The Sovengard plans to make use of former shipping containers that will be renovated into seating areas in the beer garden. Courtesy Rick Muschiana
Having lived in Chicago, Rick Muschiana understands the importance of retaining some semblance of nature in a concrete jungle.
Incorporating green space in an urban setting would be showcased in Muschina’s proposed beer garden and kitchen, The Sovengard. The plan was tabled at the Grand Rapids Planning Commission in May because of residents’ concerns and will go back in front of commissioners June 25.
The Sovengard’s proposed location is 443 Bridge St. NW in a lot owned by First Ward Commissioner Walt Gutowski, who grew up on the west side. The parcel is adjacent to several longtime residents’ homes.
Muschiana said he understands residents’ concerns, including the business’s hours of operation and potential noise, and he said he will work with the commission to ensure the plan lines up with the needs and wants of the community.
The project has endorsements from the West Grand and Stockbridge business districts.
Muschiana said the beer garden will be open until midnight at the latest, with outdoor seating closed by 11 p.m. He also said music would be occasional lower-volume folk and singer/songwriter performers, with maybe a polka band around Oktoberfest time.
“It’s striking a balance between the developments and respecting the history of the people who have lived here a long time,” said Muschiana, who has been a west-side resident for more than three years.
“We’re promoting quality over quantity. The consumers we’re targeting are coming out for the experience and not to have Jell-O shots and pitchers of Bud Light.
“We want to be respectful, but we believe we can be a great asset to the neighbors.”
Muschiana said he often noticed several empty lots on Bridge Street NW during the past couple of years as he drove from his house to downtown.
The Sovengard’s direct neighbor would be New Holland Brewing Co., which had a similar intention to transform a dilapidated west-side site into a positive presence in the neighborhood. New Holland’s brewpub, micro-distillery and restaurant are slated to open in early 2016.
Preserving some of the outdoor feel will be critical to The Sovengard, which plans a building with a capacity for 99 people but also an outdoor beer garden using recycled shipping containers and greenery that would seat approximately 125 people.
“We want to preserve some green space in an urban environment,” Muschiana said. “We want this to be a gathering place for the community, a place you can step away for a couple of hours and feel you’re in the garden.”
The garden idea takes inspiration from his time spent in larger cities such as Chicago, but also from European cities where families gather to enjoy an eclectic mix of beverages, food and activities. Beers will range from local brewers and distillers to well-known, quality producers from around the globe.
Food mostly will be inspired by Scandinavian fare, including smørrebrød, a Danish open-faced sandwich that can be topped with an endless combination of ingredients.
“They’re in the middle of an ocean with a different culture but also very similar (to West Michigan),” Muschiana said. “We have intense seasons, great work ethic, great friendliness and great producers. So we really wanted to take that as our framework to our kitchen and menu.”
The name Sovengard stems from a mishmash of Danish and Norwegian words. “Sø” means lake, “ven” means friends and “gard” is a general term for a piece of land. Muschiana’s rough translation is “Land of the Lake Friends.”
“It really fits our definition of wanting to redefine what it means to be a Michigander and to live here and be part of the community,” he said. “I think there is a movement to redefine what we’re capable of, and that seems to be starting with beverage, food and small businesses.”
For a long time, Muschiana wanted to shift away from the food and beverage industry. He has worked in restaurants since his high school days in Frankenmuth when he worked at Zehnder’s, the nation’s largest independent restaurant. In the past five years, he’s held sales roles with Brewery Vivant and Virtue Cider.
He said his time with Brewery Vivant taught him that being conscious of buying habits and where things come from is an important step as a culture, instead of an elitist movement.
“We have such an amazing diversity here of growers and producers,” he said. “That needs to be supported. I fought hard against ever having my own place for a long time, but eventually, you have to start listening to what the universe is telling you to do.”
If approved at the planning commission, Muschiana hopes to have the beer garden operational by late summer or early fall. With a bare-bones building already in place and shipping containers that will “act like Legos,” he doesn’t think that aggressive timeline is too farfetched.
All told, the project is budgeted at approximately $250,000 and funded through a mixture of traditional lending, investors — including his business partner and stepfather, Bill Parlberg, who is the president and COO of Zehnder’s — and crowdfunding.
The crowdfunding isn’t to ensure the project happens — it will, at most, make up 10 percent of the project.
“Since the inception, I set aside a part of the budget to be crowdfunded,” Muschiana said. “It’s to get out into the community and let people be mini-investors and breathe life into the project. It’s an important part to engage the community and make them feel involved.”
The Bridge Street community continues to grow under the vision of Gutowski, Muschiana said. Several establishments are set to open within the year, including Harmony Hall and The Black Heron.
“His overall vision for the area is contagious,” Muschiana said. “There’s something magical in the air, and that will be an awesome place to be.”