The story of Long Road Distillers begins with Kyle VanStrien’s love of Grand Rapids’ west side, a community he got to know during his junior and senior years at Calvin, while interning at The Other Way Ministries. The internship also became his first job post-Calvin. “Working downtown and then living there for several years helped me gain a better understanding of what it’s like to live in an urban setting. And I fell in love with it.” 

Since 2015, VanStrien ’07 and business partner Jon O’Connor have run the only distillery in the city of Grand Rapids, boasting an impressive list of award- winning, hand-crafted spirits and three tasting and dining locations, the first of which they opened in the heart of the west side. 

A native of Kalamazoo, Michigan, VanStrien, whose parents attended Calvin, expected the university to feel familiar and comfortable. Yet he was surprised by how his classes and professors challenged him to see the world from new perspectives. A business and political science major, VanStrien says a January interim trip to Uganda ignited a passion for community development. “When I came back, I was kind of disenchanted with the idea of a business degree and wanted to fine tune what I was studying. Bonnie Speyers in the career development office helped me realize I needed something that I really believed in.” 

That’s how VanStrien found his way to The Other Way Ministries and Grand Rapids’ west side. Today, Van Strien, his wife Jennifer, and their two children call the west side home. 

Over the years, to generate enthusiasm for the area, VanStrien and a group of friends planned and hosted community events— everything from a winter festival in historic Richmond Park to Live West, a month-long challenge for residents to frequent and support local businesses. After earning a master’s degree in public administration, VanStrien worked for Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, a city-adjacent organization that preserves and maintains city green spaces. 

VanStrien says starting Long Road Distillers felt like a natural segue from ministry and urban development—a means of putting down deeper roots in the community he’d grown to love. He met his business partner Jon O’Connor, a real estate appraiser and broker, while serving on the board of the West Grand Neighborhood Organization. For years, he and O’Connor talked about what kind of business they’d like to contribute to the west side’s revitalization. 

Though the friends knew nothing about the art of distilling spirits, they shared a common interest in visiting distilleries in Traverse City and Kentucky with their wives. “There had never been a legal distillery in the city. So we thought there’d be an opportunity there. We figured if anyone’s going to do it, it’s going to be us. And let’s do it in the neighborhood we love.” After 18 months of learning the business, they opened their first location on Leonard Street. 

VanStrien says the greatest challenge of developing Long Road Distillers into a thriving business has been creating a niche for their products in a historic and well- established industry. “We’ve had to carve out small spaces for ourselves to compete and get a foothold with consumers, being really creative with small batches. We’ve tried some styles of spirits that most people hadn’t considered or heard of before, like aquavit, which is what we’d call gin’s Scandinavian cousin.” Aquavit is now one of Long Road’s signature spirits and has won prestigious national and international industry awards. 

VanStrien takes pride in sourcing local ingredients to craft his products. “Our Michigan is an all-Michigan-ingredient gin where we either forage for our ingredients or source them from local farmers. We handpick juniper on Beaver Island. It’s a really cool experience for our staff and for us to create something from scratch that is pretty unique and really delicious.” 

VanStrien sees Long Road Distillers as a place to daily live out his faith. He and O’Connor chose their distillery’s name based on their mutual commitment to “take no short cuts.” From the distilling process to best business practices to continuing to give back to the community he loves, VanStrien has taken the long road to build a thriving business in a revitalized corner of his adopted city.