SKY Gourmand: The Cooker is Back and a Trip Down Fast Casual Memory Lane
Posted by cmh gourmand on May 8, 2012
To begin, we must go to the past. Flashback to the golden age of fast casual dining in Columbus the 1980′s and early 1990′s. The Cooker stood out among an array of “bling filled” choices, many of them locally based including Max & Erma’s, Damon’s, The 55 Group, Salvi’s, etc., as Columbus was transitioning from Fast Food Capital of the World to the Fast Casual Capital. The Cooker Bar and Grille launched in 1984, was incorporated in 1986, started to sell stock in 1989 and at the peak employed nearly 3000 people in several states. I knew several people who started out as bussers and found themselves as corporate trainers in less than two years with the company. Although founded in Nashville the company had a strong Columbus following and connection. As was the case of many restaurants started or based in Columbus area during the time period, the Cooker expanded too quickly without firming up assets and died a slow, painful death in a market clogged with Applebees and Chili’s. The last Columbus Cooker, on Lane Ave., near The Varsity Club shuttered and padlocked the doors in 2004. One interesting statistic from the era of the Cooker, the focus on service: “Cooker’s policy was to offer a money-back, satisfaction guarantee, or to give away free meals if customers were dissatisfied. In 1992, Cooker gave away $750,000 in free meals to back up the guarantee and justified that expense as a positive advertising strategy. The restaurant began as a made from scratch restaurant and was based in Columbus for a long time. Ask anyone in town that remembers this era and one word speeds out of their mouths: biscuits. Cheddar filled biscuits to be exact, these were revolutionary in their time, decadent, buttery and served on the table (with refills) with each meal. Come for the biscuits, stay for the rest. Others that remember the early, early days of chain, before it had too many links fondly recall the Pot Roast.
Flash forward to last summer. I received this e-mail.
Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Steven Schuster and I was a multi-unit manager for the Cooker Bar & Grille in the 90’s. Like many, guests and crew members, I was shocked and amazed when Cooker went to sleep in 2004.
Over the years, many people shared their love of the Cooker brand with me. So much so that in 2007, another former multi-unit manager and I bought the brand name and recipes with plans to re-ignite the brand.
We did just that last November. The Cooker Bar & Grille reopened in Sandusky, Ohio. How we got here is in the story below. Our final website goes live this month. Until then, we do have a temporary web-site up with menu and pictures available for your perusal at http://www.cookerbarandgrille.com
In addition, you can see the energy for the brand first hand on Facebook and Twitter.
With all the great attractions in our area: Cedar Point, Kalahari, the Lake Erie Islands, we would love for you to come here, enjoy the great Cooker food that you know and love, then spend some time enjoying everything our area has to offer. We would be pleased to send you certificates for complimentary food. (Also, if you are interested, our friends at the Lake Erie Shores and Islands Welcome Center can arrange complimentary accommodations for your visit.) If you feel the free food would compromise the integrity of your article, I completely understand but would still love for you to experience the southern inspired recipes, great service, and chic ambience that made the Cooker famous. Please ask for me when you are in. I can fill you in on more details for your story and I would enjoy meeting you.
The Cooker was back? In Sandusky? Hmm.
Restaurant industry, pay attention and read the above again. I turn down almost every offer, inducement, etc., that I am contacted to write about. I make a few exceptions. In this case, to see the Cooker make a comeback had me intrigued, especially with the strong connection to Columbus. Second, this is a well written letter….not “To whom it may concern” or “Dear CMH Gourmand”, they took some time to review my site, find my name and laid out all kinds of helpful information for me. That my friends shows good research and some effort.
In exchange, I have to apologize. I make my journey to the Cooker last November and I am just writing about it now. My rationalization was that since it is now just the beginning of the Lake Erie migration season, it is much more topical to post this now that back in December. While, that is true, the reality is I overextended myself, my notes were buried and I procrastinated. I historically beat deadlines. I did not have a drop dead date for this post but my “worst possible case scenario” at the time was “I should have this out in January.” Fail, I missed that by a long shot.
To to Steven Schuster I say, thank you for the opportunity, your hospitality and for your patience. Finally, here is the update on The Cooker 2.0.
Clarification: Sandusky does have an airport and the designation code for it is SKY.
Honestly, I briefly debated if I wanted to go all the way to Sandusky for the Cooker. After a short bit of contemplation, I was sure I wanted to go, even if it meant going up and back in the same day. The Cooker really is a part of Columbus culinary history. From a nostalgic viewpoint you can never go home again” but if those cheddar biscuits and my favorite broccoli cheddar casserole were back on the menu, I was going. I checked the menu and…check! I found plenty of other things to do while in the area to make the trip a sure hit.
The Cooker is buried in a long, long row of what seems like every national and regional restaurant chain along one single road on the path to Cedar Point and Lake Erie. I literally started to make a list of the chains and stopped when I hit forty….even through there were many more. The Cooker definitely has done well to survive among all of the competition.
The (new) Cooker has much of the character of the original with some relics of the old days interspersed among the new decor. So cutting to the chase Columbus. Yes, The Cooker still serves the biscuits and they are still good, but a bit smaller than I recall from my formative years. The menu still has a focus on Southern Fare with comfort food influences. Some updates have been added such as a veggie burger option, a broad beer and cocktail list and plenty of sandwiches. An item I do not recall from the past, but I enjoyed a lot were the freshly made potato chips. These were thick, chewy and crunchy at the same time. Definitely more than an afterthought and a must try on the menu.
The Broccoli Cheese Casserole is still listed among the sides and pretty close to what I recalled from the days of glory – plenty of cheese with some occasional broccoli tossed in. I had forgotten the Cooker offers the option to get four side dishes as a meal. I saw that is still a selection on the current Cooker menu. In my day, was the choice I usually went with. Thank you for pulling that one out of the bullpen Cooker Bar and Grille.
The current Cooker location is kid friendly but with a few sports bar aspects to it however it retains a good amount of the feel and focus on service just as the original. The only miscue was the pot roast. It was passable but weak in the two aspects I look for the most: a lot of au ju juices and plenty of cut up, thick vegetables. There were some carrots mixed among the meat but not the large chunks of tubers and root vegetables I enjoy. I think we may have gotten the top or the bottom of the pot on ours because I did spy a heartier version at another table.
A new addition I that strongly support is the addition to Toft’s Ice Cream throughout the dessert menu. This is a great regional Ohio ice cream and Toft’s shows The Cooker’s support of sourcing local with this product on their menu.
Even though I snuck into the Cooker on the down low, Steve figured out who I was from my note taking and photos on the fly. He checked in with me, answered all of my questions and made me feel at home. Observing the flow of customers before he joined me, I saw him checking in with every customer on site. While The Cooker has name recognition and a history, Steve is clearly treating the Cooker 2.0 as a start-up restaurant and a relaunch of the best of the brand. He recognizes that good service is the key to repeat business in the sea of restaurants that surround him and a necessity to survive and thrive when Cedar Point is closed for the season.
The Cooker is worth a visit for nostalgia sake alone. It is also a decent restaurant on its own merit and among the better choices in the area, especially for family dining. See below for details.
Cooker Bar & Grille
4318 Milan Road