Kids these days, am I right?
Each new generation typically is denigrated as lazy, entitled and so self-centered they can't see past the front-facing camera on their iPhones. But look around at some of Cleveland's most notable food businesses and you'll see an enterprising collection of young entrepreneurs who not only stepped up to help their parents run the family business, but propelled it forward in ways the previous generation never could or did.
Aladdin's Eatery was doing just fine without Fares Chamoun, he readily admits. While he was off living and working in Boston, his father Fady was busy building his mini-empire of Lebanese eateries. Since launching Aladdin's in 1994, the older Chamoun had grown the business to include dozens of locations in multiple cities and states.
"It's been pretty tough to make a difference in our company, mainly because my dad is a pretty bad-ass restaurant operator," Fares notes. "Mostly, I have been playing catch-up these last 12 years."
But, make a difference he has. Since joining the family business at the urging of his father, Fares has helped to boost the brand into the modern age. The natural place to focus his attentions, says the younger Chamoun, was technology, a topic completely foreign to his father.
"I used to joke that I was the only one in the company who knew how to use a computer," he says. "Point-of-sale systems would go down weekly between the 20 restaurants. After a while, I started to understand what caused the problems and worked to prevent them from reoccurring."
Admittedly behind the curve on this one, Fares soon equipped all Cleveland- and Columbus-based Aladdin's restaurants with the ability to accept online orders via the website. The process is seamlessly integrated with existing point-of-sale systems, making it an easy transition for both customer and management. Embracing social media marketing came next, says Fares, noting that two full-time employees are assigned to the task.
"I know that it's the way we are going to keep ourselves relevant and where we are going to gain better insight into what our customers think and want," Fares explains.
Kate McIntyre launched Kate's Fish at the West Side Market in 2001, but after a solid five- or six-year run, the business was floundering (pun intended). In fact, McIntyre had already made the decision to sell the venture when her son Tom stepped in to put the kibosh on the deal. Like most Market kids, Tom worked on and off at the stand over the years, but he had no intention of making it his career – until he did.
"My mom had built up a nice little business, but she was in trouble," Tom recalls. "I said, 'You're not selling the company; I'm moving home.'"
Since coming back, McIntyre the younger has taken on more and more responsibility, juggling the jobs of principal fish cutter and company manager. One of the first things he began doing was forging new relationships with wholesale suppliers to buy product direct. The practice not only nets fresher fish, it opens up a whole new world of products, a detail not lost on regular Kate's shoppers. Also new has been a push to incorporate more prepared foods like smoked salmon, seafood salads, bouillabaisse and cook-and-eat crab cakes, all of which appeal to younger home cooks.
But his next play will be the biggest yet for Kate's Fish. Tom recently purchased Stand H14 at the West Side Market. Long known as Dani's Seafood, the prized corner space can accommodate a full kitchen, from which McIntyre plans to sell fresh, but casual, seafood dishes like peel-and-eat shrimp, fried clams, lobster rolls, fried fish sandwiches and cooked-to-order lobsters.
"I want to change the way people think about seafood in this town," he explains. "I want to make really good seafood approachable and affordable."
Kiwi Wongpeng grew up in a restaurant family. Within a month of landing in Cleveland, her parents converted a small Chinese restaurant on Madison Avenue into Thai Hut, a typical-for-its-time mom-and-pop ethnic eatery. That business was followed by another eatery called Asian Grille, which enjoyed an eight-year run. After it closed, Kiwi suggested that the family open yet another Thai restaurant, but one that completely bucked convention.
"We were making Thai food for Americans, it's sad to say," Kiwi explains. "I said, 'Why don't we do something different? Why don't we make food like it is in Bangkok?'"
At Kiwi's suggestion, Thai Thai shunned the customary pages-long laminated menu filled with dozens and dozens of trite dishes. Instead, the small Lakewood eatery introduced a laser-focused one-sheeter built around Bangkok-style street foods and Thai restaurant classics. The concise, playful menu grabs a diner's attention with snips like "Try me!" and "Very tasty!" and "Most popular street dish!" Nearly half of the menu is designated as either vegan or vegetarian.
"We keep our options open because we know that 40 percent of our customers are vegetarian or vegan," says Kiwi.
Within a few months, the shop was being inundated by both Asian and non-Asian diners, who were going nuts for authentically cooked and spiced dishes like gai yang, som tum, kra praow and duck noodle soup.
"When Thai people come in a lot, we know that we are doing something good," Kiwi reports.
Which is precisely what happens when you hand the keys over to the next generation and let them do their thing.