by Rich Weiss
Trace Althoff has one of the coolest jobs in Cleveland. He manages five of the hippest new wave of bar/restaurants popping up in neighborhoods all over the city, including the well-known ABC Tavern and XYZ the Tavern, for A to Z Taverns. Althoff is a textbook case of brain drain to Chicago boomeranging back after over 10 years to turn into a textbook case of brain gain for Cleveland.
“I went to high school at St. Ignatius, so I’m a local Cleveland guy. I lived in Chicago for just over a decade and then I came back. My mother’s from Ohio City, we ended up settling in Parma, and I went to St. Charles grade school on Ridge Road and Snow Road,” said Althoff. “My sister is now the Principal of Holy Name High School in Parma Heights; my younger sister used to teach at St. Charles, now a stay-at-home mom with two kids; and my brother is a Chicago police officer…so we kind of run the gamut with everything that we do.”
Althoff has a strong theme of education that runs throughout his work history. He said, “I started working at Loyola University, where I went to school, after I graduated – I was in their admissions office for a few years. Then I worked in the Chicago public system – briefly – with a lot of focus on history and sociology. I did a lot of tutoring, after-school care, that kind of stuff – they even had me coaching tennis. I’ve never played a lick of tennis in my life, but it’s not a very hard game to figure out…we never won a game. Not even a single point. But we had a good time; the kids were good – they worked hard. It gave us something to do after school, and it was very positive for them.” Althoff added, “…I think even for me, as a young professional, I was used to winning in everything; everything I did. I was a very successful student, and it took this to see there was more to life than wins and losses…so that even taught me a lesson. In 2004 I went to Ignatius [Saint Ignatius High School], and I was the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid there until 2011.”
City centers play a large role in Althoff’s resume as well: “I spearheaded a MAGIS program (“MAGIS” is the Latin term for “more”) in 2003 to work specifically with students from the City of Cleveland – when I came back to St. Ignatius, St. Ignatius was 7% students from the City of Cleveland. When I left we had over a quarter of our students coming from the City of Cleveland. The Jesuits were always into urban education, and when they hired me they said we want to get back to what paid our bills for a hundred some-odd years before this, which was urban education.” Althoff continued, “Ignatius still does draw students from seven counties – but you were seeing primarily the student population coming from Avon and Bay Village, Euclid and Mayfield; the far suburbs, and lost focus on the city. The MAGIS program is still up and running today, and it’s very, very good. Now it’s started working with fifth grade students in the city: reading, English, math, and study skills.”
How did the St. Ignatius Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid become the manager of five bar/restaurants? According to Althoff, “Now, Randy Kelly and Linda Syrek (who are two of our three owners, Alan Glazen being the third), their son Zach was a student at St. Ignatius who came up through the MAGIS program with us, so I’d known Zach for a number of years. His parents used to operate the West Side Market Café, and every Saturday I’d go in there for breakfast. We developed a friendship, you know, at 6:30 in the morning Randy’s unlocking the doors and there I am waiting at the door. I want some bacon and eggs before I go and teach the kids, right? Then, I would run into them at the Flying Fig…” The rest of Althoff’s path seems to have been all in the timing. He said, “Zach graduated; we got Zach off to college…and I was burnt out on education. In my educational career I dealt with a lot of…for lack of a better term, high risk students. It came to the point one day that I came home and I called my mom and I said, ‘I just can’t do it anymore. If I didn’t make ‘em, I don’t want to solve their problems anymore.’ Now, I know that’s crass and sounds a little selfish,” Althoff admitted, “but at that point my light was flickering. I had no plan, I walked into St. Ignatius on an April day and just took my diploma off the wall, and said, ‘I’m done. I can’t do it anymore; I’m sorry.’ So I was sitting at XYZ (Althoff laughed) – they’d just opened XYZ, here – and Randy walked in, he said, ‘What’s new at the salt mine down the street?’ I said, ‘I just quit.’ He said, ‘Really? You want to bartend for a while until you figure out what’s going on?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ That ended up with me bartending at the ABC (ABC Tavern, 1872 W 25th Street), their original place. Then, I managed the ABC for a while, and there were some leadership changes in this organization.” That was when Althoff was tapped for General Manager of all A to Z Taverns. According to Althoff, “They said, ‘Do you want to run the whole thing?’”
Althoff had just made a resolution, but right then he decided to break it: “I’ve always worked my way up the food chain pretty quickly in any profession I’ve had. When I started, I told my mom, ‘I just want to take it easy, you know?’” Althoff continued, “…and then eight months later, I’m running the whole thing.” That was a half a decade ago. Althoff has never looked back. “I’ve been here with these guys for about four and a half years; I enjoy it,” he said. “I think for a lot of the staff, and ‘lifers’ in this business, working for me is a little bit different because…I’m not going to come in the back and blow the roof off and scream at people. I use a lot of my education, training in what we do in the back, and what we do in the front. That shows in our staff,” Althoff beamed. “We have very limited turnover. We have people that this has become very much a full-time job for them. Harris, who is actually the day-to-day manager [at the XYZ Tavern], I’ve known him since he was 14 years old – he’s now 28 years old, running the show here. So, there’s a little bit of pride in that I can see people that may not have the most education or training, but really work themselves up the system and are able to make this a full time job, a career, they’re going on vacations now, they have families…that’s something I take a lot of pride in.”
