Kevin VanderMeer has been in the culinary business for over 36 years. Today his restaurant business smokes.
When his older brother started cooking at Vitale’s Italian restaurant and pizzeria, VanderMeer thought the job was “really cool.” At 15, he wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps and made his debut at Big Boy, where he rose through the ranks of the cook.
Four years later, VanderMeer arrived at Vitale where his passion for cooking was overflowing.
At 20, VanderMeer started cooking classes at Grand Rapids Community College while also working at Restaurant Pietro’s, where he went from prep cook to sous chef, becoming the chef while helping to open two new Pietro’s locations.
Now 52, VanderMeer owns and operates KJ Catering, a smash hit that has placed him on Grand Rapids magazine’s Best Of Grand Rapids list multiple times.
His love of cooking has enabled him to deliver exceptional cuisine for weddings, family reunions and other events since 2001, all with a simple philosophy.
“If it’s not on the menu and that’s what you want, we’ll do it anyway,” VanderMeer said. “It’s your day. If you want sushi, we’ll make sushi.
“For me our staple is our brisket, that’s what our customers talk about the most. People will want prime rib or tenderloins and then we take them to a tasting and they always choose the brisket.
Chef Kevin VanderMeer
KJ Catering offers a variety of foods with appetizers ranging from beautiful displays of fruit or veg and bruschetta to chicken wings and stuffed mushroom caps.
KJ Catering’s starter menu includes jambalaya, kielbasa, baked chicken, and vegetarian options, though the menu reflects VanderMeer’s obvious love for barbecue.
“For me our staple is our brisket, that’s what our customers talk about the most,” he said. “People will want prime rib or tenderloins and then we take them to a tasting and they always choose the brisket. “
VanderMeer’s interest in barbecue started when he accompanied a friend to several competitions, where he watched and learned until he was ready to try cooking at events like the American Royal World Series. of World Famous Barbecue in Kansas City, Missouri.
“The American Royal is really cool,” VanderMeer said. “It’s like controlled chaos, but everyone is really nice and helping each other.”
VanderMeer’s culinary creations have won him recognition several times. As well as being voted the best Grand Rapids restaurant business for 2020, it also won the Reserve Grand Champion at the Taste of Grand Rapids & Barbecue competition held at John Ball Park.
VanderMeer and his crew also placed 32nd out of 400 participants in the World Series of Barbecue.
“We were happy to be in the top 50,” he said. “Everyone is happy to be in the top 50 at the American Royal.
The barbecue hits the road
With the rise in popularity of barbecue food, catered outdoor events and fierce national competitions, towable smoker trailers are now their own industry.
Available in every imaginable size, the large towable trailers used for catering – and for competition – have become high-tech masterpieces, sometimes using only wood as the fuel needed to get the job done.
Professional smoking trailers use a variety of fuels for cooking, including natural gas, charcoal, wood pellets and more.
Many companies with larger towable smokers are creating designs that are made to ensure the smoky flavor circulates carefully and the meat inside is evenly cooked using battery-powered fans to distribute the heat.
Small trailers often cost $ 2,000 or more, while larger towable trailers, some of which look like steam locomotive engines, sell for between $ 40,000 and $ 50,000.
While they serve the same purpose – feeding hungry guests delicious barbecued meals prepared with all the care and attention of a master craftsman – one thing’s for sure: these aren’t your grandpa’s barbecues!
As his interest in barbecuing grew, he hand-picked vendors of meats and other supplies, and developed his own sauces and seasonings.
“Our barbecue sauce is very unique, no one else in the area has anything like it. It’s kind of a cross between Kansas City and Texas, and it’s all gluten-free, ”VanderMeer said. “So many people have issues with allergies or celiac disease these days, we just want our food to be available for everyone.”
KJ Catering smokers operate on walnut and cherry woods, which creates a unique yet consistent flavor.
“We work with local farmers to find the wood, then let it sit for a year and a year”
said VanderMeer. “This way the hickory burns longer and the cherry flavor really comes out.”
When asked what sets his business apart, VanderMeer replied, “People talk about our service. Friendliness, consistency, knowledge of the event and knowledge of the menu are important. And all of our people agree with that.
He also thinks presentation is very important.
“Our appetizer displays are a bit over the top, but I don’t just want a round carrot and celery display. I want people to come up and say, “Oh my God! “
Asked about the impact of COVID-19 on the business, VanderMeer explained how the business has adapted.
“COVID has impacted our in-person events, but we’ve had the opportunity to change our business plan and recruit a few corporate clients that we serve every day,” VanderMeer said.
“We are committed to serving them until they can get their employees back safely to their campus.”
KJ Catering is based in the old Burt Surplus building in downtown Grand Rapids; his team renovated the space, installing new kitchen equipment, freezers and more.
Asked about the future and any plans for expansion, VanderMeer replied, “We
are definitely looking to grow. One of the reasons we chose this building is to have space
With such a dynamic company, growth must be on the menu.
This story can be found in the May 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To receive more stories like this in your mailbox each month, subscribe here.