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Friday, February 7, 2020

At Jonathon Sawyer's Greenhouse Tavern, Staff Says It Kept an Acclaimed Restaurant Afloat While the Celebrity Chef Went AWOL

Posted By on Fri, Feb 7, 2020 at 3:14 PM

EDSEL LITTLE/FLICKRCC
  • Edsel Little/FlickrCC

“I’ve been trying to put my resignation in to Sawyer for the last week, but was not able to get ahold of him,” Ryan Boone, a current employee of the Greenhouse Tavern, told Scene Thursday. “And then he came in yesterday and said we were closing, so there’s really no point in officially resigning.”

Boone, who worked his way up from back waiter to executive sous chef over the course of three and a half years, was frustrated at the lack of support he and his colleagues had been receiving for some time.

He also saw the writing on the wall, as did most of his colleagues, that the restaurant was running on fumes.

But the situation became unacceptable in recent weeks as the financial situation grew even more dire. Boone, and others I spoke to, were motivated to come forward in an effort to separate their actions from those of ownership.



“At the end, what frustrated me the most – and why I wanted to reach out to Scene – is I saw a lot of these comments about Metal dinner tickets and cooking class tickets…,” he explains. “It seemed to me that we knew where we were headed when we chose to sell those tickets and that wasn’t the most ethical business practice, and it kind of put a bad taste in my mouth because I had friends buying tickets for these classes that I didn’t think we would be open for.”

In the wake of the stunning news that Greenhouse Tavern would be closing its doors after a successful 11-year run, emotions are riding high. Sadness, disappointment and loss felt by Cleveland diners are, perhaps, the most visible reactions to the news. But those feelings likely pale in comparison to the ones currently being felt by the dedicated employees who managed to keep this boat afloat despite some very turbulent seas.

These are not disgruntled staffers with an axe to grind, but rather loyal chefs and servers and managers who were proud of the work they were doing and simply wanted to keep doing it. But they were thwarted at every turn by an absent leader, inconsistent operations policies, mismanagement of financial resources, and lack of investment into staff, equipment and even food supplies.

“It’s not that I want to slander Chef or beat his name into the ground, but I think, also, it’s kind of frustrating to see,” Boone adds. “I’ve been there three and a half years and watched less investment come back in until basically it’s whittled down to nothing.”

Boone says that during his tenure he watched as the number of chefs in the kitchen diminished from six chefs to four to three. Another chef reports that only two out of three ovens work, with the door to the third one drilled shut to prevent it from falling over and injuring more people.

“We’re trying to sustain a kitchen staff by paying chef de cuisines and people like that $28,000 to $32,000 a year and they want raises and they want to be looked at and they want to be trained and working under this Jedi Master,” adds another longtime employee who wishes to remain anonymous.

Those accounts contrast the presentation of the celebrity chef in the media, including in past Scene coverage. And those accounts of a restaurant struggling financially contrast sharply with the owners’ social media postings depicting new motorcycles, cars, trucks, houses, and frequent family vacations, say miffed employees. That's all well and good, but not when the restaurant is suffering, employees felt as they watched it all unfold on social media while looking at an operation badly in need of basic investment.

“He is consistently putting his needs above the needs of the restaurant,” Boone says.

Sawyer, when reached for comment, responded, “For now we are going to try to respect the team at GHT & my family’s privacy," adding that employees are understandably upset, but claiming they do not have the whole story. "They are allowed to be mad and vent. And tell whatever version of the truth they believe. But I guarantee it is not even close to the truth or whole story."

Financial difficulties, reported in this recent Cleveland.com article, reveal substantial personal and professional debt, which Sawyer now cites as the main reason for the closure. The shutterings of Trentina and Noodlecat certainly contributed to those financial woes, but on its own, say workers, Greenhouse Tavern was more than viable.

“As much as there were a lot of frustrations with the Greenhouse Tavern and the management system within it, or above it, I should say, it printed money in the summer,” reports Boone. “It was an absolute madhouse from April until October. As long as you chose to be responsible with those summer earnings, there was no reason you shouldn’t be able to make it through the January, February slow season.”

As for the rent, the employee who wishes to remain anonymous stated that it was largely a fixed, predictable and manageable expense.

“Yeah, the overhead came into play, but the overhead was what it was for many years,” he says. “$20,000 to rent a space as big as the Greenhouse on that street – it’s been that much for a long time. We were very good at sustaining that for a long time, but after the banks said, ‘We’re taking our money back,’ there was no money to operate.”

Desperate times called for desperate measures, such as selling buy-one, get-one gift cards, tickets to cooking classes that likely would never happen, and even liquidating bar inventory to meet payroll. (Some purchasers of cooking classes report receiving refunds.)

What upsets employees the most, they say, is simply the lack of attention, leadership and, frankly, participation by Sawyer in the kitchen. He was, after all, the reason most of these people applied for the job to begin with. To work under a James Beard Award-winning chef not only is resume gold, but also an opportunity to learn and grow professionally, to acquire skills that will serve one well in future positions.

Like the now-familiar chefs who preceded him, Dennis Veverka applied for a job at Greenhouse Tavern because he wanted to learn. He rattled off the names of chefs like Matt Danko, Brian Goodman, Vinnie Cimino, Jack Moore, Dave Kocab, Brett Sawyer and Matt Spinner, all of whom made their way through the proving ground that is the Greenhouse kitchen. If he could acquire even a fraction of their combined wisdom, Veverka would be happy.

“Big hitters come through here because you do learn, you learn a lot,” says Veverka, the current chef de cuisine. “But I had to teach myself what I wanted to learn because there was nobody teaching me anymore because Chef wasn’t around. I still wanted to learn like the other chefs did, it just took me a little longer.”

Boone and others felt the same way.

“[He came in] almost never, unfortunately, which is disappointing because we all looked up to him as a sort of cornerstone of the Cleveland food community,” Boone says. “It was amazing when he was in the kitchen in 2015 and before winning James Beard awards, but not in the last five years. Sometimes, I think Cleveland thinks the guy is in the basement crying chicken wings and he’s not.”

In the end, the employees who reached out felt personally slighted, made to serve as scapegoats – whether intentionally or inadvertently – for failings that rest with others. For years, the team showed up and put in the work despite insufficient support and resources – and continued to make great food and offer great service in spite of it. All they wanted, when the house of cards did finally tumble, was for the blame to land where it belonged.

“It’s easy to say that you’re not going to renew your lease,” said an employee. “It’s hard to say that we’ve made some serious errors and learned from our ways and hope to be better and do better and actually follow through with those actions. I don’t want them pointing fingers at their employees and management staffs and things like that. I would like to see them take some responsibility.”

For now, Sawyer still is affiliated with Sawyer’s at Van Aken and SeeSaw in Columbus, restaurants that are owned and operated by Forward Hospitality.

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