When Happy Dog announced in late 2013 that it would be taking possession of the old Euclid Tavern in University Circle, you could practically hear the cheers from ecstatic eastsiders. No longer would fans of gratuitously topped hot dogs need to travel clear across town to get their fix.
Happy Dog isn't the only westside restaurant to recently plant a flag east of the Cuyahoga. Crop soon followed, hoping to build upon its undeniable success in Ohio City by opening a spinoff concept, Crop Kitchen, in the Uptown development. Just down the block, Bac Nguyen unveiled a sort of "best of" version of his popular Tremont-based Bac Asian Bistro, repackaging that eatery into the faster, more nimble Ninja City.
It's not just University Circle that is on the receiving end of these so-called industry seconds. Since launching its Tremont-based taco concept in 2012, Barrio has expanded into Lakewood and downtown. Barrio's downtown neighbor, Red Steakhouse, made a westward expansion from Beachwood, home to the original. Jack Flaps, the quirky pancake-and-waffle joint in Ohio City, will soon fire up the griddles at a second spot inside the 5th Street Arcades downtown. In spring or summer, Luxe owner Melissa Cole will try to duplicate the success of her Detroit Shoreway "kitchen and lounge" at a new location in Collinwood.
All of the above activity begs the question: In a city like Cleveland that prides — nay, defines — itself on the uniqueness and charm of its great old neighborhoods, don't those neighborhoods lose some of that appeal when they all begin to look identical?
Almost 20 years ago, Michael Symon helped launch a neighborhood revival with the opening of his pioneering Lola Bistro. But to sample ground-breaking dishes like corn crepes filled with BBQ duck confit or slash-and-burn grouper with corn fritters, a diner had to drag his or her ass to Tremont — at a time when it was neither easy nor altogether safe to do so. It is in fact restaurants like Lola — and Fat Cats, and Mojo, and Kosta's, and Hi & Dry, and Grumpy's, and Fahrenheit — that deserve much of the credit for reshaping the entire neighborhood.
The trend of duplicating and dispersing "a good thing" really picked up steam in 2010, when Matt Fish sling-shotted his lightning-in-a-bottle grilled cheese concept Melt Bar & Grilled from Lakewood to Cleveland Heights. Nine years, seven locations and 400 employees later, Melt has become synonymous with "Cleveland dining." That's both a blessing and a curse for Fish, who admits to occasionally pining for the good old days, when it was just him, his spatula and his cozy Lakewood pub. But restaurant expansion is a force all its own these days, and rare is the operator who can resist its pull.
"The plan was never to turn Melt into what it is today. It was all organic," says Fish. "One of the main reasons I chose to expand was because I was worried someone else could take a look at my success and try and duplicate it. The more stores I opened in Cleveland, the more people would associate grilled cheese sandwiches with Melt. If anybody else would have come in, they would have been seen as an obvious copycat."
Fish also suggests that in the restaurant industry, growth equals clout. "I think when the typical diner sees a brand expand, it gives that brand more legitimacy," he says. "Like 'Look at Bac; now he's got two spots, he must be good.' I think the majority of the population believes the more spaces you have, the better you are."
As with Melt, Barrio has veered into the fast lane of expansion, jumping from one small location to three — with more on the way — in just a few years' time. Partner Sean Fairbairn credits his company's success to the timeworn maxim KISS: Keep it simple, stupid.
"It's all about doing one thing and doing it right," Fairbairn says. "We do tacos. That's all we do, and we want to do it right. And that's why I think these other growing restaurants are doing so well: because they focus on what they do best and that's what is making them successful enough to open new locations."
As for the notion of cannibalizing one's own business by opening up another shop just a few miles away, Fairbairn says that has not proven to be the case. In fact, he suggests the opposite is true.
"Not only did Tremont not take a hit when Lakewood opened, I think it made our brand more popular," he says. "It comes down to how many residents are living in the area. People who live in Tremont go to Barrio in Tremont. People who live in Lakewood go to Barrio in Lakewood. Gateway will do well with residents, but also with visitors coming downtown."
Like Zack Bruell, who will open his eighth unique concept within city limits this summer, Steve Schimoler doesn't see much value in replicating an existing concept — at least, not within the same region.
"We will not replicate any concepts unless it's in an entirely different market like Columbus or Pittsburgh," he says, noting that his forthcoming Flats eateries will be novel concepts. "You are definitely diluting your brand equity a little when you duplicate something. You are making it more convenient for people, maybe, but you are not necessarily going to gain business."
What's more, he argues, growing too quickly will only damage the reputation that a chef-owner has worked so hard to cultivate.
"It takes time to develop a core foundational team that can be deployed," he says, adding that Crop was seven years old before he made his next big move. "If you don't have that structure around you to support that growth, you can't ensure the level of quality that made you successful in the first place."
Ironically, asserts Schimoler, the very same forces that inundated Cleveland with formulaic chains like Cheesecake Factory, California Pizza Kitchen, Bravo and Brio are the ones that currently are seeding the earth with Melts, B Spots and Winking Lizards.
"The landscape for restaurant growth is changing," Schimoler states. "It's now in the hands of real estate developers like Ratner, Geis, Wolstein. These guys don't want Cheesecake Factorys anymore. They don't want Brio and Bravo anymore. They want the cachet of an independent capable of expansion — or they look outside the market for a big name."
Therein lies the delicate balance that folks like Brian Friedman deal with on a consistent basis. As executive director of Northeast Shores Development Corp., Friedman is working feverishly to plug the food gaps that exist in and around his Collinwood neighborhood.
"That's the grand challenge when it comes to development," he states. "When it comes to any non-chain restaurants, the question is, 'Do they have the capacity to open and maintain quality?' With restaurants doing their second or third or fourth location, there's another location that we can point to as a success. Restaurant startups are scary and risky to a developer."
Doesn't it bother Friedman that, when all is said and done, his beloved Collinwood might look no different — at least in terms of restaurant offerings — than, say, University Circle?
"It's not nearly as appealing as somebody with a proven track record coming in with a new concept," he admits. "But look, we are an underfed neighborhood. We literally are hungry. I'd be foolish not to consider that person."
If there's an argument to be made that cookie-cutter restaurants — indie or chain — dilute the unique appeal of the neighborhoods they call home, Barrio owner Sean Fairbairn is here to argue that unique or not, restaurants are there to serve the community.
"Barrio means neighborhood, and what we try to do is complete the neighborhood," he explains. "We try to keep people from leaving the neighborhood to go to other places. We want to keep the residents of Tremont in Tremont, the people of Lakewood in Lakewood."
I respectfully disagree. Restaurants — especially these days — are economic drivers. They exist not only to feed their neighbors, but also to attract visitors to that particular neck of the woods. If Barry from Baltimore can scarf down Barrio tacos downtown, you can bet that he's not going to hoof it over to Lakewood. If Katie from Cleveland Heights can satisfy her craving for Bac's bahn mi sandwich at Ninja City in University Circle, she sure as shit isn't rattling her way down Carnegie to get to Tremont. If two years after opening Lola in Tremont, Symon decided to open a second one in Slavic Village, who knows what both of those neighborhoods might look like today?
But he didn't. Symon and his wife and partner Liz waited almost 10 years to open Lola downtown, despite a zillion offers along the way to capitalize on his status as Cleveland's best chef.
Me, I don't at all mind driving to Shaker Square to experience Fire, or Coventry to enjoy Tommy's, or Lakewood to eat at Deagan's, or Ohio City to dine at Black Pig. Those restaurants not only exist in those neighborhoods, they define those neighborhoods; and without them they would be something else entirely.