The Rapidian

Alger Heights couple turns sweet hobby into community-focused business

Steve and Mellisa Verstrate put a unique spin on cupcakes in Alger Heights. They continue to expand their offerings while always keeping the community in mind by providing gluten-free and vegan offerings and sourcing their cafe with local ingredients.
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“Do it well, but do it a little differently than anybody else” is the driving sentiment behind Steve and Mellisa Verstrate’s new project in the Alger Heights business district. Setting up shop where Sundaes in the Heights was once located, Sweet Mellisa’s Cupcakes hopes to continue the tradition of appealing to Grand Rapids’ collective sweet tooth.

Sweet Mellisa’s began as a Facebook page in late 2011 due to Mellisa Verstrate’s skill as a baker and knack for interesting ideas for new cupcakes. The page, and soon after the website, gained a lot of attention through her coworkers, who would not only use the site to order cupcakes for their own events but also contributed to the page’s growing notoriety by sharing it with others. As the cupcakes’ popularity continued to grow, the couple also issued a groupon to generate a larger client base and provide Sweet Mellisa’s with more widespread publicity. This past holiday season in particular kept Mellisa on her toes trying to fill all the orders, leaving her wishing she had more space to prepare all of her goodies.

Noticing that Sundaes in the Heights was for sale, they took a gamble and decided to buy it. While Mellisa Verstrate provided the baking abilities, Steve Verstrate brought in an aptitude for business. He graduated from Grand Valley State with a degree in business, and went on to work for a local bank underwriting commercial loans. “Being able to see other people’s financials helped give me an idea of what we would be looking at,” he said. It also gave him some insight as to what would and wouldn’t work for their business. He was skeptical about what their level of success would be if they just produced cupcakes. Since cupcake bakeries (or cupcakeries) have become so popular over the years (with Grand Rapids boasting Cupcakes by Design and Little Pearl, to name a couple), the two set about figuring out what to pair with their product. Ice cream seemed the natural route. “What goes better with cupcakes than ice cream?” Mellisa Verstrate asks. “We’re becoming really well known for our cupcake sundaes: ice cream with a cupcake and lots of delicious toppings.”

The couple had to make decisions about what they wanted their products to represent and where they wanted them to come from. With an interest in a local-first sentiment permeating their business plan, the couple approached local creamery MOO-ville to supply their ice cream.

“Small business is so powerful, especially around here,” Mellisa Verstrate said. “The Alger Heights business community has been immensely supportive.” The Verstrate’s local-first orientation continues with their future projects. As well as reaching out to other local businesses interested in selling their cupcakes, their own expansion at the corner of Alger and Eastern this summer will be a cafe with soups and sandwiches and-to keep the local efforts going- a rotation of Rowster and Mad Cap coffees. 

“Nothing too crazy- we’re going to keep it simple.” Steve Verstrate is honing the menu options with feedback from the community and is working with the Fulton Street Farmer’s Market to ensure they can source ingredients from local farmers. "We want to do that as much as possible,” he emphasized.

Mellisa Verstrate is constantly honing her cupcake menu as well. While considering the merits of a set menu, she admits, “I just love to fly by the seat of my pants, and make whatever sounds good that day.” 

She has been experimenting with alternative cupcake preparation, exploring gluten-free and (soon) vegan options. “It’s nice to be able to share with people who can’t normally eat cupcakes.”  

The café will focus on providing vegetarian and vegan options along with the omnivorous ideas Steve Verstrate has up his sleeve. The menu is drawing inspiration from all over the map: from a carrot ginger soup to a traditional southern muffaletta, inspired by customerrequests for a good bowl of gumbo. 

Being a part of the Grand Rapids business community, and specifically Alger Heights is important to the couple, who live in Alger Heights themselves. 

“There’s a really good vibe here. There isn’t a single demographic in Alger Heights. It’s a really good, gelled community where everyone looks out for one another. That’s what has made it so stable throughout the years,” Steve Verstrate explained.

“Alger Heights is just such a loved community, said Mellisa Verstrate. "It’s a perfect place to be.”

 

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