Vander Mill’s four new 350-barrel fermenters, paired with its existing equipment, provides the company the ability to produce 1.5 million gallons of cider, or approximately 45,000 barrels. Photo by Pat Evans
Paul Vander Heide is excited about his culinary team at the newly opened Grand Rapids location of Vander Mill Cider.
The owner of the cider company that began in Spring Lake in 2006 wanted to bring good food to his taproom at the new $4.3 million production facility at 505 Ball Ave. NE, but he wasn’t sure what type of menu to provide.
“At first when we were looking at the market, we (said), ‘Let’s just do cool sandwiches, unique stuff with great ingredients,’” Vander Heide said, describing a menu that was similar to the Spring Lake location, offering pizza and sandwiches.
Then, in 2015, a high school classmate asked Vander Heide if he’d like to meet her husband, Justin Large, as they were looking to move back to her hometown. Vander Heide, it turned out, already knew about Large because of his knowledge of the Chicago food and beverage scene. Large was director of culinary operations at restaurant group One Off Hospitality.
“I just said, ‘Well, I know who he is already; tell him he can move up here and have two restaurants to do whatever he wants,’” Vander Heide said. “So I went down and met him for coffee and we hit it off right away. It’s a unique opportunity for him to move to a very different food market than he’s coming from and essentially have complete control over what he wants to do.”
Large brought along Greg Bastien, the former executive chef at Chicago’s The Winchester, to act as sous chef.
The new menu features starters such as radishes and butter, crispy fried smelt, and mussels and frites. Main dishes include schnitzel, spaetzle and hanger steak; and shareable entrées like whole roasted chicken, fish and bouillabaisse.
“I think we’re surprising people with this menu,” Vander Heide said. “For beverage companies, you typically see bar food. Some of it is very good. We thought it’d be a real opportunity to showcase really high-end food in a casual space with really great cider.”
Cider is much more than an afterthought at the new location. It’s the whole reason Vander Mill was able to open a second spot in Grand Rapids last Monday. Demand for the company’s cider in its open distribution markets of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois had pushed the Spring Lake facility to its limits.
An expansion in 2013 was supposed to cover at least five years of growth, but Vander Mill maxed out production capabilities within two years. Last year, the company made more than 310,000 gallons of hard apple cider, equal to 10,000 barrels in beer terms. Vander Mill is the largest craft hard cider producer in the Midwest — and likely in the top five nationally.
Founders Brewing Co. brewed nearly 300,000 barrels of beer last year, making it the 20th largest brewery in the nation, which includes the likes of Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co.
“We’re the largest and yet still tiny,” Vander Heide said. “If you’re in the top five, or even top 10, and only doing 10,000 barrels, it’s still a very young category.”
The cider industry experienced a slowdown in 2015, with its growth rate dropping from three years of more than 70 percent growth to approximately 20 percent growth.
Vander Mill saw a bit of a slowdown, but that was largely due to the production cap in Spring Lake and an intentional lack of sales efforts in existing markets, Vander Heide said.
The new production space in Grand Rapids, which includes four new 350-barrel fermenters along with its existing equipment, immediately gives Vander Mill the ability to “comfortably” produce 1.5 million gallons of cider, or approximately 45,000 barrels.
The space at the old B&B Distributing facility provides Vander Mill the ability to possibly produce 10 times its current capacity.
Having room to grow will provide Vander Heide’s production team the opportunity to experiment with more ciders and create more specialties and one-offs, he said, while producing the flagship brands such as Hard Apple and Totally Roasted more efficiently.
More cider to sell means a stronger sales effort in existing markets and possibly new markets in the future. Last week, Vander Mill announced it has begun distribution to Wisconsin.
Despite calls for its cider from across the country, Vander Heide said new distribution markets won’t happen too quickly because he wants to be a part of each one.
“We feel really strongly about supporting our distributors and markets with Vander Mill people and myself, and that is very important in telling the proper story and building the brand,” he said. “We’ll stick to that grassroots, Midwest-first model. It gives us strength where we are because we want to go into a new market, and our goal is to be the leading craft cider in the market. Just to ship some and let it sell out isn’t what we want to do.”
The build-out and opening of the new location took a bit longer than expected, in part due to the acquisition of the building and also a lethargic licensing process. The project ended up being approximately $350,000 over budget, but some of that was because of the expanded kitchen operation, which Vander Heide said isn’t too bad for a project of that magnitude.
“I won’t lie, sometimes I find myself sucking my thumb in the corner, but I think we’ll be all right,” Vander Heide said. “The small expansion in Spring Lake was a five-year plan. This is definitely a five-year plan, at minimum.”