Questions for Tami VandenBerg, co-owner of The Pyramid Scheme and
You recently celebrated The Pyramid Scheme's two-year anniversary with Dead Prez, which performed in the past. Why did you choose this act for your anniversary?
Dead Prez is one that we went out on a limb to bring in because they're pretty controversial. We've had enormous success with hip hop, but we had to have another conversation when we opened because a lot of insurance companies will try to jack up their rates when you do hip hop. So I just said, 'Well, if they try to charge us more, I'll fight it.'It sounds like discrimination to me.
You brought them in anyway. What was the response?
We didn't know how they would do. They sold 419 out of 420 tickets, and I couldn't even believe it. I was hoping for 200.
You've put on a lot of really successful hip hop shows over the past two years. What do you think it is about hip hop that sells?
I think relationships are huge. Part of it is I'm new to the hip hop world ... I love the rawness and authenticity to it. It's just a genre that lends itself to our size venue because we're doing a lot of underground acts that don't necessarily fill The Intersection, but have very broad appeal. You can bring in people who love hip hop and people who love activism (to our shows).
What was the difficult part of growing the business?
Our first year, we had a lot of shows that lost a lot of money.
We lost a lot of money on our T-Rex Fest.
Do you think you'll do another festival, but tweak it based on your learning experiences from T-Rex Fest?
Good question. I love festivals so much, but we are not going to do one this year. We have not completely ruled out doing a festival in the future, but we need to do some major changes.
You mentioned a lot of shows lost money within the first year. Was there a lot of dependence on bar sales during that time?
Yes, and that's why we opened the front bar. We designed the business that way because Jeff (Tami's brother and fellow co-owner) had done a lot of booking and I've done a fair amount, and it's hard to make money on shows ... so to have that cushion of the front bar – that was probably our best move.
It seems like you and Jeff knew what your venue wanted to be in the beginning.
We did know what we wanted to be, but I think we've evolved into something a little different than what we originally thought. We said we wouldn't do DJs, but now we have the Bottom 40 guys, and they throw the best party ever. We've also done a lot more different genres. We originally thought we were going to be indie, maybe a little metal, but now we're doing folk ... The same people aren't going to come to a show multiple times a week, so we have to broaden.
Now that The Pyramid Scheme hit its stride, what have the past few months been like for you?
Fortunately, the business has gotten to the point where I can pay people to do everything I was doing ... There are certainly some things I do myself, but the vast majority of the work, we pay people to do.
What do you think The Pyramid Scheme adds to the downtown Grand Rapids scene?
I think we provide that necessary sort-of underground niche that every city should have. It's a little bastion of creativity ... it's offering a lot of exposure to a lot of the artists in this city and I don't think there's a venue in this town that caters to artists of all kinds.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Lindsay Patton-Carson. Photo: Joe Boomgaard.
"Top Chef Seattle" winner and Kentwood native Kristen Kish was recently promoted to chef de cuisine for Menton in Boston, a five-diamond and five-star property of Relais& Châteaux.She chats with REVUE about chicken tenders, Olga's Kitchen, and refuses to stick it to someone in her past.
After winning "Top Chef Seattle," do you have any advice for cooks and chefs?
When it comes to cooking, I don't follow recipes. It's very hard for me to write them. If you mess something up, it's just food. It's going to taste good. If you put good ingredients together, it doesn't really matter how you cook them if you season what it is you are making. Cooking is fun. It's not supposed to be an intimidating thing. Ideally, it's enjoyable. A goal as chef is to inspire and make people do it at home in their own kitchen.
Is there a food or ingredient you can't live without?
I cannot live without chicken fingers. I eat them often. They're kind of my guilty pleasure, even though I don't feel guilty about eating them. I eat crappy, crappy chicken fingers. I would never serve them. It's my personal dinner. When it comes to ingredients, I love farmers markets. When I don't have access to one, I become a little sad, almost. I really look forward to walking through farmers markets and getting beautiful, fresh ingredients. And my go-to secret ingredient is sherry vinegar. It kind of goes into everything I do.
It's highly publicized that your favorite desert is a macaroon. What is the best filling?
I don't think there is any bad filling for them. My personal preference is for anything tart, whether it is a lemon curd or a really tart berry jam. Or, completely opposite of that is peanut butter. You can put peanut butter on anything.
"If you mess something up, it's just food."
Growing up in West Michigan, what were the restaurants you loved?
The 44th Street Bistro. It changed a few times. I always used to get chicken tenders and broccoli cheese soup. They served warm white bread and my parents would always pick it up for a treat as a kid, growing up when they didn't cook. Although... one of the things I kind of crave, at Olga's Kitchen at the mall, is the orange cream shake drink and the chicken wraps. Amazing.(laughs) I like simple food. Now, my favorite meal when I come home is my mother's cooking.
What wouldn't you eat growing up?
Raw tomatoes, cooked mushrooms—the smells alone would make me sick and I would hide in my room—sour cream and English muffins. As an adult, I love those things. As an adult, two things in particular are salmon or lamb.
"I cannot live without chicken fingers.I eat them often. They're kind of my guilty pleasure, even though I don't feel guilty about eating them. I eat crappy, crappy chicken fingers."
What do you do on your days off?
There's never a day where there is nothing. There's always a few hours of work, but I do like to run and clear my head. I also meet and catch up with my friends. We don't really get to sit down and chat like we used to. And, going out to eat.
Is there anyone in West Michigan you'd like to stick it to?
I had a teacher in high school that I told I wanted to be in finance and business, that sort of thing, and he basically told me, not in as many words, that I couldn't do it because I wouldn't be good at it. But now, that threw me in the direction I am in now. I can't really be mad. I will say thank you to him. No grudges though. (Laughs.)
