Some of the most admirable culinary trailblazers happen to be those you don't read about every day in the press. While some "celebrity chefs" are busy promoting themselves to anybody who will listen, others simply put their heads down and do the hard work of running a business. Success for these people isn't a reality food show, product endorsement or spread in a glossy magazine: It's satisfied customers.
Ricardo Sandoval is one such trailblazer. The serial restaurateur is behind three popular and unique restaurant concepts on opposite ends of town: Fat Cats, Lava Lounge, and Felice Urban Café. And lest you believe that he's simply a figurehead, Sandoval reminds us, "I am the owner, chef and entrepreneur all in one."
Born in Cleveland and raised in Rocky River, Sandoval had his first taste of the hospitality business in a dish room, where he worked as a teen. The bug stuck, and during his sophomore year at Ohio State University, where he was studying mechanical engineering, Sandoval decided to switch gears. He first enrolled in Tri-C's hotel and restaurant management program, then transferred to University of Nevada, Las Vegas to finish up.
"Instead of finishing my degree in Vegas, I opened D'Agnese Italian Restaurant in Broadview Heights," says Sandoval. That was way back in 1989, and he hasn't stopped since.
Michael Symon often gets credit for kick-starting the Tremont culinary revolution – and he deserves every bit of it – but he wasn't alone in doing so. Just months after Lola Bistro opened, Sandoval opened Fat Cats down the road. Fahrenheit wouldn't open for another five years.
"I definitely wanted to be part of the renaissance of Tremont," he explains. "The balance of people in various socioeconomic backgrounds, artists, young professionals, generations of families, proximity to downtown and history: It's the crown-jewel neighborhood of Cleveland."
Along with partner Tim Verhiley, Sandoval purchased a 100-year-old home and set about transforming it into Fat Cats, one of Cleveland's hippest bistros. In addition to being an urban pioneer, Sandoval also was one of Cleveland's earliest farm-to-table proponents.
"We change the menu at least four times a year depending on our farmer's availability," he says. "We also have an herb and heirloom garden behind the restaurant."
Having a case of Tremont Fever, Sandoval purchased another building two years later. Along with partner Jack Anfang, they converted the former Trotters into Lava Lounge. Located on the south end of Tremont, things did not start smoothly for the team.
"This end of Tremont was a little rough," recalls Sandoval. "I basically had to make peace with some local criminals so they wouldn't mug my customers."
While a tad bumpy, he did have a steady stream of business thanks to Lola Bistro and its staff.
"The off-duty Lola Bistro crew basically kept us in business the first few years," he says.
Word soon spread around Tremont that Lava Lounge was the de facto service industry hangout. Its funky vibe, trendy second floor bar, and late-night eats turned it into one of the coolest places in Cleveland. Now, 14 years later, it's still going strong.
That success led Margaret Mueller, an eastside personality, to approach Sandoval about her plans to convert a 1920s home on Larchmere Boulevard into a restaurant. "She was the youngest 84-year-old entrepreneur I have ever met," he says. "Between the space and her passion, I immediately said yes."
Again, things did not start with a bang for Sandoval. Thanks to the dominating presence of an older clientele, there was a clash of operating styles. "We would hear all day: 'Turn the lights up. Turn the music down!'" he explains. "I wanted a place serving Spanish and Mediterranean food in a fun setting. Not a place like your grandmother's house."
Mueller, young at heart, stuck with Sandoval's vision.
"The real change happened when I asked designer/builder Chris Demkow to convert a detached garage into a bar," reports the owner. "When it was finished, words can't explain how busy we became, and the young people followed." A second-floor bar and third-floor lounge that were soon added only cemented Felice's status as one of the hippest eastside spots.
Unlike many of his younger colleagues, Sandoval can still be found working the lines at his eateries. Like some of his most successful contemporaries, he somehow manages to be everywhere at once. That's a good quality to have if and when the next restaurant bug bites Sandoval.
"My line is always in the water for something new, and it will definitely be in Cleveland," he says.