University Club nears centennial with new leader

Wisconsin native picks Grand Rapids for its emerging food scene after hospitality career in Chicago.
University Club nears centennial with new leader
New GM Mark Canak said he is eager to be part of a growing city with a burgeoning food and beverage scene that’s a hotbed for young professionals. </strong> Courtesy University Club </strong>

A staple of Grand Rapids’ urban life for nearly a century, the University Club of Grand Rapids is heading into its next era with a new leader who wants to modernize the club for the next generation.

Founded in 1923, The University Club of Grand Rapids serves as a hub for business leaders and community members who come together to build business connections, entertain guests and enjoy social camaraderie on the 10th floor of the Fifth Third Center, at 111 Lyon St. NW in downtown Grand Rapids.

The member-owned, not-for-profit club offers a café; dining room; meeting rooms; a pool and a gym with workout classes; access to exclusive events like wine tastings and cooking lessons; breakfast and lunch Monday-Friday and dinner Wednesday-Friday; annual events like brunch with Santa and Easter and Mother’s Day meals; space for events such as weddings and Rotary Club meetings; and a scholarship foundation that raises money for area young people to attend college.

University Club membership pricing is tiered by age and amenities, with the social-only memberships starting at $90 per month and social and athletic memberships starting at $100 for those under 30 and increasing by age up to $165 for those 41 and older. Discounted memberships are available for people who live and work outside a 25-mile radius of the city. 

The University Club also offers reciprocal privileges at clubs throughout the nation and world, including overnight accommodations, golf and dining.

Currently, the University Club has approximately 425 members.

In August, the board hired Milwaukee native Mark Canak — who spent most of his hospitality career in Chicago following his graduation in 2005 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison — as the club’s general manager.

Canak has been working in the hospitality industry since age 15 (almost 25 years), and he is a trained sommelier, which according to club board member Phil Mitchell, was a big part of his appeal.

“We hired a new club general manager … to lead the club into the future,” Mitchell said. “Mark and his sommelier experience (offer) unique expertise in wine that we are excited about moving forward.”

Canak, who recently married a Detroit native, said he and his wife were finding life in Chicago “exhausting” and were ready for a change of pace when the University Club job opportunity arose.

They still are in the process of fully relocating to Grand Rapids — his wife just got a job for a company based in Chicago that she’ll eventually work for remotely, and they have to sell their condo — but they already like what they see, he said.

“We found that Grand Rapids was just the perfect spot, because if we want to go to Chicago, it’s only three hours away, if want to go see her family, it’s only two-and-a-half hours away, and if we want to go to wine country in Traverse City, it’s two hours away.”

Canak said he is eager to be part of a growing city with a burgeoning food and beverage scene that’s a hotbed for young professionals. He has visited breweries that serve pickle pizzas and seen olive burgers on just about every menu, things he’s never encountered anywhere else but Grand Rapids, and he said the up-and-coming Bridge Street corridor reminds him of “Restaurant Row” on Randolph Street in Chicago.

“The city is evolving at a rapid pace, and it’s very cool; it’s very hip,” he said.

His plan is to lead the University Club into its next era while ensuring it reflects the diverse and vibrant city it calls home, Canak said.

“(The club) is a historic and iconic institution of Grand Rapids, and I think it needs to be as relevant as the city is,” he said. “… I took the tour of the University Club, and I just saw there’s so much here we can work with and create wonderful things. My predecessor, Cindi Poll, she carried this club for nearly 30 years and did an amazing job, and now I’m humbled and honored to lead the charge next.”

Canak said the board is equally “wonderful,” with each of its members having a specialty that in some way benefits the organization.

The University Club members are why it exists in the first place, so Canak said he is going to apply his lessons in “elevated” hospitality from Chicago’s city clubs to ensure the organization lives on.

“We want to make sure that you, a member here, that it becomes your home away from home, where you’re greeted, my staff know your first and last name, your favorite drink, what you like to eat, the way you want your steak cooked, your kids’ birthdays — all that stuff we want to cater to,” he said. 

He described club members as “more than just regulars,” noting many of them care so deeply they donated during the pandemic to keep the club afloat as its membership numbers dipped.

“There’s a lot of skin in the game for the members,” he said. “We want to make sure there’s a reason they’re coming ‘here’ and not going ‘there.’ We want to be part of the community, but this has to be a special place.”

Canak has been working to create fun events like blind wine tastings, at the end of which, members can order steeply discounted wines not available anywhere in the city. He’s also met with a committee of young professionals who want to establish a young executives club within the University Club.

“We’re going to call it ‘Connecting over Coffee,’ or something along those lines,” he said.

Canak said his No. 1 goal in his new position is to apply his experience as a hospitality professional to create an atmosphere of “world-class” service, food and member experiences that instill a “fear of missing out,” aka FOMO, to help it to grow its membership rolls.

“We have an amazing team here, and that’s my commitment to the club and to the members, is to bring them to that next level.”

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