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Soccer fans rally, storytellers gather at SpeakEZ Lounge

Eric Albertson combines his love for soccer and storytelling by catering to fans at his restaurant bar SpeakEZ Lounge on Monroe Avenue.

/Courtesy of SpeakEZ Lounge


600 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids, MI
Open Seven Days a Week, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Eric "EZ" Albertson

Eric "EZ" Albertson /Eric Tank

Eric "EZ" Albertson spent three summers cooking on Mackinac Island and winters as a line cook in Mount Pleasant to work his way through college. After graduating from Central Michigan University with a degree in economics, he moved back to Grand Rapids where he took a job with the previous Grand Rapids Brewing Company on 28th Street. Albertson quickly moved up the management chain. Still feeling unfulfilled, he left to take a new position with Michigan Leasing & Financial Services. The next 11 years were spent in commercial financing, mainly assisting restaurants.

Albertson's own entrepreneurial impulses continued to tug at him. When the chance to own and operate the former Cambridge House became available, he didn't want to miss the opportunity. He purchased Cambridge House in December of 2011, and by February of the next year he was open for business.

Fast forward 22 months.

The name of his place, SpeakEZ Lounge, is both a play on his nickname and his idea to have a retro-themed atmosphere. The nickname EZ was first bestowed upon him on Mackinac Island and has stuck with him ever since. It made sense to Albertson to name his modern day speak easy to include the nickname. The lounge's aesthetic is a warm toned, dark color scheme with soft lamp lights aglow. A north facing window allows daylight in where a pool table sits. A private room, called the Sinatra Room, seats 10-12 people. It is used for anything from business meetings to bachelorette parties to high school reunions. There is no charge for the room, and a simple call ahead of time can be made to place a reservation.

An avid international and US soccer fan, Albertson wanted to cater to other Grand Rapids area fans. He by no means sees SpeakEZ as a sports bar and has no intention on going in that direction. However, his passion for soccer has led him to reach out to regional fans by providing an officially sanctioned place to celebrate their favorite teams. In fact, SpeakEZ is the official home pub for the Grand Rapids' chapter of the American Outlaws, a US soccer club. SpeakEZ is also the official Arsenal pub, the banner under which the Grand Rapids Gunners soccer team is organized. Arsenal Football Club first organized in London in 1886.

Normally SpeakEZ opens its doors at 11 a.m. But for the soccer fans, they will open as early as 7:30 a.m. 

"Every Thursday I message on the GR Fans Of World Football page what time they want us to open. All it takes is one person to say 'I want to watch the Newcastle match at 7:30 am on Saturday' and then I open up early (in some cases 7:30 on Saturdays and Sundays) for that one fan," says Albertson. "Now if it is an Arsenal match we may have 15-20 people in at 7:30 to watch. Soon we will open up at 10 a.m. always on Saturday and Sundays. But there will still be many times we open even earlier."

The unique thing about SpeakEZ Lounge is that it doesn't court just one particular soccer club. In England, for example, each club has its own pub where they gather to watch the game. At SpeakEZ all different club supporters show up in the same venue. It creates a unique camaraderie, says Albertson, where the common thread is the love of the sport.

"Here everyone comes in and we get along and we can do some good ribbing. This is the place to come because you are talking to fans who are very educated and have followed it all their lives," says Albertson.

"To use an American football analogy, I have a Packer sitting next to a Bear sitting next to a Lion. And the common enemy here isn't the Packer, the Bear or the Lion. It's the American fan who says, 'Oh soccer sucks. We hate soccer'," says Albertson.

Not a soccer fan? Albertson has designed other regular events, like his monthly storytelling event, Martini Moth.

The storytelling hour is modeled after The Moth Radio Hour, which airs on NPR. The events dubbed Martini Moth are themed and announced a month in advance on the SpeakEZ Facebook page. Anyone can then go up that night to tell a personal story based on that theme. 

Albertson has done improv theatre and stage acting in the past, and his enthusiasm for the stage shows when describing the story nights at SpeakEZ.

Getting up on stage and telling a story can be intimidating for lots of people. In Grand Rapids people are slowly learning the method, compared to Ann Arbor, says Albertson.

"The storytellers their have been just doing it longer. The storytellers get it better. Here too many people don't know about it yet so too many people are fumbling around," he says.

That doesn't stop Alberston though. In fact, it appears to encourage him. He often will coach people on how to tell a story. He'll go through even basic stuff, like beginning, middle and end. He'll coach people on how to use humor, but sparingly.

Albertson says people are really picking up on the event and telling their own stories.

"What we're seeing happening slowly over time is that repeat storytellers here are learning that that can come in and tell some poignant stories and that you still want to inject a little humor. You don't want to be a complete downer," says Albertson.

Most themes that Albertson designs allow for some humor. But this isn't stand-up comedy. And the event is beginning to attract the more courageous.

"Very quickly we're becoming more and more like these places where people aren't afraid to tell a story that has some potentially hard or dark or poignant moments. And that for me has been quietly one of the really cool things," says Albertson.




















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