True Grit

The character and wisdom of Cleveland’s beloved Michael Symon

I was sitting at a bar waiting for takeout. It was about 2005. A man sitting beside me was making a young boy laugh. Maybe they knew each other, or maybe not. As I waited for my order to come out, something told me this was just that man’s natural demeanor, acquaintance or not.

When the man was done chatting with the boy, I tapped on his shoulder.

“Michael, hi, my name is Michelle, and I’m Cleveland Foodie and just wanted to formally introduce myself to you so you could put a face to the name,” I said.

Michael Symon then let out his trademark guffaw. “I know who you are,” he responded with a hug. I wasn’t sure he would know who I was without setting the stage, but he did. This is just one of Symon’s many gifts—to make just about anybody feel special and important.

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Long before “Iron Chef” and “The Chew,” when Facebook was still for the .edu folks, I was a regular at the original Lola, as a patron and eager student in the cooking classes Symon taught upstairs. A seat at that bar was my favorite seat in town. During those visits, Symon and I slowly came to know each other. He learned that I appreciated good food and wanted to learn how to make said food. I discovered someone who loved his craft, wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself, and had a genuine passion for teaching.

When I launched the blog Cleveland Foodie, I sent a Q&A to many of our local chefs. The first person to respond, within hours, was Symon. His support has continued throughout the blog’s life, and even well past his crowning as Iron Chef and TV fame.

When I hosted my first Thanksgiving, about five years ago, I had visions of the holiday ending with all my guests in the emergency room—something about cooking the giant bird terrified me as a first-timer. So when I pulled the turkey out of the oven, I sent a quick text to Symon to get his blessing and to ask a few questions. He replied instantly with his guidance, and I’m happy to report, I now host Thanksgiving every year with no ER trips to date.

But perhaps my favorite memory is when we were at Chef Jonathon Sawyer’s annual Festivus party, where the theme was ’80s rock bands. Symon and I were catching up and then started talking about music. I can’t remember the specifics of the bet, but it involved Pearl Jam and Guns N’ Roses, and I won. He still owes me dinner, but in all honesty, I couldn’t care less if he ever pays up. It’s way more gratifying knowing I stumped him with music trivia.

Now, some 12 years later, Symon sits across from me at an upstairs table at his latest restaurant, Mabel’s BBQ. An oversized photo of him and his family at his 8th-grade graduation hangs above. We catch up on life with the Killers, Johnny Cash, and the Grateful Dead playing in the background—a perfect playlist for reflecting on his passion and humble beginnings.

We can learn a lot from Michael Symon. The reality is, the vast majority of us will never open a restaurant or know what it’s like to be a TV celebrity. So I wasn’t out to learn about those aspects of his life. Instead, I was enticed by the real-life lessons we could all glean from him—like taking risks, running a business, and perhaps most important, staying true to oneself. Because, in my experiences with Michael Symon, I was always most impressed that he is the same person, pre- and post-fame. And I think the lesson of how not to become an asshole is perhaps a life lesson each of us can appreciate.

Your first job may teach you more than you realize.

“When I worked at Geppetto’s as a high school kid, I’d look at the owner, Mike O’Malley, and think, this guy is the coolest guy in the world,” Symon says. “He does what he wants to do every day. He treats people great. He motivates the staff every day. He’s fun to be around. And he’s his own boss. There was always something so intriguing to me about that—that entrepreneurial spirit.”

Armed with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, Symon’s ambitions deviated somewhat from his family (his grandfather was a union pipefitter, and his dad was a longtime employee at Ford Motor Co.). Needless to say, not everyone was supportive of Symon’s culinary ambitions, especially during an era unlike today.

“The son of a Greek-Sicilian mother, I could do no wrong in her eyes, no matter what I do,” Symon says of his mom. “But when I told my dad I wanted to go to culinary school, he cried. This is 1987. There’s no Food Network, no such thing as a celebrity chef. There’s really no restaurant scene in Cleveland. I tell people all the time, my dad feared that I was going to school to be a tradesman. But that is actually what I consider myself. I learned a trade. A trade that I love very much, and am incredibly passionate about.”

Symon built his trade into a $40 million company.

What does his dad think of his son’s trade today?

“That it was the greatest idea I’ve ever had,” he says laughing, and added that his dad happily works with him now, taking care of all the books.

Slow and steady wins the race.

When Symon and his partners opened Lola, they thought they’d operate just one restaurant. They chose to open another after a decade, mostly because of their employees.

“The one bit of advice I would give to people is don’t rush to open restaurants,” Symon says. “We waited 10 years to open our second restaurant, and we opened a second one because people had been with us for 10 years and they needed the opportunity to grow, and they wouldn’t leave. I told them to leave—go take an executive chef job, or a sous chef, or management job. And they wouldn’t go. So I said, ‘OK, well then, let’s open a second place so we can give these people the jobs they deserve.’”

Symon’s restaurant group has opened 21 restaurants in 20 years, and has grown his employee base from 28 to more than 1,000.

The key to smart growth was not rushing the process.

“I think so many people rush growth,” he says. Symon and his partners either own or operate over 20 food-centric operations. “And I would say over the time period from when Lola opened until now, we have said ‘no’ to no less than 10,000 deals.”

They probably fielded 50 requests alone this week, he says.

