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Multiply and Survive 

Big frogs take the plunge into a small pool.

Chef Michael Longo has become the area's latest independent restaurateur to diversify his holdings. The owner of Firefly and the newly opened Cowboy Food & Drink in Bainbridge will be heading up a third restaurant in Mentor this spring and has tentative plans for a fourth spot to follow, in Macedonia.

Like fellow restaurateurs Brad Friedlander and Jonathan Bennett (Moxie, Mom's Diner, and the new Red), and Sergio Abramof (Sergio's on University Circle and the yet-to-be-named spot coming to Shaker Square), Longo figures that being a regional "big frog" is the key to success, even as Northeast Ohio's pool of potential customers gets siphoned off by the encroachment of national chains.

"It's just time for me to create a pond of my own," Longo says. "I'm almost 40, and I've been cooking for 18 years. If I ever want to be more than just comfortable, this is the time to move forward."

Abramof, president of Cleveland Originals, which promotes area indie restaurants, opens his second spot this spring. He never thought of expansion as a way to combat the chains, he says, but agrees that diversification -- in both location and concept -- is good business in what he calls "our challenging economic climate" -- which is the understatement of the year.

"If you have good operators, with a good business plan in place and a lot of talent behind them, [expansion] makes a lot of sense," he says. "And let's face it. As we mature, the challenges change, and simply creating great food isn't enough -- especially if you've had success in one spot and see that you have more to offer than a single location or concept can provide."

Longo puts it more succinctly. "The glamour of being a chef is long, long gone," he laughs. "I still love putting out great, creative food, but after 18 years in the kitchen, I'm ready to move into the business end and leave the labor to someone else."

Drinkin' and thinkin' . . . If there is anyone left out there who can't toss around phrases like "well-structured" and "fruit forward" to describe what's in their Riedel, the folks at Lockkeepers (8001 Rockside Road, Valley View) are providing another chance to learn the nuances of the grape, in a series of Friday-night wine-tastings beginning January 14. Not only will the casual fetes improve your viniferous vocabulary; they'll also give you a chance to hang out with Lockkeepers' sommelier, Chris Oppewall, and take a peek at the private Sommelier Room and the restaurant's award-winning wine cellar. Check out the schedule at www.lockkeepers.com.

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