Interview with Rust Belt Rising Star Restaurateur Jonathan Sawyer

by Caroline Hachett
December 2016

Caroline Hachett: Tell me about your stadium popups. How is it different from running a brick and mortar?
Jonathon Sawyer
: We have six spots in stadiums. Aramark runs the people at the stadium. We go down with gift cards and throw them comps so we can keep good people around. We don’t carry soda at the restaurants, but in the stadium, we have to. There are weird rules for different places, but it’s not a branding exercise––we actually make money. Business-wise, there’s no financial negative side unless you chose to work too hard. If you’re doing more than quality assurance, you’re a sucker for punishment. It’s a licensing deal. As we get bigger, we’ll sell more stuff. Right now our pasta person makes 500 pounds a week for the restaurant and also makes fritos. 

CH: Do you have any investors? 
JS:
We have one investor in Noodlecat, and one in Greenhouse [Tavern]. Trentina has like seven. We made a decision a while ago to avoid bad people, bad money, and bad landlords. We don’t want the money to be bad.

CH: Tell me about your vinegar program.
JS:
It’s not currently for sale; We are rebranding it. We have stuff that’s been in barrels for six years, hermitage from 2005. We’re making [Michael] Symon's vinegar for his new barbeque place. It mimics cider flavor, but it’s based on ale and lager and aged Chardonnay. We’ll still be producing about 1,000 gallons in barrels, that’s low for us. We’ll get back up to 3,000 in the next month and scale up from there. It’s gotta scale slowly. We could cheat and do what other vinegar makers do and put an oxygen pump or a bunch of sugar in it and speed up the process, but I’m not in a hurry for it to be big. Other companies may come out and do it better than us in their mind’s eye, but I don’t think anybody does what we do or how we do it.

CH: What does the Cleveland restaurant scene look like right now?
JS: 
There’s tons of room to open here. The city can definitely support more restaurants. At the end of the day the owner/operators only have 13% of the restaurants. You’re still putting more cash into the neighborhood. We’re definitely swinging the industry the way we want it to. Chains are scrambling now. The only earnings that are up right now are Taco Bell.

CH: What do you do for your employees that sets you apart?
JS:
They can raise any money inside of our group and go anywhere in the country, through a pig class or a beer class or a potluck. It happens once per quarter. In the past we used to do it where I’d take the chef with me and I would just leave them there, that’s still part of what we’re doing now. There’s a more tangible future for it. I love my employees, but I want the best dish and best sourcing and there’s a lot of life colliding when you travel with someone for events.