"I didn't see my dream job, so I had to invent it," smiles Bridget McGinty, the owner and chef behind the popular Tastebuds restaurant (1400 East 30th St., 216-344-1770, tastebudsrestaurant.com) in Cleveland's St. Clair-Superior neighborhood.
Born to a large working-class Irish Catholic family in Lakewood, McGinty was raised on a diet of meat, potatoes and Wonder Bread. After graduating from Erieview Catholic, McGinty knew that college was not in the cards. "It was not an option for me, so I decided to join the Army." Unfortunately, the Army's strict height and weight requirements became a hurdle and McGinty was rejected three times.
That final rejection hit McGinty hard. Walking out of the Federal Building downtown one day, the 18-year-old stumbled into the newly built Galleria Mall to find work. "I found the courage and walked into the Ninth Street Grill," explains McGinty. "They hired me as a busser on the spot and changed my life forever."
The Ninth Street Grill was the start of many notable stints where McGinty was fortunate enough to work alongside some future culinary rock stars. "I worked eight years at Ninth Street, from bussing tables and serving to bartending," says McGinty. "I was also lucky to watch chef Karen Small and John Minnillo [Paul's brother] in action. They ignited my culinary curiosity and sparked my entrepreneurial spirit."
When Ninth Street Grill closed, McGinty was back to the job search. The front-of-the-house vet landed at Johnny's Downtown, where she was a server, but she was drawn to the kitchen. "One day I was hanging out in the kitchen and a chef slid me a taste of lobster-thyme risotto," she recalls. "When I tasted it I began to cry. I had never tasted anything so absolutely divine."
The chef grabbed McGinty by the shoulders and said, "You're on the wrong side of the kitchen; you're one of us!" The next day executive chef Vid Lutz suggested to her that she enroll in the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. Six weeks later, McGinty was enrolled and living in Pittsburgh.
At age 27, McGinty worked an internship at Baricelli Inn, where chef and owner Paul Minnillo taught her even more. "Paul taught me how to truly season food," she says.
While cooking was her passion, McGinty knew she needed money to fulfill her real dream of restaurant ownership. She accepted a server position at Blue Point Grille, where service comes before pretty much everything. "Blue Point taught me to do whatever it takes for the customer, plus I got to watch then-executive chef Rocco Whalen," she says.
A one-year stint at Blue Point allowed her to set aside some cash—and it also helped her refine her concept: lunch only. "Most of the restaurants I worked for would make money at lunch and lose money at dinner, or vice versa," she notes. "One meal, one shift eliminates that problem. So my concept was going to be lunch only."
McGinty's unconventional approach drew her to a risky section of Cleveland, where vacant warehouses seemingly outnumbered people. On her 30th birthday, McGinty opened Tastebuds on East 30th Street. That was a dozen years ago, qualifying as a feat in every meaning of the word.
Daily, guests pack the place, sliding through the cafeteria-style line to load up their trays with "roasted, toasted and grilled salad," Greek pasta, grilled meatloaf and barbecue chicken. Long a farm-to-table disciple, McGinty plans her menu around local vendors like the Chefs Garden and Cleveland Crop.
The interior is Boho chic, with exposed brick and colorful artwork. A large party room allows local businesses to host meetings and events.
With her business running on all cylinders, McGinty was able to focus on her personal life. She recently married, and she and her husband Abaz are expecting their first child. Her plans don't stop there: She hopes to one day pen her memoir, and a new food truck is in the works.
When asked about her approach to life and career, she points to the phrase on her staff's shirt. "Live like there's no tomorrow, eat like there might be."