A Turnaround Tale

There is little doubt that Dr. Floyd Loop's heart was in the right place when, in 2002, he took charge of every design feature of Classics, the restaurant that would open June 2003 at Cleveland's new InterContinental Hotel, owned by the Cleveland Clinic and erected at the center of the hospital's burgeoning campus. After all, he knew what he wanted, and damn it all, it was going to be perfect.

Loop was the Clinic's CEO and Classics was to be his baby, his sole and solitary responsibility: a restaurant mirroring what he — and he, alone — supposed a classy restaurant in a classy hotel should be.

Had Loop taken time to assess what was going on in the often unpredictable world of hotel dining — everything from spaces leased to celebrity chefs to splendid restaurants conceived to compete with high-end independents — he might have realized that what he was creating was not unique, but rather a distressing retro replica of concepts given up for dead decades ago.

What Classics became, ultimately, was a testimonial to one person's relentless micromanaging, doomed from the day it opened.

With its two-starred Michelin chef and its five diamonds from AAA, Classics limped along for nearly four years, thanks, in part, to restaurant reviews that gushed ad nauseam. But it never caught on.

In place of what should have been the unalloyed pleasure of dining, it delivered an ambiance so intense, that guests — awed by its pretense and aura of intimidation — tiptoed in, tiptoed out, spoke in hushed tones, kept their elbows off the table and never, ever talked with their mouths full.

Gentlemen were required to wear jackets; waiters wore white gloves.

Esquire's food and travel writer, John Mariani, said the dining room was “staid.” He was being kind.

Classics was a throwback to the hotels of the ‘30s and ‘40s when hotels never had restaurants. They had dining rooms.

From the day it opened until the day it crashed, Classics was little more than a special-occasion restaurant, a dollar-a-minute indulgence; all substance — no style, no energy, no joy. Because there was little of note within walking distance of the hotel, if you were a guest of the hotel staying there for several days wishing for something different, something less extravagant, you had few options: eat at the hotel's grill or the hotel's café (both dishing out conventional fare) or hail a cab to take you to restaurants miles away.

It was time for a change.

INTENSIVE CARE

Mid-2004, one year after Classics opened, the Clinic announced that Dr. Toby Cosgrove would replace Loop as the hospital's CEO. Understandably, Cosgrove had matters far more pressing than the supervision or, for that matter, the transitioning of a restaurant concept. Nonetheless, the InterContinental was owned by the Clinic: the poor performance of Classics soured hotel food and beverage sales and, however marginally, as a P&L line item, the profits of the Clinic. Something had to be done.

In 2006, much to the relief of InterContinental, Cosgrove did something: he closed Classics. No one will say exactly how much money it lost; no one, as a matter of fact, will say how much money was spent on the build-out, although estimates ranged from $7 to $12 million.

The word was out that InterContinental was looking for a restaurant to replace Classics that would be so different and dramatic it would make everyone forget that Classics ever existed. According to the hotel's director of food and beverage, Michael Cooper, “we left everything on the table” and that included leasing the space to a celebrity-chef-styled brand. “Ultimately, we decided it best to focus on local talent — a rising chef, as it were.”

Enter local restaurant phenom Zach Bruell, whose credentials as a restaurateur for 22 years are as long as a French baguette and as impressive as any hotshot chef out there today. Most memorable was the opening 20 years ago of Z in Cleveland in a restaurant designed by architect Bill Blunden. There, unlike many of his Midwest contemporaries content to crank out flaccid versions of meat and potatoes, Bruell produced his interpretations and appreciations of nouvelle and fusion cuisine, honed and perfected while working cheek to jowl with Chef Michael McCarty at Michael's in Santa Monica, CA.

For reasons best known only to Bruell (burnout, perhaps?), he closed Z 10 years later and took a job in Akron working, of all things, as a chef at a meat-and-potatoes place. Friends thought he had lost his mind. If that were true, he must have found it: upon returning to Cleveland in 2004 he opened Parallax in the city's trendy Tremont district.

Parallax is as fine a restaurant as any in the city; and, although Cleveland is not top of mind when one thinks of Midwest culinary meccas, there are many restaurants, Parallax included, that could compete head-to-head with the very best in any city renowned for great food.

“I read in the newspaper that Classics had closed,” says Bruell, “so I called Cosgrove and asked him what he wanted to do and he told me he wanted to replace Classics with a restaurant that made sense to guests and locals alike, that was a restaurant you would go to many times, and I told him I was the only person in the city who could help him do that. He had been to Parallax. He knew my pedigree; he knew where I was coming from.”

Once Cosgrove agreed that Bruell should head up the project, dubbed Table 45 after the best table at Parallax, Bruell met with Campbell Black, the general manager, new to Cleveland from San Francisco's Mark Hopkins, and with f&b chief Cooper, formerly with the InterContinental New Orleans. Bruell already knew he wanted Blunden to design the space: it would be the third restaurant he designed for Bruell or, in this case, for Bruell and InterContinental.

Bruell was an easy choice, according to Black. “We looked at what was happening in the restaurant scene in Cleveland and the one name that kept coming up was that of Zach.”

What Black wanted was a restaurant, open for lunch and dinner, where guests could kick back and have a good old time; not a place where once you entered you wanted to get the hell out as in, “Why am I here; what I am doing here? Let's get this over with as quickly as possible.”

Black knew Bruell would deliver.

