Wisdom From the Masters

A celebration of 9 survivors from Cleveland's ever-crowded restaurant scene

>If it's true that you've got to be a little nuts to get into the restaurant business, then the following list surely represents the craziest crew Cleveland has to offer. In their decades of service, these restaurateurs have succeeded in an industry that rewards hard work, unwavering passion, and resilience in the face of great change. We asked them to reflect on their careers and on some of their most memorable moments. Here's what they cooked up.

Zack Bruell

Current restaurants: Chinato, L'Albatros, Table 45, Parallax

Previous restaurants: Z Contemporary Cuisine (1985)

First job in the biz: Dishwasher at University of Colorado cafeteria (at age 20)

Shifting trends: The labor market in Cleveland has improved drastically. When I opened Z, we had to hire people with zero fine-dining experience and train them to do what we wanted. It was naive of me to think that they'd stay with me. I ended up being the training ground for the rest of the city. It's much easier to find talent now.

Technology's influence: Technology has made running the business easier. But we don't embrace technology in the kitchen; cooking is still cooking. My kitchen looks essentially the same as it did when I started cooking. I don't go for that high-tech stuff. Food should be pleasurable; it shouldn't challenge people.

The role of bloggers: Everybody has a right to their opinion, but people who pass themselves off as professional reviewers and don't have the balls to sign their name, that's wrong. Look, we don't have the luxury of a soft opening anymore. From Day One, you have to deliver or you'll have problems. That's why you won't see me away from my restaurants.

Favorite WTF?! moment: After a wine tasting years ago, some diners were having sex in a private dining room. My favorite 18-year-old busboy saw them, freaked out, and asked me what he should do. I told him to "shut up, watch, and enjoy."

Nugget of wisdom: You're only as good as your last meal.

Clyde Mart

Current restaurant: Clyde's

Previous restaurants: Cippi & Mo's, Uptown Mo's, Gaylin's, Vito's Italian Grill

First job in the biz: Owned a meat-processing plant

Shifting trends: Chain restaurants have become prominent in the business. There were no Carrabba's, Bravo, and Brio. I think the reason chains were able to establish a foothold was because the independents didn't do as good a job as they should have. Chains forced independents to do a better job or get out.

Worst night ever: One night our sauté cook was in jail, the head chef was having a bad night, the ladies' room flooded, we were packed, and ticket times were over an hour. It was a nightmare. The key is to stay calm — it's happened before and it'll happen again. I told my managers and servers that nobody leaves unhappy — buy drinks, pick up checks, give gift certificates. If all else fails, tell everybody there's a fire in the kitchen and close the restaurant.

Nugget of wisdom: First and foremost, you need to be a good businessman. If it doesn't work in the office, it doesn't work.

Paul Minnillo

Current restaurant: Baricelli Inn (since 1984)

First job in the biz: Cooking at dad's restaurant, Minnillo's (at age 14)

Shifting trends: Farm-to-table cooking is so important. These products are 100 percent better than what you can get from a commercial purveyor. It's day and night. You have to use the best ingredients you can get your hands on. I don't believe in skimping; I'll get out of the business before I ever do that.

What technology? I'm not doing Facebook! For me to go on OpenTable was a big deal. We get a lot of web reservations through them. If you miss out on that, you miss out on business.

When bloggers play dirty: There are some good people who contribute something to the conversation. But there are also people who pass themselves off as connoisseurs that just trash places. These people can actually affect people's business. Do they know anything about food? Do they even know how to cook? It's scary what somebody with an internet connection can do.

Progress: When Zack [Bruell] and I got into the restaurant business, Cleveland's dining scene was pathetic — I mean the food was not good. Now we are one of the top food cities in the country. We're lucky to have such talented chefs.

Nugget of wisdom: Spending $4,000 per month on linens is crazy.

Ricardo Sandoval

Current restaurants: Fat Cats, Lava Lounge, Felice

Previous restaurants: D'Agnese's, Amici's, Red Tomato, La Cucina, Halite

First job in the biz: Busboy at Molly McGuire's (at age 13)

Shifting trends: It used to be that you had to market your restaurant as either Italian, Moroccan, or American. That trend has been pushed aside. These days you can combine different cuisines in one place. We are no longer hemmed in by labels — it's all about what you're doing on the plate, the quality of ingredients. That is outstanding.

You want to do what? When I opened D'Agnese's in 1989, everybody said to stay out of the restaurant business because it meant long hours and no fun. It's still long hours, but now it's the hottest field going.

