When it comes to mealtime, there is no shortage of options for hungry consumers. There are restaurants, of course, along with food-delivery services, food halls and food trucks. On the other end of the spectrum are grocery stores that sell everything from grab-and-go foods down to the raw ingredients needed to make just about anything. And then there are places like Picnic Hill, which land somewhere between grocery store and restaurant.
Picnic Hill (20621 Fairmount Blvd., 216-795-5660, picnichillmarketcafe.com), which opened in late January at Fairmount Circle in Shaker (and University) Heights, bills itself as a gourmet market, bar and cafe. The spacious 4,000-square-foot property combines the features of a traditional bar and restaurant with those of a retail market selling epicurean food products. For those who prefer not to cook but still would like to eat at home, there is the daily assortment of "take away gourmet," fully prepared meals that require little more than heat to complete.
The market was launched by partners Shawn Brown and Michael Miller, an education lobbyist and OB/GYN, respectively, both of whom traded in a life on the West Coast for a future in sunny Shaker Heights. Brown, who hails from Cleveland Heights, says that the desire to open a gourmet market was a mutual one. And doing so in Cleveland as opposed to California made more financial sense.
"After a while, we both decided that we no longer wanted to do what we were doing," Brown explains. "Part of my old job was running political campaigns, so we did a targeting based on the demographic profile of where we wanted to be. That left us with, like, six areas in and around Cleveland that would fit the market that we wanted."
That niche, not surprisingly, consisted of highly educated, middle to upper-middle income families with an interest in food and the disposable income to support it.
"We wanted families because, if you are like me and Michael were, working all the time, you could come in to grab something to take home for you and your kids," Brown adds.
Throughout the day, a deli counter sells an assortment of prepared foods that range from tuna salad on up to square meals built around a selection of fish, beef and pork dishes paired with veggie, potato and pasta sides. Each category has multiple preparations. A recent "take away gourmet" meal contained maple and Dijon-glazed salmon with prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and twice-baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows. Items are sold by piece or pound depending on the dish.
Items in the case are made fresh daily and Brown says the goal is to keep things moving.
"We try to have a different menu in the case every day, so not only is the food fresh-tasting, but also so it's different everyday so customers don't get bored," he notes.
For those who prefer to leave the cooking — and even the reheating — to others, a roomy bar and dining room offers full-service lunch and happy hour. Beer, wine and cocktails like Death in the Afternoon, devised by Hemingway and starring absinthe, naturally, can be paired with a number of small plates. The kitchen bakes, as opposed to deep-fries, chicken wings and then tosses them in a peppery honey-garlic glaze. Other options include truffle-scented chicken liver mousse or hot crab dip served with baguette slices, steamed mussels and aioli, and a grass-fed beef cheeseburger. Regular menu items are supplemented by a special feature of the evening, like beer-battered cod with duck fat-fried potatoes; "Birds and Bubbles," a feast of fried chicken and champagne; or taco Tuesday.
Given the vast dimensions of the space and the fact that open shelving runs the length of the room, the inventory of gourmet goods looks somewhat spare. That's not to say that there isn't plenty here to like and purchase. Canned, jarred and boxed items cover predictable territory like oils, mustards, pickles, cookies, crackers, chocolate, pasta and wine. Drilling down, there are also cocktail bitters, bloody Mary mixes, spice blends and fancy tinned fish. Coolers are filled with cheeses, dips and spreads, while beverage fridges stock chilled wine, beer and soft drinks.
Next month, Brown and Miller intend to roll out brunch service. When warmer weather drops, the kitchen will offer meal kits that combine all the makings of a backyard barbecue, such as pre-seasoned steaks, salads, sides and a suitable wine pairing. Come summer, the owners envision turning the sidewalk out front into a lively neighborhood market with seasonal produce, grab-and-go sandwiches, vendors selling arts and crafts, and live music.