Interview conducted and condensed by Matt Simpson Siegel. Edited by Lindsay Patton-Carson.
Questions for Brian Borbot, founder of Sunday Night Funnies.
How long have you been in comedy?
Since the early '90s. I used to work in sales at W-Light FM. Before it closed, the Comedy Den on Cascade was one of our clients and they let me guest set on Thursday nights.
Did you pursue comedy the entire time?
I picked back up in 2008. I went down to Nashville and was briefly in "Last Comic Standing."
When did Sunday Night Funnies begin?
We had two shows in Douglas in October 2008 and moved to the Riverfront (formerly the Radisson) Hotel in November 2008.
There are not a lot of entertainment options on Sunday.
What was the first show like?
Slow. I think we had seven comics. A lot of friends and family showed up. But I keep charts and I track the growth each year and each year, we see a growth. Now it's nice that we turn away people.
You also started a Wednesday night version at Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel in September. What other kinds of growth have you seen?
We saw a big jump in December 2009. This year, the eve of Christmas Eve and the eve of New Year's Eve, we were full 30 or 40 minutes before the show. Comics now sign up ahead, even though it's an open mic.
How many comics do you have a night?
We have 12 comics do eight-minute sets. At the beginning, we have Sunday Night Funnies Virgins – we sacrifice them first.
You MC Sunday Night Funnies, but do you still tour as a comic?
I just started to get back into it in fall 2010 when I got sick. It turned out to be cancer. I'm now getting back to it. Doing my own shows and MCing are different from being a feature comic, plus, my show is top of the list.
How is your health now?
Good. I've been cancer free for two years in May. It's still a struggle ... The timing was good for LaughFest because I was going through treatments during it and I was involved in a few events. It was therapeutic to get my mind off cancer for an hour. When I was diagnosed, I thought, "If I have cancer, at least I have a good source of material."
What would you like to see for comedy in West Michigan?
I'd like to see more comedy, more of the bigger names like Louis C.K. We need a venue for these types of comics.
How about locally?
More people coming out to my shows and a lot more venues for comedy.
Recently, Tracy Morgan got heat for a homophobic bit, as well as Daniel Tosh for joking about rape. Are there subjects that are off limits to you?
I've never censored anyone's material. I say it's your stage time, but also bear responsibility of how the audience reacts. There's some areas I don't go [in my comedy], but I don't censor anyone.
What goals do you have for Sunday Night Funnies?
I want both shows filled. Other things in mind include a Guinness World Record for most comics in one night. We might approach it in spring or fall when the weather is nice and comics can make the drive. I want to do a documentary of doing that as well. I came up with new ideas for the show, I want to get involved in a festival and possibly ArtPrize.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Lindsay Patton-Carson
You started at The Intersection in 2003 and have your 10-year anniversary coming up. Planning anything special?
No (laughs). Book a show and get people here.
What’s your background? How did you get where you are today?
It’s not a place I ever thought I’d end up. I went to Aquinas College and I was going to be an accountant. I did that for a while and it was extremely boring.
That’s quite the opposite from hanging around with rock stars.
My best friends and housemates at the time were the guys from [local band] Domestic Problems. They basically came to me and asked if I could help. … I was their manager and booking agent. The band toured all over the world, sold 60,000 records, opened up for you-name-it, sold out the [Kalamazoo] State Theatre three times, but could never get a record deal. The guys decided to take a break, so I was out of a job.
Was music an interest of yours growing up?
I can’t play an instrument, I don’t know music theory, but I was always the kid at school who had the biggest record collection.
The music industry is always changing. What’s going on now that affects how you buy talent?
Kids nowadays, they’re jumping bands fast. It used to be they invest in a band – they’d buy the record and the T-shirt – but now everything’s so single-driven. They like it for a while, then they move on to something else. So that’s been a challenge for us, to stay in tune to what’s popular.
The other big challenge you guys have had over the past few years was the bankruptcy filing after a former manager didn't pay federal taxes and allegedly embezzled money from the venue. How have you moved forward since?
All the bankruptcy stuff is now behind us. … It was not an easy thing to deal with. What I had to do as a venue manager and GM was let our customers – agents, managers, LiveNation – know that we’re going to make it, and we’re going to pay our bills and they have to believe it. And unequivocally, except for one vendor, everyone stood with us. … They saw what we were doing is valuable.
The Intersection’s Front Room – now renamed The Stache and defined as its own club – just went through a renovation. How has that improved the quality of the audience’s listening experience?
What we’ve found is a lot of people want to play The Intersection: period. But they won’t fill that back room, so we started with that really small front stage in the corner. … The production really wasn’t that good. We had the space, so we decided to switch that over, make it a bigger stage and better production.
It’s The Intersection’s 40th anniversary. Are you doing anything special to honor it?
You know, everybody asks that question. We didn’t really do much; we gave some tickets away for a couple shows. We had planned on free concerts, but we just couldn’t get them done. There’s no real special plan. For now, it’s like, how do we improve everything?
What are some of those improvements?
Computer systems for our bartenders, a new sound system, new LED lights, three new dressing rooms fully painted, stocked – I mean, they’re really nice. They’re some of the nicest dressing rooms I’ve ever seen.
Who was the most memorable act in 2012?
The Snoop Dogg show. I mean, it’s kind of cliché to say that, but he really did put on an amazing show.
Who was the most difficult act to secure in 2012?
Sleigh Bells was not easy.
That was the show I was most excited for at The Intersection this year. Was it worth the effort?
I think so. It wasn’t extremely profitable, but those are the shows we want to do.
Interview conducted, edited and condensed by Lindsay Patton-Carson. Photo: Joe Boomgaard