Those wonderful bloggers: I think they keep everybody honest. In this business, you have to be on your toes all the time because you never know who's dining in your restaurant. That construction worker may have a huge following. If you feel comfortable with the product and service that you are putting out, you should have nothing to fear.

Nugget of wisdom: Everybody always says, "Location, location, location." But that seems easier to judge in hindsight.

Sergio Abramof

Current restaurants: Sergio's in University Circle, Sarava

Big break: Giovanni's Ristorante

First job in the biz: Better Butlers catering in high school

Shifting trends: The big story over the last few decades is the decline of the fine-dining market, which has been driven more by economic factors than people's changing tastes. We began noticing a difference way back at Giovanni's when changes to the tax code did away with the three-martini lunch. The downside is the lack of choices. In other cities, there are both fine and casual restaurants. The best option is to have many options.

The beauty of bloggers: Like any tool, technology can be a double-edged sword. It used to be that one or two food critics in town had all the power. Now the internet has spread that power around. It's always difficult when you get a disgruntled person who posts something unfairly. But for every one of those we get 50 positive comments that expose us to a much broader audience.

Nugget of wisdom: Be honest and sincere with your guests and staff.

George Schindler

Current restaurants: Rosewood, Delmonico's, Blue Point, Salmon Dave's, Cabin Club

Previous restaurant: By George!

First job in the biz: Washing dishes at Parma Community Hospital cafeteria (at age 15)

Shifting trends: People today are a great deal more in tune to good food than they were 30 years ago. When I got into the business, T.G.I. Friday's was considered hip. There were only a handful of national chain restaurants.

Overcoming the bloggers: There will always be a small percentage of people who are vocal about things that the majority of people don't put much credence in. Look, our business is certainly subject to opinions. And these days opinions come quicker and in more forms than you can keep track of. You have to be thick-skinned and take everything with a grain of salt.

Nugget of wisdom: The concept of what good food is may change over time. But people will always expect and demand good service.

Marlin Kaplan

Current restaurants: Luxe, Roseangel

Previous restaurants: Marlin, Pig Heaven, Lira, One Walnut

First job in the biz: My career path went straight from button-down blue suit to under-sous chef. I didn't even know what under-sous meant. I still don't.

Shifting trends: In the late 1990s there was a movement toward fine dining, to see how sophisticated we could make the dining scene. After 9-11 it was all about comfort foods. Now I think the big story is the return to neighborhoods.

Who needs bloggers? I haven't really embraced the concept of user reviews. I believe people need to come out and judge for themselves. Cleveland diners are independent; just because one person doesn't like something doesn't necessarily mean others won't.

Pearls from swine: My barbecue concept at Pig Heaven was a great idea in the wrong location at the wrong time.

Where this is all headed: We'll see more small, neighborhood places. We're moving away from 200-seat mega-restaurants.

Nugget of wisdom: Good service brings people back.

Randal Johnson

Current restaurant: Molinari's (1991)

Parchment: Culinary Institute of America

First job in the biz: Dishwashing at the Flame (at age 17)

Shifting trends: The definition of white-tablecloth dining has changed. We call ourselves a white-paper-tablecloth bistro. We recognized that we needed to appeal to a broader range of clientele and offer a broader range of price points. So I recently added a pizza oven at a cost of $65,000.

Bloggers never tip: I tend to ignore reviews because I take things too personally. People have their own opinions, and they are entitled to. We concentrate on in-person customer relations.

What was I thinking? I started Chef to Go, a line of packaged, prepared foods that we sold at the restaurant. We couldn't compete with the big boys. The concept crashed and burned after about a year and a half.

Nugget of wisdom: People are more enlightened these days about quality ingredients. We've been doing it all along, and people are finally starting to get it.

Brad Friedlander

Current restaurants: Moxie, Red, Red South Beach

Previous restaurants: Lopez y Gonzales, Boca, Lopez on Lee, Mom's Diner

First job in the biz: Washing dishes at dad's restaurant, Alvie's (at age 13)

Shifting trends: With a lot of diners, it's not how good you are, but what's new. After 10 or 12 years in this business, you're considered old. At Moxie we struggled a bit with what we would do. We recently decided to not be so strict with our definition of regional American. We now offer more and broader choices.

The alfresco thing: People like to eat outside. Moxie built a patio about seven years ago. In Toronto, people dress appropriately and dine outdoors six or seven months out of the year. Here, you get maybe three or four months. As patios become more popular, maybe our season will grow longer.

Nugget of wisdom: There's no secret to this business. It takes a tremendous amount of hard work and passion. We'd rather serve good food than make money.

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Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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