At the age of 19, and with nothing resembling an advanced degree, Eric Rogers was employed as a file clerk by University Hospitals. His work ethic, confidence and optimistic personality helped him scale the corporate ladder all the way to finance manager.
"I've always been a hard worker," he says. "Anything I do, I do with full force. That's how I was raised."
Much of what Rogers needed to know, he learned in his grandparents' East Cleveland restaurant, where he began working at the age of 8. He started off small, cleaning greens, snapping beans, peeling potatoes. But by the age of 13, he was the restaurant's head cook.
"Customers started coming in and saying, 'I want the little guy to cook my food,'" Rogers recounts. "That's when I started taking it more seriously."
Even during the Desk Job years, Rogers never fully put away the apron. His backyard barbecues drew crowds, his guests shifting from family and friends to paying customers. At 33, he made the decision to walk away from his corporate gig and follow his heart.
While his wife was unconditionally supportive, Rogers' parents thought he was crazy. But all those years poring over the hospital ledgers provided him with a degree of financial aptitude that many fledgling entrepreneurs lack.
"I didn't just jump off a building: I planned," he explains. "I created a business plan, did market analysis, looked for a void in the community ... I took a professional approach, and at the end of the day, I knew I couldn't fail if I had a great product."
First came Nevaeh Cuisine, a Creole- and Cajun-style eatery in South Euclid, which he quickly traded in for a "great little corner spot" in Cleveland Heights. Rogers took his soul/Cajun leanings and reshaped them into a "fast-gourmet" sandwich concept called Black Box Fix.
"I knew this area would appreciate what I do," he says. "I was creating food that this side of the city had never seen before. After that it was like, boom, everything blew up."
You could call Black Box the restaurant that OMG Phillys built. That immensely popular hoagie consists of sauteed chicken, peppers and onions capped with plump seasoned shrimp, and thousands were selling each week.
When a larger space opened nearby, Rogers eagerly expanded into a full-service restaurant called the Fix Bistro. In his old spot, he partnered with a baker to open Sweet Fix, a neighborhood bakery. This summer, Fawaky Fix, a partnership with the owner of Fawaky Burst Juice, will open on the same road. Soon after, Soul Fix, a healthy soul food carry-out, will open down the road.
But the move that Rogers seems most pleased about is the chance to take the Black Box Fix concept to Legacy Village.
"They called us, and that was something that made us very proud, being one of the first black-owned businesses to go in Legacy Village," Rogers says. "It's a whole different market, and we have to prove ourselves, but I think it's a model that crosses cultural borders."
Does Rogers ever pine for the relatively tranquil days working the desk?
"I love what I do, and the fact that my wife is now doing it with me definitely helps," he reports. "I wake up every day and do what I love, so I never feel like I'm working. You can't beat that in life." — Douglas Trattner