James Beard-Winning Jonathon Sawyer Talks About Cleveland, His Growing Restaurant Empire, and What's Still to Come
One of Cleveland's most prominent chefs, Jonathon Sawyer is creating and building a network that's benefiting the entire city.
When Jonathon Sawyer won the James Beard Best Chef: Great Lakes award in 2015, the roar could be heard from Lake Erie to each end of America’s often-maligned Rust Belt. Fittingly, Sawyer prevailed in a group dominated by chefs with Chicago ties. The Windy City has long stood as the Midwest’s culinary stronghold, however—especially in recent years—the Sixth City has enjoyed an upsurge in national recognition. And throughout that process, it would be difficult to find a figure that carries the city’s flag higher than Sawyer.
The hometown product worked at the famed Biltmore Hotel in Miami before clocking time alongside visionary Charlie Palmer at New York City’s Kitchen 22. Soon after, Sawyer connected with Michael Symon, one of the food industry’s most established chefs, and a Clevelander who’s Lola Bistro is deeply rooted in the city’s history. Symon is also the only other Cleveland chef to win the James Beard: Great Lakes (2009). Sawyer was the chef de cuisine at Symon’s Parea in The Big Apple before heading home in 2007 to open Bar Cento, a part of craft beer trailblazer Sam McNulty’s Ohio City empire. Sawyer also tutored under Symon at Lolita before branching out on his own.
The first result was The Greenhouse Tavern, which was named a Best New Restaurant in America in 2009 by Bon Appétit Magazine. With his wife, Amelia, at his side, Team Sawyer has grown to include Trentina, Noodlecat, and two stadium venues—Sawyer’s Street Frites at First Energy Stadium and Seesaw Pretzels at Quicken Loans Arena. Many of the city’s top chefs and emerging personalities are branches in Sawyer’s rapidly sprouting network, a fact he effortlessly beams about.
Talking about his city, the future, and what to expect during one of the more beguiling Republican National Conventions in modern history (maybe ever), Sawyer took a few moments to speak with FSR associate editor Danny Klein.
How has the landscape of Cleveland changed since you opened The Greenhouse Tavern?
I think when we opened The Greenhouse it was at the height of the most recent economic depression here in America, and building a green restaurant was pretty unheard of. I think, over time, and with a great national speaker for our city like Michael Symon, it was inevitable that the scene caught up with the rest of the country. I think it’s been pretty cool to see where it’s gone over the past 10 years.
Does it feel like the reputation of Team Sawyer has changed since then?
Now, even more so than ever, because we’ve been around so long and we’ve gained this reputation as a great landing point for people that are moving home. Now, we have six, seven, eight, nine different restaurants that have come from our former chefs and sous chefs, and that’s where we’re really starting to get excited—when we see them opening up restaurants in the same city.
I think it’s cool because all of the chefs are financially invested in these restaurants. It’s not like a line cook who took a chef’s job. These are all chefs—we call it graduating, as opposed to leaving, or quitting, or moving on. We’re proud of that fact.
Who were some of your mentors?
I think Mike (Symon) and Charlie Palmer both, they were very giving in their advice. They shared business plans, and documents, whether it’s inventory, food costs, or profit and loss, those were all incorporated into our business plan. I had a little experience opening restaurants at the partnership level before I opened The Greenhouse. I opened Lolita here in Cleveland with Mike and I also opened Bar Cento with Sam McNulty. So I saw a little bit where the scene was, and I saw it grow a little bit in my time of opening Lolita to opening The Greenhouse, and what I noticed was that the people were definitely interested in more dynamic food, and the farmers had always been there.
What kind of responsibility, as a chef, do you have in helping the city’s food scene grow?
It was our job as chef ambassadors of the city of Cleveland to connect the two (farmers and restaurants)—to get the food into our restaurants and then get the people into our restaurants. We’re sort of closing that loophole in our local economy.
What did winning a James Beard award mean to you and your career?
Winning a Beard award was a goal we set. I think when it comes to goals and rewards it’s really easy to bask in the latest one you’ve won, but for us, it’s more of a barometer of what’s the next one to come. As happy as I was with the Beard award, as soon as we won we already had three or four other goals set in mind for our group and for our restaurants. I’m super happy to have achieved that lifelong goal, but I’m also not satisfied.
Did you get a sense that Cleveland was pulling for you?
I think there’s a certain amount of local that extends beyond Cleveland, too. When you’re talking about who Cleveland is going to root for, it’s going to be guys that they know from Cleveland, or guys and girls they know from the Rust Belt. There are restaurants in Indianapolis and Cincinnati and Detroit and Pittsburgh that we’re really pulling for as well. So I’m in the same category as that. There’s commonality in all these old industrial cities that we all share this brothers-in-arms attitude.