“I try to tell young people who have come to me, the best deals you make in life are often the ones you say no to,” he says, noting he learned this lesson from fellow celebrity chef Bobby Flay. When you are driven by or chasing the money, you are going to get yourself into trouble, he says. Symon is clearly a man who isn’t driven by money, but rather something he believes to be more fulfilling.

“I’m proud of what we have done, but I think if I sat and tried to think about it—how did we open all these restaurants, how did I end up on television, I mean, I don’t know,” he says. “I think timing is important. Luck is important. Always doing things the right way is important. We have never taken a short cut, no matter how many times we probably should have, which is sometimes painful, but to us is important.”

People first, then profit.

“If we were owned by a company, and the company were to look at our numbers, they would say, you run high food costs, and your labor is high, you guys are morons,” Symon jokes.

Symon and his business partners are passionate about investing in their employees. He and partners, Liz (his wife whom he met 27 years ago) and Doug Petkovic, have retained much of the same staff over the past two decades.

“Look at Nolan who walked you up here,” he says. He’s been with us since he was 17, and now he’s 37. He’s worked for us over half his life.”

He promotes a “we” versus “I” culture, which contributes to employee commitment.

“It comes down to a basic rule of life—you treat people how you want to be treated,” he says. “And we aren’t perfect. We make mistakes. But we try to treat people the right way; we try to empower people. We care about what their opinion is. We trust them. I think when people work for us, they feel a sense of stability because we run a good company, but they also feel a sense of pride because we allow them to be themselves within a structure.”

He also knows he’s surrounded by a solid partnership team. “Liz brings the hugs and Doug brings the structure, and I bring the food,” he says.

During the past two decades, they’ve intentionally closed only one eatery.

“When we opened Lola in Tremont, it wasn’t the bustling neighborhood that it is today,” Symon says. “It almost gave us this false sense because then we opened Lola on East 4th, and at the time, 4th wasn’t how it is now. So we had this feeling, this confidence, that we could put a restaurant anywhere we want, as long as we put out great food and run it the right way. But Avon Lake wasn’t a great location for the type of restaurant and food we wanted to do, so it made us more aware of location.”

Driven by customer service—always.

“I like when the employees are happy. I like when people come in and eat the food and they are happy,” Symon says. “Nothing makes me more sad than when people come to one of our restaurants and don’t enjoy themselves. We work really hard to give an experience, and I know others do, too, but I don’t think there is anybody who works harder than we do to create an environment to serve customers as well as we can, to uncover every single rock to have good food.”

When a customer leaves unhappy, it stings.

“Not in an angry way, but like, ‘How did that happen.’ You know a lot of people are coming to our restaurants now because they have seen us on television, and saved up a lot of money—it’s an event for them to come to one of our restaurants, whether it’s B Spot or Mabel’s or Lola, it’s different levels of what they had to give up to come in. So if they come in and they leave not ecstatic, I feel terrible. I feel like I let them down. And I think that is probably what drives us. It drives me.”

He attributes this drive to not let people down, and otherwise put others first, to his parents and his Midwestern roots.

“I’m happy that I am successful, and I have worked very hard to be successful, and continue to work hard. But I am fully aware that I am a white, straight male, and have been given every opportunity to be successful, more than 80% of Americans. I think that is our restaurant culture, for me, Liz, and Doug—who grew up in the business, [is that] all of our parents are all incredibly hospitable people.”

We were all raised the same way—to take care of people, he says. “I think that comes out in our business. Whether they are customers, friends, or family. My mom especially, she has always taught us to take care of people who have been less fortunate than you. She taught us as a kid to cheer for the underdog. I was a decent athlete growing up, you know, but I always tried to help the kids who maybe weren’t.”

His parents advised him to love people and love life.

“Obviously I care about my family, and want to take care of myself, but the greatest joy I get is when I can make someone else happy, whether it’s from food, or the job they did in the restaurant, any of those things. So maybe it’s self-serving because it makes me happy,” he reflects.

Through his shows, restaurants, and everything in-between, his love of family—his wife, his son, parents, and friends—recharges him and brings him the most joy.

This past August, he and his son Kyle worked together every single day, without taking one day off. “Oddly enough, it completely recharged me. I know it sounds weird that working 100 hours a week would recharge you, but it completely did,” he says. “There was something completely therapeutic about the exhaustion of opening a restaurant with your kid, that just excited me about restaurants and business.”

Seriously, though, can I get you some brisket before you go?

Our conversation was nearing an end, but Symon was perplexed. He wasn’t bothered that our time went over and that I likely made him late for some promotional appearance for The Fabulous Food Show, but rather by the simple notion that I hadn’t eaten anything. He must have asked me six times if he could get me some brisket. Anything. Then his focus turned to me, and the business I own. He wanted to hear about my experience as an entrepreneur.

This is a man who has clearly succeeded in life and is happy in his own skin. Something tells me that he’d be just as happy and content without all the accolades, hoopla, and fame—if he and Liz had just stuck with their original plan and had just Lola.

After all, he treats people as if he’s just a guy from Cleveland who happens to own a restaurant—and is really bad at musical trivia.

Perhaps that’s the secret to winning at life and at business. Think small, laugh at yourself, learn a good trade, take care of your own, and enjoy the ride.