One thing that Brandon Santiago does is cart around small pieces of finished lumber and leave them places, like small tokens or like a special bonus tip when he's leaving a restaurant. Sometimes he just gives them to people. Today, when he comes to meet Scene at Working Class Brewery in West Park, he's carrying a small piece of purpleheart finished with an eco-friendly mono coat.
But that's just one thing, because Santiago is a busy man.
Santiago started Cleveland Hardwood Restoration six years ago after a few jobs and several years of training under a bona fide flooring master. "I studied him," Santiago says, "and really studied to be better than him. I'm the type of person who ... whatever I put my hands on, whether it's making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or sanding a floor, I want to do the best."
He got his start by working in a vegan kitchen in Westlake. This goes all the way back to his childhood, helping his uncle tear down walls and build the place. When he hit 20 or so, his first child came along, and Santiago started thinking about where his life would take him. Naturally, he quit the job.
The guy who owned the building offered Santiago some work just two days later. The gig involved floors, and Santiago dug in. "The floor was being sanded from the most disgusting state — and one rip from the machine and the wood looked brand new. My first, lasting memory was just walking into this house and seeing this and being like, 'Holy shit. This is really cool.' I fell in love with the craft from Day 1."
With that last sentence, Santiago nods to the cover of Hardwood Floors magazine's 2017 Resource Book. There he is, on the cover of the industry's most important publication. That very same quote adorns a photo of Santiago in his workman's denim. It was the first time the magazine had ever featured a person on its cover.
In just a short amount of time, Santiago's Cleveland-based spirit and DIY attitude has given him some level of celebrity in the hardwood restoration world. His Instagram account, @clevelandwoodbee, boasts more than 13,000 followers. Through his photos, he showcases that very same feeling that first inspired his love of the craft years ago. This is another thing that Santiago does.
During our conversation, a brewer stops by and shows Santiago that he's still carrying the small piece of wood that he was given a few weeks back. This would be the ripple effect of Santiago's presence.
Originally, the mission was small and simple. But demand for Santiago's work has grown fast, and he's picked up a few employees and trained them himself — just like his own path not too long ago. With that, Santiago's been able to define how he wants to run a company: good pay for a job well done with eco-friendly, socially conscious materials. (Cleveland Hardwood Restoration uses Rubio Monocoat natural oil finish, which sets him apart from the chemical-laden competition. "Let the wood be the wood," Santiago says.)
Before the magazine, and the company, and his family, though, Santiago very nearly missed out on his life altogether. A few days after his Lakewood High School graduation, he was pitching in a game at Clark Field in the West Denison Baseball League. He was hit hard with a baseball, blinding him completely in his right eye.
"I've been told it could have killed me: the amount of damage that it did to my eye itself," he says. "To think that that could have been it, right there, makes me kind of feel like I only have one shot at this life. So let's start a hardwood floor business, let's hire some guys, let's buy a van. Let's just ride the wave, because who the eff knows?"
In so many ways, Santiago has carved his dream out of that ethos of hard work. It's the classic Cleveland story, and he's excited about the road ahead.
"The next floor will come," he says. "I'm a big believer in Cleveland." — Eric Sandy