Just how green is The Greenhouse Tavern?
First the building itself was built according to green building practices when it started. I think the second thing is that we dedicated a lot of our budget back to the building to continue to improve it and make it more efficient and effective. There’s boring stuff like the light bulbs and the high-efficiency flushers, and heat-sensitive vents. There’s also the composting, recycling, and trash program. And I think the third part of that is the sourcing. All of these things have an effect on our environment and the world, and I think we think about all of them. Are we the best in our city in every single one of them? No way. But we’re 100 percent honest about what we’re getting and where we’re sourcing. And I think that’s more important than any other thing—being honest with your customers.
What’s your take on sourcing in general?
I think each restaurant is a little different in what it sources, Noodlecat, Greenhouse, Trentina, and the stadium venues. Our purchasing pyramid starts local, like-minded, humane certified, organic certified, water-safe certified. Then the tier goes on from there. Local, like-minded without those certifications, local with those certifications in mind, then the last tier would be national with all of those certifications. We try as hard as we can to get as much as we can local. Certain restaurants, like Trentina, in the season, it can be upwards of 90 percent of what’s in the backdoor is local.
Is Cleveland a tough city to achieve this?
Sadly enough, there’s not a distributor that focuses on local here. But we do use a multitude of distributors, farmers, and a couple of pick-ups in order to achieve that.
What’s the beverage program like at The Greenhouse?
The beverage program for us, like the food program, is fairly fluid. The story is a Parisian inspired American restaurant. So, our wines are a lot of Old World; our cocktails have some classic takes, but when it comes to the beer, cocktail, and even wine program, we like to pay attention to trends and get on them pretty quick—and get off them pretty quick. I think you’ll see stuff, like when cider started its rise, we really were the quickest and the earliest to have a complete and international cider list. It’s the same thing with Sherry. We have three different Sherries available by glass. One of them is on draft. Same thing could be said for cocktails. Opening year, we had barrel-aged cocktails. Since then, since the program has become so popular throughout the states, we’ve actually dropped the program and gone to a draft program. I think that’s a good example of us wanting to be first on, first off on a lot of trends.
Family has always been a huge focus for you. How do balance it all?
I’ve always considered myself a father first. I think my style of chefdom is the same as my style as fathering. Whoever needs the most attention is going to get it. So week-to-week, restaurant-to-restaurant, it may or may not be different where I am, but I typically start my days early and end up days early so I can be with my family. I’m out of the house by 7 a.m. and I’ll probably stop at Trentina every morning because it’s right by my house. Whether Greenhouse or Noodlecat or the corporate office or our new unit in Public Square sees the next sort of round of attention depends on the week.
How crowded is your household these days?
Two dogs, two chickens, two guinea pigs, two children (laughs). My son, Catcher, is 10, and my daughter, Louisiana, is 8.
(Note: Jonathon’s dogs are named Potato and Vito and his chickens Bear and Squid).
What’s your day-to-day look like now?
I think my role is to generate new ideas, recipes, inspiration, and then sources. That’s pretty all encompassing. I find something I like, take a picture of it, I send it out to the boys and girls, and then I come back and check on prototyping. Then I taste it and we see what restaurant it’s ready to go on. That’s typically the schedule.
What kind of culture have you fostered at Team Sawyer?
I think our goal has always been, we say, ‘We place ourselves where we can move up.’ That goes for our cooks and our chefs, and our GMs are constantly training the generation that can replace them. Brian Goodman’s role now is corporate chef. He started as sous chef to me. He was really always the chef. He went to executive chef, then chef/partner, and now to corporate chef. And I think that is the model that we like for everybody. Replace yourself and you can move up.
What’s going on for the Republican National Convention?
We booked the Greenhouse early on, but we’re not totally sure if we’re going to be open to the public during. It’s still up for debate. I think the most important thing for us is to put on a good scene for the national spotlight. The layers you have to go through to book are insane. The city is involved, the convention is involved and the party is involved, and we’re involved. There are so many layers to each conversation you have. It’s really hard to tell whom you’re dealing with.
We have control of who’s in our venue. We can say no to any offer. So the thing, for us, more important to us than money, was to get someone who was apolitical.
Twitter is who rented out the Tavern. We just wanted to make sure that it was more about the celebration of the city than it was about us. We could have doubled the money by doing individual parties, but at the end of the day, I didn’t want the stress or the headache. I wanted a good tenant who was viable for the whole week, and that’s what we got.
What’s next for Cleveland?
I think the end of the story for Cleveland hasn’t been written. And we have so much confidence in our city and the next 10 years that we resigned all leases that are in downtown Cleveland for another 20 years. We’re committed to beyond 2037 for downtown Cleveland. It’s an exciting time.