“Classics didn't have what a hotel restaurant should have. It didn't have ‘fun.’ It was too dark, too formal, too oppressive,” says Black. “No energy there.”

“Classics appeared to be a restaurant fit for hotel guests only,” says Cooper. “And fit only for a one-time visit.” Keeping in mind that the new restaurant was to be Bruell's first undertaking as a hotel restaurateur, both Cooper and Black felt compelled to remind him, that unlike Parallax where customers chose either to visit or not, at the InterContinental Cleveland there were no choices. Miles away from any other restaurant, the new hotel restaurant had to cater to the needs of the hotel guest and fill similar needs for locals who, on a whim, might choose Table 45 instead of anyother restaurant miles away.

Says Cooper, “That's the sort of flexibility we needed with Table 45. That's the sort of clientele we were hoping to attract.”

FROM FORMAL TO FUN

Hotel guests are a diverse bunch: with requirements so tough to predict that the employees hired to work Table 45 (and, for that matter, anyone else hired to work f&b) had to be prepared to satisfy the disparate demands of hotel guests with an assortment of food and drink from lunch until dinner and, for that matter, until they went to bed.

Diversity and demands of clientele? Those were the recurring issues — vague and imprecise — that cropped up every time Black, Cooper and Bruell got together to talk about Table 45. Never mind the set menu, the fixed décor; if Table 45 were to succeed, its employees, from hostess to bartenders to wait staff needed to be flexible enough to adjust to guests' demands, never mind how nuanced or outrageous they might be. In time, the menu at Table 45 would change, the décor tweaked, but the diversity and demands of guests would remain constant: difficult to pinpoint, tough to anticipate. Table 45 had to learn to adapt. Classics couldn't do that. It could not bend to please a range of guest needs. It was unto itself; and, consequently, inflexible. Take it or leave it.

Table 45 commandeered the space occupied by Classics; also the space that was occupied by the hotel's grill. Architect Bill Blunden turned the whole thing into a welcoming, meandering space divided into five zones for dining, snacking and drinking, accommodating brilliantly the flexibility and flow that Cooper, Black and Bruell demanded: bar and lounge as you entered, restaurant beyond the hostess stand, the chef's table (Table 45), the open kitchen with a counter where guests ate while watching cooks cook.

“It was variety and flexibility that we deliberately incorporated into Table 45,” says Black. “We considered the needs of our guests from the single diner to the group interested in a gastronomic experience.”

The menu, accordingly, is quite a bit larger than one you'd normally expect to find at a freestanding independent: again, the diversity of the clientele and the fact that other restaurants aren't close by dictated theme and variation, size and complexity of the menu.

Bruell calls the menu World Cuisine: French technique, Asian influence, with ingredient touches and recipes evocative of the foods of southern Europe, northern Africa and South America. He prepares everything, he says, “organically, not in the sense of organic ingredients, but everything prepared from scratch.”

He begins with basic ingredients that guests know and understand; that are not strange, unfamiliar.

“I put my spin on those ingredients. I pull cultures together, that work together, that taste good. No foolish combinations here. No far-out dishes that challenge the palates of my guests. My guests aren't looking for that,” he says.

There is no braised coxcomb at Table 45; no sautéed duck webfeet; no vindaloo curried dishes.

“The menu we have here is varied enough that people will return several times: that goes for hotel guests as well as locals. I've stripped the formality totally from the menu.”

According to Black, what Bruell created was a menu and service ethos that appeal to a wide demographic: hotel guest, employees of the Clinic (Bruell says of the 29,000 employees, nearly 8,000 of them can afford to eat here), patients staying at the hotel with their families, and locals looking for something different.

Everyone involved in the transition from Classics to Table 45 considered the challenges and the accompanying risk. Bruell noted that should InterContinental fail to deliver the second time around, there would be no third chance. Stuck with a failure, the alternative would be to invite a well-known brand — either chain or celebrity — to take over the space; and that, says an informed source who asked for anonymity, would have damaging implications for the Clinic and for InterContinental's global image.

“We were very confident we could create a restaurant that people wanted,” says Black. “Classics was honored with AAA's 5-Diamond award. Good for Classics, but I don't believe that's how people today judge a restaurant's excellence.”

Cooper agrees: “We don't want to be awarded, we want to be recognized.”

“Classics didn't capture the essence of what people want when they dine out,” says Black. “It was narrowly focused. It could not distinguish between the guest who wanted to eat well from the guest sophisticated enough to appreciate a great meal prepared meticulously. Classics was a special-occasion restaurant. You went there once and maybe — maybe — you thought about going back. Table 45: you can eat there every day and never become bored.”

Finally, there is this: a hotel general manager we know tells us that “his restaurant is the face of the hotel.” If guests find the quality of the hotel restaurant unparalleled, then it follows, he believes, that every other component — from front desk to in-room amenities and conveniences to valet parking — will be of comparable excellence. Not only will a great restaurant feed business into every other department of food and beverage, primarily that of banquet and catering, but in due course will influence occupancy and provide for the hotel an edge that competitors struggle to match. Will Table 45 do that?

“Our banquet and catering facilities can stand on their own,” says Cooper, “but I have to admit that Table 45 reinforces our f&b capabilities. It enhances the overall reputation of our food and beverage. That's good for Table 45, good for all other f&b outlets including roomservice, good for hotel bookings.”


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