As Cleveland's food scene explodes, more chefs are getting burned

Hot in the Kitchen 

As Cleveland's food scene explodes, more chefs are getting burned

Page 3 of 4

"You have to find a partner or an investor who believes in you. People are willing to throw money at talent," explains Randy Kelly, partner in ABC Tavern, XYZ, and the soon-to-open Viaduct Lounge. "It's the same here as it is anywhere; there is no bank that will lend you the money. This is one of the highest failure-rate businesses there is."

Kelly and his wife-partner, Linda Syrek, were fortunate to team up a couple years back with Alan Glazen, a deep-pocketed fan of their work. After their first joint venture, ABC in Ohio City, took off, Glazen was eager to replicate the formula in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. Their method of taking over modest, long-neglected places in blooming markets and spiffing them up is paying off. When Viaduct opens this fall in the former Ponte Vecchio space, the team will be operating three restaurants within two miles of one another.

In an industry as notorious for high turnover as it is for failure, finding and keeping talent is always a priority. Employed chefs eager to make a name for themselves routinely jump ship for offers to "retool" existing places or take a flyer on an as-yet-unopened restaurant. To counter that, owners have few weapons at their disposal.

"A long time ago we realized we can't pull all of this stuff off ourselves — we gotta have good help," says Kelly. "And the only way you're going to get 'em and keep 'em is to take care of 'em."

Kelly says that he pays his line cooks $13 an hour instead of the customary $9 or $10. That works out to approximately $40,000 a year, comparable to the salary of a respectably paid chef elsewhere. Longtime employees, like manager Dave Hridel, are rewarded with profit sharing and equity positions.

"We've had almost zero turnover since we opened ABC," in late 2009, Kelly reports.

Any chef who is planning — or hoping — to open her own place must first ask a key question: Are there even enough customers to support my dream? In a city like Cleveland, where the headlines serve up variations on the theme of population loss, that query holds particular import.

One successful chef has been asking himself that question year after year. And the answer every time has been a resounding "So far, so good!"

When Zack Bruell unveils Cowell & Hubbard this fall in PlayhouseSquare, it will be his fifth restaurant, all of which are located within Cleveland city limits. All told, when that restaurant opens its doors, Bruell will oversee 600-plus seats and roughly 250 employees. More than any other operator in town, Bruell wonders just how many diners his and other restaurateurs' places can support.

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