GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Inside the ground floor of the Ledyard Building at the corner of Pearl Street and Ottawa Avenue, a transformation is underway.
Since June, Team Ambiance has been hard at work gutting the former home of Raggs To Riches to create a new niche business: Ambiance GR Kitchen & Lounge.
“Total facelift. Everything in Ambiance GR is brand new… I mean, the walls don’t look the same, the floors, the ceilings. The bar used to be over in this area,” co-founder Lacy Jones said, pointing to the center of the main room. “Now it’s in the back. We’re totally just changing everything.”
Dozens of new lights hang from the ceiling, illuminating a velvety blue wraparound banquette at the heart of the 5,043-square-foot space.
A menu of American-infused Cajun food is also ready to go.
“You’ll see gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp and grits, blackened catfish. We have a plethora of different wings with different spice levels people will be able to order. We have a very tasty filet, steak filet, that’s on the menu we’re very excited about. We have a delicious chicken sandwich,” Jones said.
Ambiance GR will serve lunch and dinner from noon until 10 p.m. A smaller menu will be available from 10:30 p.m. until about 1 a.m. as part of the Ambiance After Dark experience.
And don’t forget the drinks.
“Cocktails, champagne, wine. You name it, we’re going to have it,” said Jones.
“It’s going to be a lot of Michigan-made, handcrafted cocktails,” added Jonathan Jelks, an Ambiance GR co-founder.
The owners say they’ll also focus on local brews to fill their six or so taps.
The Ambiance GR experience doesn’t stop there. The business’ walls will showcase the work of local artists and Ambiance GR’s stage will provide a platform for a range of performers.
“You can go to a comedy show at Ambiance, you can listen to spoken word poetry or open mic night when you can come and join in. We’re also going to have some rock bands, some metal bands, some adult hip hop, some top 40, we’re going to have some live jazz, live blues, we’re going to have a plethora of entertainment options. That’s what’s going to separate us,” Jones said.
The freshly finished dance floor is ready to welcome feet.
“You know, most places is just sit down, socialize. And there’s nothing wrong with that — we like to do that ourselves. But you’re going to be able to go and dance. You’re going to be able to come, grab a meal and stay right here. And that’s one of our goals: to extend the time of each one of our patrons. That they can come, get a meal, meet up with friends, socialize and then go off into Ambiance After Dark and enjoy the entertainment options,” Jones explained.
MAKING HISTORY: ‘IT’S PERSONAL’
The transformation extends beyond the new drywall at 106 Pearl St. NW.
“We have over a million people in metro Grand Rapids, more than 200,000 right in the city of Grand Rapids. But there was not one African-American owned bar or restaurant probably within the last 20 or 30 years in downtown Grand Rapids. That was a problem. We wanted to change it,” said Jones, who is also the CEO and general manager of Ambiance GR.
All six of the business’ founders grew up in southeast Grand Rapids.
“It’s personal,” said Jelks. “We want to see our city have venues like this, and to be a part of the change and the evolution.”
Dubbed Team Ambiance, they bring with them plenty of experience.
“We’ve done everything from managing venues, restaurants to entertainment, concerts, promotions, music — like Willie (Jackson), he’s a music artist. We’ve done every aspect of entertainment and the food industry progressively — over 20-plus years of experience,” explained Jones.
Part of their plan is to share that expertise with budding entrepreneurs by starting a college internship program this summer.
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“So that people who come from southwest Grand Rapids and southeast Grand Rapids can learn in an effective way how to become part of the industry. I think there’s been a disconnect for a lot of people and so what we want to do is serve as kind of that breeding ground for new talent. And we know that Ambiance will be right for this,” Jelks said.
“We want to help bring them up so that they can acquire the knowledge and skill sets that they need to go on and become managers, potential owners, so the hospitality and entertainment industries in the city can continue to grow and grow the right way,” Jones added.
He emphasized that while Ambiance GR will be owned by African-Americans, its doors will be open to all.
“We are not just for one race. We are for everyone. We wholeheartedly believe in diversity. So we want everyone to come down and enjoy Ambiance,” he said.
The owners say they have big plans for ArtPrize.
“We do. It’s the biggest secret ever though. If I told you it, I’d have to kill you,” Jelks joked.
‘GROWING PAINS’: WHY OPENING IS TAKING SO LONG
Team Ambiance says it scouted out every corridor of Grand Rapids before settling on the corner of the Ledyard Building, which has sat empty for about seven years.
“We fell in love with this space not only because the building is historic, but because this is the main intersection in downtown, so there’s going to be traffic,” Jelks said.
But moving into a building built in 1874 also comes with pitfalls.
“Because the building is so old, once you remove something, you find that there’s a big problem there that has to be dealt with. And so it’s taken so long,” Jelks said. “People are greatly anticipating this project, but it’s taken so long because the building is historic in nature.”
“We’re excited to be here and that’s part of the growing process, but also the growing pains,” he added.
Team Ambiance says a $45,000 grant from Grand Rapids’ Downtown Development Authority helped take a small bite out of the big cost of getting the project off the ground.
“We knew it was going to be a massive undertaking. We were prepared to make a hefty investment, but you know, it takes on a life of its own. But we’re extremely excited to be a part of the downtown ecosystem,” said Jelks.
The challenges have also pushed back Team Ambiance’s anticipated opening date by several months.
To the people itching to step inside Ambiance GR, its co-founders vow to open by late February.
“Great things take time to create,” Jelks said.
“We want to thank the Grand Rapids community for their patience,” he added. “We really want to do it right. And so we’re taking our time to be intentional and be meticulous about every detail that’s going into the space. But when we open, it’s going to be such a beautiful thing.”