By Jeff Babineau
BELMONT, Mich. – Jessica Ann Tyson hands a plateful of food across the counter inside the new and expansive J. Brewer’s culinary experience at the Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give, and the warm waft of collard greens, black-eyed peas and fried chicken is enough to make any ardent foodie’s knees buckle.
But the cuisine itself is only part of what the 50-year-old bubbly and energetic multi-business entrepreneur is busily serving up. There is a smile with each plate, as well as a zesty dash of genuine love and appreciation for the joy she is able to deliver. The food Tyson prepares for others goes beyond sustenance. It represents comfort, and safety, and perseverance, and so many other things as she gives back to the Grand Rapids community that she has called home for 20-plus years.
Being able to serve others is a special part of her busy life. “I’m blessed,” she said, smiling.
Tyson is the owner of The Candied Yam, a popular Grand Rapids eatery that specializes in southern cuisine and rustic soul food. (A second location is scheduled to open this summer.) At the Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give this week, the restaurant is one of a handful being highlighted inside J. Brewer’s, an upscale experience inside a 20,000 square-foot facility that runs along the fourth fairway. For a $75 daily ticket Friday-Sunday, golf fans at Blythefield Country Club can watch live golf – nine of the top 10 LPGA players in the world rankings are competing – and occasionally check in on the U.S. Open outside Boston on several televisions inside. Oh, and it is all-you-can-eat and free beverages, including craft beers, too.
“This year we introduced J. Brewer’s to bring a more elevated experience to the course,” said Sonny Franks, Corporate Communications Specialist for Meijer, a well-known Midwest retailer with more than 260 stores in six states. “It’s unlike anything on the tour.”
J. Brewer’s – named after the financier who once owned the land where Blythefield Country Club’s course was laid out nearly a century ago – features local minority-owned restaurants and sits on the footprint that once was home to a tournament experience called the Grand Taste. Many of those folks who participated in Grand Taste in years past will maintain an involvement through offerings at concession stands across the course, where no menu item exceeds $4. J. Brewer’s hosted a private event on Tuesday night to kick off the week, with many of the LPGA players in attendance.
“J. Brewer’s features larger portions and premium quality, but we also wanted to highlight as many of our restaurant partners as possible,” Franks said. “So we brought the Grand Taste experience from prior years into concessions so everyone could taste it. We wanted to keep it really accessible. You can get unique offerings like Wasabi Street Tacos, say, for $4, and don’t need a special ticket. The food is really good.”
Tyson views J. Brewer’s a victory for all. People can come out to support great golf – she loves the sport – and also sample some terrific local cuisine, supporting small businesses along the way that have endured challenging times through COVID-19. For the Candied Yam, it’s a great spot to meet new customers.
“There’s more than just small restaurants,” Tyson said. “There’s breweries, there’s cakemakers, just a variety of people that they brought to the table. Not only diverse in the type and size of the businesses, but the colors, LGBTQ+ … we’ve all been brought together. That’s what they (Meijer) do in their stores.”
“I’m working next to other restaurant owners, and they feel exactly the way that I do. We feel blessed. One, we’ve made it through COVID, or on our way outward, hopefully. And we’re able to be in a place with a firm organization that’s been around for many years, and still is doing the things that Mr. Meijer did when he was alive.”
Tyson met Fred Meijer, the retailer’s late founder (he died in 2011), on several occasions. She tells a story that she once was driving to church one Sunday when she saw a gathering in a parking lot at a new Meijer location, so she veered off and “crashed” the private grand opening. She can be mischievous like that.
“He was who he was, he was about the community, and made sure that everybody had something (in the store) that would help to make things better for their family,” Tyson said of Mr. Meijer. “We have to figure out ways that we can support everybody in our community, not just some. This is a welcoming community, and I’m so proud of that.”
Tyson has an interesting resume. She is an elected public official in Grand Rapids and has operated her own public relations business for 18 years. She opened a spa that specializes in salt treatments, and is close to opening a restaurant for dogs that will be called The Beastro. Plus, at least two more potential businesses are swirling in her mind.
She kept Candied Yam open throughout the pandemic, mostly because it allowed her to follow a mission she started when she opened the restaurant five years ago. Being a restauranteur allows her to feed as many people as she wishes to. That’s something near to her giant and generous heart.
In a quieter moment, Tyson describes that she endured a difficult childhood. She and her entrepreneurial twin sister – “She’s my ride or die,” Jessica Ann says – spent their younger days bouncing through foster homes. Jessica Ann said they ate from trash cans when they were little. Luckily, the sisters always stayed together – separated only once – and at the age of 8, found their forever home as a package deal.
The sisters were adopted by a preacher and a teacher in Lansing, the state capital, about an hour from Grand Rapids. Their adoptive parents kept a garden of fresh greens, and tomatoes and carrots, and taught their daughters their love of food, the drive of entrepreneurship, and the compassion to take care of their neighbors.
The charitable mission at this week’s Meijer LPGA Classic is to raise $1.2 million for Simply Give, which feeds families in need across the Midwest. That is a mission that Tyson is happy to join.
“When we were asked to be a part of this, it just resonated so loud with my background and upbringing,” Tyson said. “We’re so glad to be here. It fits with our message: Be humble. Be kind. Love your neighbor.
“Coming through COVID, I see a deeper level of appreciation at the restaurant from people who are realizing that life is short, and life is precious. I may have had a hard childhood, but now I can feed all the people that I want to.”
Every single plate served with love and a smile.