CLEWeek – A Maker and a Shaker: Sam McNulty
Posted by cmh gourmand on June 14, 2013
I meet so many people who have a passion for something but lack the focus or sense to make it work. Many have a passion for food but not a lick of business sense. And as many people are so focused on every cent they create a soulless business that can’t keep a customer. It is a rare spirit that can blend the two – a focus on fun, a directed passion but just enough common sense and structure to make the dream a reality and to keep the whole thing fresh, financially afloat and sustainable. I truly believe that a business that connect with their community stands a much better shot at sustainability than one launched by someone with a riveting business plan and a MBA to boot.
The heart of Ohio City is West 25th Street. The soul is definitely West Side Market but epicenter of growth and vibrancy has been fueled by alcohol, passion and good food on West 25th. Bier Markt was an early entry (2005) on what is now a brewery district by any other name. Ask any passerby to name a favorite spot on the street and they are likely to mention one of more of the following: Market Garden Brewery, Bar Cento, Speakeasy or Nano Brew. What do all of these spots have in common other than good libations, good food and distinctive style? The answer Sam McNulty. The key to the success of his enterprises – there are several and he would have all on a cool key ring no doubt.
I had the opportunity to tour all of these locations with McNulty back in October of 2012. I have done many meet and greets with restaurant and bar owners. Most are short, somewhat forced and canned and usually not so memorable. Not the case for McNulty, he spent many hours with the group of writers in my pack – on a busy weekend night. He walked us through every nook and cranny of each of his businesses. He told us the history and inspiration of each. My notes were extensive and throughout his genuine caring for his community, employees and partners shined through. He knew every employee by name. How did he begin the evening – he did not talk about himself, his “brand”, etc., he asked where else we had been and when we mentioned CROP – he raved about the place, how his competitor’s restaurant was so good for Ohio City. When we asked him what was his next project – he shared the next focus would be whiskey, rum and bourbon distilling…..which led to him raving about Middlewest in Columbus.
Many of the little things that set his places apart, start to turn into big things. There is definitely a desire to increase the DIY capabilities of all operations by creating a space for fermentation, aging cheeses and charcuterie and more. McNulty shared that he started to think about the carbon foot print of bringing Italian prosciutto to Cleveland. Then he asked himself, why he was doing it when Cleveland had everything he needed to do it in-house? He has the right people and ingredients. Then he broke the process down into the small steps to make it a big idea: build relationships with local farms to source the right types of pigs, then find the right way to process the hogs, build out a curing room and…… Although a lot of work, the end result is that because he now knows where everything is coming from and who is putting it together, he feels better about serving it. he can serve something that is Ohio to the heart and what his neighbors would want and what his chefs like to create. Another key to making this work (and why all of this works) is he finds the right people who share a passion for what they do – cooking, brewing, serving and he lets them take risks and pursue these projects with the resources they need and the freedom to experiment.
What inspired each concept – mainly the people of Ohio City. McNulty lives within steps of his establishments. When he moved to Ohio City he ditched his car for a bike and a scooter. When not working in or on one of these spots, he is roaming Ohio City as an informal mayor and ambassador. He asks himself and his Ohio City peers what they like….and creates what reflects their values. If you go to the right juice spot in West Side Market and ask for a McNulty – you will get a special blend created for his high energy / hectic lifestyle. A telling aspect of his muse comes from the newer kid on the block, Nano. Since McNulty and his neighbors are so pedal happy, he decided he needed to create a new kind of biker bar….but this time for cyclists. Nano sports an inside bike repair station while the outside features a repurposed shipping container that was built as a bike parking area (to keep his customers bikes from getting wet). Cool and inventive, sure, but it also required working with the city to get a variance to make it work – not the easiest path but it created something unique that is distinctive for the space and for the customer.
McNulty takes care of his staff – mainly by giving them the tools and environment to succeed but also supporting them. Nearby Black Pig is operated by one of his former chefs. And for employee appreciation – here is an example and benchmark to aim at for those in the restaurant trade. McNulty closed operations down the Sunday before Super Bowl (2012) and created a space for four food trucks to serve his team. Then he hired four party busses to bar hop his group around town which he paid for deep cleaning of the kitchens while they were out having fun. If you are in the food biz, having some fun at someone else’s place then coming home to a clean workspace, can’t be beat. Take care of your people and they will take care of your business and your customers – an easy lesson but missed by many.
So take the above and a lot more and that is how one builds sustainable businesses in Cleveland and elsewhere. There are many of McNulty’s peers doing the same but of those I have met to date, no one does it with the vigor and radar guided smart bomb focus of Ohio City’s favorite resident.
(Two side notes) During our tour it was raining heavily. McNulty grabbed a patio umbrella from one restaurant and used it to keep his guests dry moving to the next destination. A young McNulty delivered newspapers to Michael Ruhlman for ten years, and the esteemed Cleveland food writer was noted to be a good tipper. McNulty might give Ruhlman a tip or two these days.