Dear Grand Rapidians: Have you taken a stroll down Bridge Street lately? Not only are springtime-loving crowds beginning to form outside all of your regular favorites, like New Holland Brewing and Butcher’s Union, but a fresh, new group of local businesses are starting to open up or renovate during this warming season.
One such eatery is Nonla Burger, the fourth location of Kalamazoo-born burger joint co-owned by lifelong friends Kyle Monk and Johnny Nguyen. The latter’s longstanding career in fine dining, as well as the pair and their significant others coming from a variety of artistic and creative backgrounds, have seemingly earmarked the business for success, with their retro-style diner setting and experimental flavor combinations hitting the mark for foodies and families alike.
“I hope everyone at least gives us a shot, just comes in and experiences Nonla Burger,” Monk said. “We are bringing something unique and fun to the community, and we care a lot about what we do.”
Approaching the sixth anniversary of Nonla Burger in Kalamazoo, Monk has had a lot to reflect upon during these first few months in the Grand Rapids location’s opening. What might have seemed like an impossible dream nearly a decade ago has quickly emerged into a burgeoning “chain” of restaurants, though Monk wouldn’t necessarily call it that. To him, the identity of Nonla Burger starts and ends with its employees, the customers they serve, and their ever-changing specialty menu of burgers and sandos.
“At the end of the day, we’re a pretty small team,” Monk said. “We are very hands-on bosses and involved in the company. We’re present and not distant. So, I think our team sees us in the kitchen or in the front-house working alongside them, and that means a lot, too.”
So then, how did Nonla Burger begin? There’s a little, old brick building in Mattawan on Front Street that housed a pizzeria called Bella Mia. Well, that closed down, and so Johnny Nguyen and his wife, Kelly, stepped in and took the place over, transforming it into a beloved spot called Nonla Vietnamese. Though Kelly hails from Michigan, the move from San Francisco to the Midwest certainly took Kyle and his wife, Natashia, by surprise. The four had been doing quite well in the bay area and southern California working their various careers, ranging from celebrity photography to clothing design. And yet, Nonla Vietnamese was a hit.
“I was impressed, it was doing well and had a good following,” Monk said. “At that time, Johnny said, ‘I’m ready to open up another restaurant, do you want to do this?’ And I was like, yeah, absolutely. Let’s do it.”
From there a second location opened, then a third—both in Kalamazoo. Carrying over the Nonla name seemed to bring good luck, since its preexistent following meant a boost in sales with each new storefront. Eventually, the shop that started it all would transition into the group’s third Nonla Burger, reuniting old fans with its new ones. And before long, Johnny and Kyle were ready to expand northward to GR.
“We saw this spot and felt like we could fit in here,” Monk said. “We’ve been seeing a lot of growth in the westside community, so it seemed like a good time to be here.”
Since opening, Grand Rapids’ Nonla Burger has surprised us with incredible fusions of fan-favorite recipes. It seems they’ve got a twist on everything, from waffles, to churros, to milkshakes and more.
“If you browse our Instagram feed, there’s soft-shell sandwiches, Banh-Mi hotdogs, spaghetti and meatbealls,” Monk said. “I don’t think Johnny’s ever going to get tired of coming up with ideas for food.”
Indeed, eaters with an adventurous appetite will never be at a loss of what to try next with Nonla Burger. However, there is one tried-and-true way to upgrade your burger or sando that’s been with Monk and Nguyen since their very first opening. Evocative of “secret menu” items from restaurants out West, try saying this during your next visit:
“We have what we call, ‘Nonla Way,’ which is adding cilantro, cucumbers, and jalapeños to burgers,” Monk said. “That gives it that extra freshness and crunch.”
And with a new patio space connecting them to their neighbor Condado Tacos opening this summer, it’s safe to say that the Nonla Burger team in Grand Rapids will be receiving plenty of orders for refreshing milkshakes and root beer floats (non-alcoholic or spiked). And with the hotter months soon ahead, it seems that this new business’ opening couldn’t have come at a better time.
So, are you walking down Bridge Street? Perhaps it’s time to try something new.
“Thankfully, we have a lot of support from Kalamazoo,” Monk said. “There is support here in Grand Rapids, but I think it’ll take a little more time to spread the word. Let people come in and have that great experience, then they share it with friends. It grows from there.”
449 Bridge St NW Suite 102, Grand Rapids
2103 S. Burdick St., Kalamazoo
1700 S. Drake Rd., Kalamazoo
24050 Front St., Mattawan