Ray of light: Summer House CLE pivots from freshly opened restaurant to makeshift food bank

In the wake of COVID-19 closings, Lakewood restaurant chefs have found a way to support hospitality industry workers the only way they know how: cooking for others.

A “flawless” opening week is rarely easy to achieve, but that’s exactly how chef Vinnie Cimino describes Summer House CLE’s first week of business in early March—during which the Lakewood-based restaurant was booked every night with customers eager to experience its inspired menu and spectacular views of Lake Erie and the skyline.

But no one could have anticipated the curveball that came next: Summer House had barely been open for a week when Governor Mike DeWine announced the order for Ohio restaurant closures on March 15. Forced to close its newly opened doors, Summer House didn’t yet possess the clientele or operations infrastructure to continue business with to-go services. What the restaurant did have was a surplus of food inventory, along with ample requests for food from family members and friends in need (including over 50 Summer House workers that were suddenly laid off).

CLE Family MealEnter CLE Family Meal, a new initiative providing sustenance for local hospitality professionals and creative types negatively impacted by the coronavirus crisis. Led by Cimino and his sous chef Ryan Boone, CLE Family Meal has swiftly converted Summer House’s emergent kitchen into a bustling food bank for those in need—particularly restaurant workers, who often work paycheck to paycheck.

“[I asked myself], ‘How can we be a beacon of light in such a dark time?” shares Cimino. “For us to continue feeding people was just an extension of the hospitality that we do day in and day out in a restaurant.”

So what does CLE Family Meal look like in practice? Every Thursday and Sunday, Cimino’s five-member crew distributes free food from the Salt+ parking lot from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. According to Cimino, the operation has steadily grown—attracting participation from other restaurants including Ushabu and Hi and Dry and helping an average of 300 people each week.

It’s a pretty radical departure from what Cimino initially thought this year would look like, but Cimino doesn’t plan to stop until Clevelanders are back on their feet. In fact, he hopes to continue CLE Family Meal in some form to help those who remain unemployed after the crisis.

“Five weeks into quarantine and not having ‘real’ restaurants, I look at restaurants differently now and my mindset has changed,” says Cimino. “Seeing how many people we’ve been able to impact with Family Meal, I hope to keep this up and continue helping people out.”

And, of course, he’s looking forward to resuming operations with Summer House, filled with bright coastal vibes and dishes designed to bring the feel of summer dining to Cleveland 365 days a year. (Summer fish fry, salmon crudo, and Lake Erie smoked fish dip? Yes, please.) Cimino plans to use fresh herbs, spices, and acidic fruits to excite Cleveland’s collective taste buds after a long winter…and a long quarantine period.

“In Cleveland, we eat a lot of hearty, heavy, brown foods. I wanted to take that style of eating and brighten it up a little bit,” says Cimino, who relies on locally sourced ingredients from vendors including Red Basket Farm, Dee-Jay’s Custom Butchering and Processing, Ohio Certified Angus Beef, and On The Rise.

When and how Summer House will be able to resume full operations remains uncertain—along with the coronavirus’ long-term effects on the restaurant industry. It is possible that going out to eat may never look the same. And though Cimino acknowledges the restaurant’s approach may differ from its original vision moving forward, he is excited to reopen and see how Summer House can continue to serve Cleveland.

-by Ellie Roberto