There are endless motivations which drive individuals to take on the extraordinary task of realizing a restaurant from a concept to an operating brick and mortar business. The concept phase is one that almost anyone who has cooked for a living has toyed with. Creating imaginary transcendental meals in the mind with a devoted staff, talented kitchen and endless capital is a pleasurable activity while prepping cases of button mushrooms. Yet the reality of creating, opening and operating a restaurant from the concept phase to the launch phase is both a cerebral as well as emotional undertaking that a small percentage of dreamers has successfully achieved. The “It’s a Process” series will look at the the realities of opening a restaurant, successfully maintaining a restaurant and what makes it necessary sometimes to call it quits and shutter your restaurant.
It seems simple and straightforward. Work extremely hard. Observe and learn as much as you can. Cook at the best establishments under the best chefs and hoard as much knowledge and experience as possible. Next, find the perfect space and open your own place. Stay modest. Listen to and know your customers. Cook exceptional food, provide amazing service. Be driven, be devoted, be successful.
It seems obvious and it makes sense that this is the path, the perfect combination needed to open and successfully maintain a restaurant. It very well may be all a restauranteur can control in the tempest that is the restaurant business, famous for it’s remarkable rate of failure. It is, however, rare that many first time restaurant owner-chefs have this cumulative experience. For Jenny Cleveland, this blueprint for success was her reality. That reality culminated into the final product, her thriving restaurant, Cleveland – Heath.
Like many who enter into the culinary field, Cleveland was introduced into the world of professional kitchens via the dish pit when she was a teenager. Having been raised by a mom who was a baker and a father who hunted wild game and picked fruit with her on her grandfather’s farm, she had a connection to food from an early age. After years of working both back and front of the house at various restaurants through high school and college, she moved with her partner and boyfriend, Eric Heath, to Napa Valley. Together they attended the California branch of the Culinary Institute of America. “When I got to the CIA in Napa it was all work all the time because it is so expensive to live in that area and I had to pay rent as well as go to school.” During her first year at school, Cleveland staged at Thomas Keller’s acclaimed restaurant, Ad Hoc. She chose to fulfill her five month externship requirement at Ad Hoc and then stayed on and continued to work there as a cook.
The intense level of work during those years was to become an inherent part of her. “If I was scheduled at three I came in at noon because I wanted to see everything, learn everything I could. When you work at a place like Ad Hoc, everyday you strive to work better that day than the day before. And you’re surrounded by people you can learn so much from. Just simply by watching their technique – what does their cutting board look like versus your cutting board.”
Ad Hoc’s Chef de Cuisine, Dave Cruz, was active in instructing the cooks, giving guidance and acting as a mentor. “Chef was a great teacher but he also let you mess up and come really close to failure so you would learn. He could’ve just stepped in and took your station over when you were going down, but he didn’t. He was into pushing you just a little bit further than you felt capable or comfortable with. I think that healthy dose of anxiety forces you to do more and learn things that you never would have otherwise.”
When the front of the house manager tried to lure Jenny away from the kitchen to be a server she talked it over with Cruz. She wanted to gain more front of the house experience but her Chef helped her gain some insight. “Chef said ‘I understand if you are interested in working front of the house but if you’re going to make a move I would want to see you move up to something that will challenge you rather than make a lateral move.’ He suggested I should try French Laundry. I ended up going down there and working for almost two years. I wouldn’t have left Ad Hoc for anyplace that wasn’t extraordinary. I mean, I would’ve washed toilets at French Laundry just to get in there.”
It was at this time that she and Eric Heath started to seriously consider opening their own place. “We didn’t have something really specific in mind, we just knew that we wanted to do this. We looked at spots, we wrote up menus. We were trying to decide if we wanted to go back to where Ed was from or to where I was from or stay in Napa. We kept up on what was going on back in St. Louis and we saw that Fond in Edwardsville had closed. We flew down and looked at the space. When we returned to California, we talked to some of our mentors about it. A part of me didn’t know if I was ready to do what we were talking about, but at the same time I was like, if we don’t do it now are we ever going to do it? Either we do it now or we’re just gonna keep talking about it. We got back to California and put in our notice at French Laundry and a month later we were in Edwardsville.”
After that, the process of opening their restaurant happened at an industry unheard of lightning speed. “We didn’t have a lot of time to dream about the place, we were just trying to open it. We signed the lease and four weeks later we opened the restaurant.” Although Jenny and Eric did not have much time for pontificating and discussing the philosophy of their restaurant and any thematic elements of the menu, they already had rooted beliefs of what a restaurant should be. “We wanted to appeal to everyone. If your grandpa is in your group and he will only eat a steak, you can still come here and we’ll make him the best steak he’s ever had. Every decision you make has to have the guest’s best interest in mind. We kept our ears open, listened to what people wanted, what they liked about certain restaurants and what they didn’t like about other restaurants. We had people giving us advice and we trusted them and we took it all into consideration.”
And even though diners would have likely been willing to embrace unfamiliar cuisine made by chefs with Eric and Jenny’s accomplished history, they maintained a modest and pragmatic approach. “People don’t need a lesson with their meal. You’re lucky if they care enough to learn about what their eating but you can’t be in the mindset that you’re there to teach them something. You have to be really in tune with people. You can go into a restaurant that has great food but they don’t understand their clientele and it flops. It has to be a whole package. People don’t go out to eat for sustenance. It’s about the joy of sharing a meal and having an enjoyable time.”
The restaurant opened with much anticipation and a considerable amount of early press. “I don’t even know how anybody found out before we opened what we were doing and who we were, but we started getting calls and press before we opened. The restaurant had it’s own momentum – all the pieces just fell into place.” Cleveland – Heath as the restaurant was to be named just days before the restaurant opened, enjoyed immediate robust business. “We were so so lucky with our clientele. Just like in St. Louis, Edwardsville was ready for new restaurants and anticipating openings. Edwardsville is a community very supportive of small business. We’ve had the best support you could imagine.”
Their time spent actualizing rather than conceptualizing their restaurant made contemplating over their decisions or other daily minutae impossible. “I think people tend to think that if something doesn’t work out then its going to be the end of the world. We planned up to the point of opening our place and trying to keep it open. We didn’t have the time to dream up many plans in our head because it got busy and stayed busy and now, over four years later, we’re just keeping up with it.”