At one point in time, Heck's Café was a distinguished local institution with a mother ship in Ohio City and colonies in Woodmere and Rocky River. The restaurant had attained the enviable status of recognized brand, where just the utterance of the name provoked a Pavlovian response that only a two-fisted burger could assuage.
But that was then, as they say.
In the many years since, Heck's drifted from owner to owner, each using the historic business as his own personal piggy bank, all the while diminishing its storied reputation by another few degrees.
If Fadi Daoud has his way, Heck's will again dominate the Cleveland dining landscape. The owner currently is scouting both sides of town for new locations, and any day now, the 40-year-old restaurant housed in a 120-year-old building will undergo its first major expansion. Daoud recently acquired the adjacent home, which will be renovated to accommodate a bar and dining room, which will then be connected via a new entryway to the original structure.
All this is in addition to other behind-the-scenes gambits – his recent acquisition of D'Vine Wine Bar, and the opening of BRGR 9, an upscale burger bar, both in the Warehouse District.
So why now, after owning Heck's for the past eight years, is Daoud making a bold play to expand his presence in Ohio City, Downtown, and beyond?
"I feel comfortable with what's going on in Cleveland," he explains. "Downtown is not what it was even five years ago. Ohio City is not what it was five years ago. There is a lot going on—and it's just getting started. Whatever they've been talking about for 20 years is happening now—happening at once. It's a good thing."
Growing up in Syria, Daoud's father was the Minister of Tourism, which turned every holiday into a family expedition. Travel still is his favorite pastime, a chance to explore the latest culinary trends and concepts in cities near and far. Though he graduated from pharmacy school, he never did anything with the degree.
"I got involved in the restaurant business, and you know how it is—it sucks you in," he notes. "Developing concepts and ideas is attractive to me."
Though he has made a handful of incremental changes at Heck's since taking ownership, few are readily apparent. He's improved the beer and wine list, but without a proper bar, a progressive cocktail program is out of the question. Heck's burgers – the eatery's stock in trade since inception –actually have never been better thanks to a new local, grass-fed, custom blend patty from Blue Ribbon. But don't expect Heck's to one day become a fashionable Ohio City bistro.
"We sometimes get criticized by young people, who are expecting something a little bit different," Daoud says after much reflection. "But we get caught up with trendiness; we think something is good because somebody said it's good. Food is so subjective; what's good for you might not be good for me."
Daoud faces the age-old dilemma that comes with owning a landmark restaurant. The trick is to change with the times without alienating the legion of fans who have been dining there (albeit less frequently) for ages. As one of the oldest restaurants in the city, Heck's has a very deep well of good will, and the last thing an operator wants to do is alienate the base.
"Heck's is a going ship; you have to be very gentle with what you do," says Daoud. "We don't want people to walk into Heck's tomorrow and see something completely different. We want to take three or four steps to get there."
The first and most critical step took over a year to achieve. The owner says that he went through four chefs in about a year to land at Ryan Kaston. It's not that there exists in Cleveland a lack of talent; it's that chefs either are too lazy or too eager to assimilate at Heck's.
"Everyone wants to prove themselves, change everything too fast," he explains. "You have to understand who we are and who our customers are. We have to do what's right for this place. That's not to say that we can't do a lot better."
Given the speed at which Ohio City has transformed itself into an eating and drinking Xanadu, Heck's can look as if it's standing still. But increased competition has never concerned Daoud. Not only is Heck's surviving, business is growing for the first time in ages.
"If you're not good, you're not good," he says. "It doesn't matter where you are."