Gaia House Cafe was a Grand Rapids institution for decades, long before vegetarian restaurants were topping Yelp pages, long before Yelp. After it was shuttered, the longtime manager set out to reopen it in a new location and give the legendary eatery a second life.
When a space was finally secured to reopen, local designer and the new owner’s longtime friend, Sarah Sherman Samuel, stepped in to give Gaia a home fit for its passionate following as well as vegetarian food’s newfound clout in American cuisine.
We talked to Sarah about her process approaching this build-out that literally hits close to home.
Can you tell me about Gaia? Is there a story behind the restaurant you'd like to share?
Gaia House Cafe was the first vegetarian restaurant in Grand Rapids Michigan that had been around since the 80’s and had a cult following. Six years ago the owner closed its doors and my friend Andrea Bumstead who was the manager at the time set out on her mission to re-open under her ownership. It took time as the previous location was no longer available but five years later she found a building and a new home for Gaia. The new building had already been gutted and needed a full build-out before it could become the cafe and she brought me on board for design.
I’ve known Andrea since kindergarten and we were inseparable in grade school. It was so fun to be able to collaborate on something with her.
Brick Shown: Columbia Plateau
Here's the bar pre-brick:
How did you get involved in this project? Have you designed commercial spaces before?
Yes, Andrea brought me on shortly after I designed my first hotel which included a restaurant and I’ve done quite a few office spaces as well.
Is your process for designing for a commercial space different than a residential one?
I think my process ends up changing with every project based on where inspiration strikes but there are certain considerations that are different for a commercial space. The need for durable materials and function of the space is, of course, different for a commercial space but the thing I loved about this project is that it is the Gaia House Cafe and part of it is made to feel like you are lounging in someone’s home.
How involved were your clients in the process?
Andrea the owner was 100% involved. The majority of the budget went to the full buildout so when it came to decor and finishing touches we ended up doing a lot ourselves. She even tiled the bar herself!
What sort of aesthetic were you going for?
Andrea told me she wanted it to feel like walking into someone’s home and comfortable like your grandma's. But if your grandma was really cool. It’s a vegetarian restaurant so a lot of the decor was nature-inspired.
Let's talk about the brick-tiled bar! What was the point of inspiration here?
We knew we wanted the bar to be a showpiece as it is the very first thing you see as you walk in and at 20’ long it is a huge focal point of the cafe.
On one side is the juice bar (which is painted a dark green) and the other side is the restaurant/dining area (which has an ivory/white stripe treatment on the walls) but the bar straddles the two uniting the two spaces so we needed whatever went on the bar to flow with both spaces.
The Columbia plateau brick was the perfect warm color that matched both and brought the color of the exposed beams overhead down. The previous location was on an old brick road so this was also a nod to that.