Education, Class of 1994
Art of the (neighborhood) table
Within two years of opening her store, Amy Heerspink Ruis ’94 had been named one of the nation’s “top 20 under the age of 40” retailers in the gourmet food industry and a “rising retail star” by Home Accents Today magazine. She had also been nominated for and won many Grand Rapids Neighborhood Business Alliance awards and surpassed her income projections by a third.
Not bad for someone whose only business course at Calvin was Economics 151.
Try to give her credit and Ruis is quick to point to three other Calvin grads right next door.
In 2002 Melissa Bartel LaGrand ’89, David LaGrand ’88, Barb Nagelkirk McClurg ’89 and Jim McClurg acted on a dream and opened the Wealthy Street Bakery in Grand Rapids, Mich. Their customers soon began asking for wines, cheeses and spreads to accompany the bakery’s hearth-baked breads. And the storefront next door to the bakery was for sale. The McClurgs and LaGrands mentioned this to Amy and her husband, Steve Ruis ’94, their neighbors down the block.
Call this “dream jump-starts dream.”
“It was a dream I’d had for a long time,” Amy Ruis said, “but I thought I’d have to wait until I was 50 to do it. Then, when we saw the clientele and the excitement the bakery was bringing into the neighborhood, and the building came available, Steve and I looked at each other and said, ‘Gotta do it.’”
“It” is Art of the Table, offering specialty oils, spreads, seasonings, artisan cheeses and dessert items as well as storied wines, microbrews and tabletop accessories. All in 1,200 square feet.
“People kept saying, ‘How are you going to do all that in such a small space?’” Ruis recalled.
Much to the surprise of many, Ruis has succeeded in doing “all that” by carefully selecting products that range in price from 50 cents to $500 and displaying them in a warm and cozy setting, a little like home. The idea for the store from the beginning has been to help people prepare meals at home and invite friends in to share them.
“We try to make entertaining easier for people,” Ruis said. “It makes me so happy when customers come in with a dilemma — wanting to entertain but not knowing what to cook — and I can suggest a few simple ideas and products. They go home happy to be able to create a meal that makes their guests feel special.”
If her enthusiasm for the business is muted at all, it’s because sometimes she wonders if she’s set herself up as “an elitist,” she said, selling foods that are extravagances when there are people down the block who don’t have enough to eat.
“When I feel that way,” Ruis said, “I realize I’m in this neighborhood to be a conduit. It’s coming back to life, and it can be better because we’re here and we participate.”
In fact, Ruis has restored not only her building’s tin ceiling and leaded glass windows, but also its place in the neighborhood. From the 1920s to the 1960s it housed a family-owned grocery. Though she doesn’t live upstairs, as did the original owners, Ruis walks to work and to church. She says she knows “people on every block of every street,” and she donates time and money to neighborhood causes.
At Art of the Table, Amy Ruis is also practicing the art of neighborhood living.