michigan Liquor Control Commission approved a conditional license for Boorsma’s Half Tail LLC on April 5, and the parties expect to close the sale on June 1. Terms of the sale were undisclosed.
The Sicilianos have been considering retirement for the past five years and started actively planning to sell last summer.
“We couldn’t have found better owners,” Steve Siciliano told MiBiz. “They’re local residents who have owned their own business for a number of years and they are going to run (Siciliano’s Market) and it will still be a mom-and-pop shop. You don’t see a lot of those any more.”
Boorsma’s daughter, Tiffany Sipka, along with husband Dan Sipka, have already been “learning the ropes” at the shop, preparing for their new roles as operators. They plan to purchase the business outright in the coming years, Dan Sipka said. The couple are each just shy of 30 years old.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity and really excited for Steve and Barb, too. They’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the market,” Sipka said. “We’re not coming in to change anything; we’re all about the community. It’s a neighborhood store feel, and we want people to know it’s going to continue as it is.”
Aside from a few minor cosmetic changes, the Sipkas plan to maintain the operations, as well as the Siciliano’s Market name.
“Steve gave us the blessing to change (the name), but there’s no reason to. It’s a west side staple,” said Sipka, who lives with his wife a block north of the market.
Grand Rapids roots
In 1993, the Sicilianos bought the former party store at 2840 Lake Michigan Drive NW as it was on the verge of going out of business.
“I thought I could come here and, boom, turn it around overnight,” Siciliano said. “But it didn’t happen overnight. Once people stop coming to a location because there is nothing to come there for, it’s kind of hard to get that traffic back.”
The first five years of business were tough, but Siciliano drew on previous experience running convenience stores in town. He previously operated a 7-Eleven franchise on North Plainfield Avenue for five years, then bought a convenience store in the Creston neighborhood that he renamed Siciliano’s Market. He would later relocate from Creston to the Westside Connection neighborhood in hopes of moving to a location more conducive to selling fine wine.
Meanwhile, the craft beer industry was beginning to take root in Michigan and elsewhere.
“I started carrying some craft beers and imports besides the regulars that everyone else carried,” Siciliano said. “I started looking for different stuff to get, and I decided to start selling them in singles, which nobody was doing back then. The craft beer industry helped put us on the map, and then from there we got into brewing supplies, put a cigar humidor in, and it just grew after that.”
The store has “turned into a destination,” carrying hundreds of varieties of craft beer, wine, spirits, cigars, tobacco products, as well as supplies for making wine, beer and cheese.
Emerging as an early homebrew supply retailer helped distinguish Siciliano’s from most specialty markets, and has built the store a loyal following among craft brewers, some of whom grew to establish well known West Michigan breweries.
Siciliano’s nurturing and guiding approach to nascent brewers and deep knowledge of the craft beverage industry has made it unique.
“They really care about the products and the process and cared about the emerging culture. I did an incredible amount of networking there,” said Seth Rivard, co-owner of Rockford Brewing Co. who started shopping for homebrewing supplies at Siciliano’s roughly 15 years ago. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and it was a perfect fit for me wanting to get into the brewing world. Having that network and culture that Siciliano’s provided was a perfect jumping board for that.”
Several years ago, when Grand Rapids started earning craft brewing accolades and the title of Beer City, USA, “it was really eye opening to see how many brewery owners in Grand Rapids got their start through Siciliano’s. It’s just an incredible number,” Rivard said.
“Steve has always found the most incredible staff to help people learn from scratch and even take their brewing to the next level,” Rivard added. “It’s definitely been an incubator for the culture that this town and surrounding area have developed around the fine arts of craft beer.”
Mitten Brewing Co. co-owner Chris Andrus fondly recalls his early homebrewing days being centered around Siciliano’s.
“I don’t mean to overstate it, but if not for Siciliano’s, I’m not sure Mitten would have happened,” Andrus said.
Siciliano’s led Andrus and business partner Max Trierweiler to decide to pursue craft beer as a career, offering them “an in” to learn recipes and build knowledge from the unassuming staff.
The welcoming feeling of Siciliano’s was evident early on when Andrus and Trierweiler made their first, all-grain homebrew batch, which was sourced from the market.
“I was bringing the batch from the car to the garage, and the bag ripped open and it all fell out in the driveway — it was an inauspicious beginning,” Andrus said. “We had to go back to Siciliano’s and scoop everything out again. We felt like knuckleheads. We called it Driveway IPA.”
“There were all of these total noob moments, like not knowing how to work a grain mill,” Andrus added. “There was a lot of intimidation in craft culture at the time. It felt like a club, and we didn’t feel that we were necessarily in the club. Siciliano’s is not like that.”
Andrus to this day stops into Siciliano’s for the occasional last-minute supply re-up. Recently, he needed sugar for a new batch of seltzer. Or it’s for research and development purposes — like buying six different bottles of kolsch to see how a new Mitten version compares.
Andrus’ advice for the new owners: “Remember what made Siciliano’s special in the first place — that nurturing nature of the place. And the high IQ for beer. There are lots of stores with variety, but it takes attention to detail.”
Andrus noted that Steve Siciliano recently appeared “happier than I’ve seen him in all the years I’ve known him.”
And Siciliano is confident as he heads into retirement.
“It’s not hard to walk away because we know the business will be in good hands,” he said.