Van’s Pastry . Grand Rapids
Someday life might find you visiting the West Michigan area for a boat show, Amway convention or purchasing a bulk order of Herman Miller Aeron chairs for your new start up. You’d be well served to do a morning visit to Van’s Pastry, just not too soon after a hearty breakfast at Bills Family Restaurant on Michigan Avenue.
I’ve been visiting Van’s Pastry for over 30 years. I didn’t exactly find it on my own at age five, but my Grandparent’s house was located just a few blocks away. They, and my two great aunts who lived in the house next door to them, were regular customers and I was a frequent guest. For them a visit to Van’s occurred at least once or twice a week, and the times I was along I remember it as well as when my great aunt would get dressed up in her best to drive downtown and pay the bill at the phone company. (I often think of her when I see people in flip flops and sweat pants at the grocery store.)
We’d walk a few blocks down Fulton Street to Van’s where my Grandma or great aunt would socialize with the staff and stock up on fresh breads and pastries. Our entire family including my aunts, uncles and cousins would often gather on Sunday afternoons and sit out on the yard shared be the two houses, and of course the desserts and pastries purchased earlier in the week would always be stocked in the metal cookie tins and wood handled bread boxes.
Last January I was in Grand Rapids doing some errands with my sister and we decided to go downtown and see the old houses. After they were sold in the late 90s they didn’t stay in the best of condition, but lately the area has experienced a well needed influx of love, and this block of Fulton Street is now home to a high end consignment store, a salon, and “The Green Life,” organic market. (The gentrification trifecta!)
We wandered around a bit and took some pictures of the two side by side houses – I was hoping someone might open the door asking what were up to so I could explain their wonderful history to the strangers that lived there now.
Returning to the car we saw that Van’s was open, (it was President’s Day,) and we stopped in and chatted for a while with Donna VanderMeer, who with her husband John runs the store. John and Donna took over the business years ago from John’s grandfather, who originally arrived from The Netherlands. Donna instantly knew us after we said who we were. She remembered my Grandfather well and told us, “He took such good care of those three ladies.” (Meaning my Grandma and my two great aunts next door.)
I asked a bit about the history, since during my many many childhood visits I was was less concerned with the history and more occupied in obtaining as many Dutch almond cookies as possible. She told us that Van’s has been in the same location since the 1920s when it was run John’s family. I asked her how they survived the ups and downs – knowing that Grand Rapids, like many other midwestern cities, experienced a dramatic drop in population in the 50s an 60s due to people scrambling to the suburbs.
When business took a turn for the worse the family started catering the desserts to local restaurants. See in West Michigan many of our family restaurants and locally owned chains have desserts for sale, (in addition to the rotating pie case,) so if you’re dining Saturday evening and forgot your sugar cookies for the next day’s church potluck you can still show up with some locally made goods. If you dump off a stale crinkly box of Meijer’s store brand generics you run the risk of being eternally murmured about until you can bake up an adequate casserole to repair your reputation. (Related note: grade school kids won’t touch the crappy Totino’s pizzas your Mom totes in on classroom pizza day when they can have hot greasy Little Caeaser’s – But that’s another story.)
This expansion kept Van’s with a roster of dependent business while the walk ins and neighborhood clientele fizzled for a spell, and has kept them going strong today. If you’re pining for some Dutch treats and history head to Van’s Pastry, and visit this family owned business that’s been serving the community almost shy of a century.
Unrelated note: Van’s is also a block away from Spaanstra’s Auto. If you’re looking for an honest car mechanic they’ve been in business for decades as well, and have kept our extended family’s fleet of Buicks and Oldsmobiles running, well, as good as foreign cars! They have my stamp of approval.
At 955 East Fulton