Tami VandenBerg On Being An Entrepreneur and ActivistBy Jane Whitttington on August 18th, 2015 /
Tami VandenBerg didn’t start out with a plan to become the owner of two successful bars in Grand Rapids. But she and her brother Jeff now own the popular neighborhood gathering place, Meanwhile Bar, as well as a trendy downtown nightclub, Pyramid Scheme. Tami combines her business acumen with a commitment to social activism and the needs of the greater community.
VandenBerg was born and raised in the Grand Rapids suburb of Wyoming, part of what she calls a “frugal Dutch family.” A graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids with a degree in English Literature, she credits her education with giving her insights into, as she says, “people around the world and how they live, what they value and how they interact with one another.”
VandenBerg chose to stay in her hometown and turned her efforts toward housing issues and neighborhood organizing. Over time, she has worked with the Salvation Army; Community Rebuilders; Mel Trotter Missions; the Department of Housing and Urban Development; The Red Project, focusing on improving health, reducing risk and preventing HIV/AIDS; and Well House. She has also served on the Mayor’s Gun Policy Task Force, is a member of Cure Violence, and is the co-founder of Ladyfest, an annual showcase of women musicians and artists in West Michigan.
VandenBerg serves as Executive Director of Well House, which has as its mission the work of solving the problems of homelessness. Well House provides safe, affordable housing to the homeless. They understand that a “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work; instead they work with individuals to provide the best possible solutions to their unique needs and challenges.
In service to that goal, VandenBerg works with local, regional and national organizations and agencies. Well House has moved 5,000 people out of homelessness and into secure and sustainable housing. Well House is funded by grants and donations and is powered by volunteers, including not only local volunteers but also people who are or have been homeless themselves.
In terms of the business side of her life, VandenBerg and her brother Jeff were looking for a community space for art, activism and, in general, a good place to meet with friends. In 2000, they came across a bar which had been vacant and neglected for some time. They purchased the building in 2000 but didn’t open until 2007.
VandenBerg says, “The building was in really bad shape, but it had a lot of history. It had been part of the neighborhood for over 100 years. Even though my brother and I didn’t have much business experience, we decided to go for it.”
VandenBerg signed up for classes with GROW, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, which helped her develop a business plan and learn entrepreneurial skills.
When Meanwhile opened in 2007, it was an immediate success. The bar has a capacity inside for over 150 as well as outdoor seating. It features local artists who are invited to display their work in its uniquely designed interior. It definitely adheres to the “local first” philosophy with 15 of the 16 beers they sell Michigan-made.
Throughout the year, Meanwhile hosts fund-raisers for Well House, animal welfare groups, the Red Project and others. They also sponsor weekly Meanwhile Movies at a renovated downtown theatre. The movies include not only cult-favorites and thrillers but also family-friendly films.
After Meanwhile opened, the siblings went in search of a venue where they could present live music. Again, the found an old, neglected building which had been closed for ten years. Although the facility was in rough shape, they brought it back to life and opened Pyramid Scheme in 2011. It is a much larger venue than Meanwhile and brings in musicians from every genre, from heavy metal to country to rock. Pyramid Scheme is located in the Heartside District, a downtown area known for its diversity.
VandenBerg says that the support of the community has been essential in making both Meanwhile Bar and Pyramid Scheme successful. And she has certainly, in turn, supported the community in ways large and small. That isn’t likely to change