According to Althoff, when he made the leap from ABC Tavern Manager to A to Z Tavern General Manager, “The biggest thing to change for me is I live in Bizarro World. I get home at five in the morning, and will then walk my dog…so, I lay down from about eight o’clock in the morning until about noon every day. I live in ‘opposite world:’ It’s just me and my dog, Roxie.” It turns out Roxie and Althoff were both going through turbulent times when their paths crossed. He said, “She’s a pit-bull-boxer mix; she’s a rescue. My other dog, Lunchbox – an English bull dog – she had passed away, and I was going through a really rough time. Life was changing for me – very much so. My dad called me – he had done some research about three days after she passed away, and we drove out to Eastlake, found Roxie – she had been adopted out five times…they were going to kill her. I was a single guy; she was a little rough…I mean they had trained her to fight and everything…but she’s the best dog. When people come up to her now her butt starts wiggling.”
Things for Althoff have been on an up-swing ever since. Giving an overview of company growth, he said, “Now, we operate five bars/restaurants, the newest one being Waterloo Brew at E 152nd Street and Waterloo Road – right in the old Slovenian Workman’s Home. Our liquor license transfer was delayed, so we’ll be opened up there in a few weeks. We have XYZ the Tavern in Detroit Shoreway, and the Ontario Street Café, which is downtown right next to the Tilted Kilt and the Horseshoe Casino, a block and a half from Quicken Loans Arena…right in the heart of it.” Althoff is particularly excited about the opening of the Ontario Street Café, considering Public Square developments: “Right before they’re going to do the reconstruction for Public Square – it’s right there,” he said. “We have two ABCs now: we have the one on W. 25th Street, which is our original and our flagship – the business we purchased from Mike Roman. Then, about two and a half or three years ago now, we opened up ABC Tavern in University Circle on Case Western Reserve’s campus right behind the Museum of Contemporary Art – right at Euclid and Mayfield – in the crosshairs of everything: campus life, University Hospital, Case Western Reserve, so we get a pretty diverse crowd there, as well.”
Althoff is also excited about the neighborhoods that are blossoming around his A to Z taverns. “We’re always Cleveland-centric,” he said. “Look at what W 25th Street has become in the last four or five years. ABC Tavern’s been there for a number of years. When Mike Roman operated it, it was a neighborhood joint…a little bit rougher, I think, than it is now…” but, according to Althoff, not much else about the neighborhood bar has changed. He admitted, “The bowling machine moved around a little bit…”
Althoff pointed out the right-sized ABC Tavern menu: “Our kitchen is small but we offer a pretty good menu out of that little galley kitchen,” he said.
A neighborhood is about more than blocks, streets, and buildings, according to Althoff. He spoke to the Ohio City neighborhood’s West Side Market Strip, as an example: “That district is really taking off. The Old Angle, our next door neighbor. You see Beir Market and Bar Cento, even the expansion of Great Lakes, and there’s going to be the new brewery across the street – I mean, it just keeps going – Bon Bon’s there, the Flying Fig’s always been there…so, there’s commitment to the neighborhood.”
A to Z Tavern ownership felt just as strongly about the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood’s Gordon Square Arts District. Althoff said, “When we – when they – were looking to open a second spot, initially they were looking across the street (Althoff points to the ongoing renovation of the former City Grille across Detroit Avenue). That place, as you can see, needed…what looks like a gazillion dollars’ worth of renovation.” A to Z Taverns couldn’t shoulder the renovation at the time, but are glad the building is undergoing renovations now. Althoff stared dreamily across Detroit Avenue and said, “We can’t wait for that one to open up so we can have another neighbor.”
Althoff returned to the strong theme of neighborhood building on the part of A to Z Taverns ownership: “They wanted to be here,” he said. “The Capitol Theatre was just coming online, being right next to Cleveland Public Theatre – look at what Gordon Square has become. We’ve been here four and a half or five years, but this place has really evolved.” As the neighborhood has evolved, so has the menu at XYZ the Tavern. Althoff said, “You see the barbecue now…Randy Kelly, one of our owners, spent some time in the South; he lived in the South for a number of years in his younger adult years, so he learned how to smoke. We built a custom smoke box in the back and we cherry wood smoke our ribs, our brisket, our chicken – we even smoke tofu; that’s really taken off.”
The evolution didn’t end there: “We added a pizza shop into this place. Bon Bon…Courtney [Bonning, owner] used to just have a little bakery that was attached to this building before she got the spot on Lorain. Bon Bon used to be where the pizza shop is in the back. When she moved out we had all this space and we leased out the space and put in a pizza shop, and you get a quarter of a pizza – it’s like a New York style, thinner crust…I call them, for lack of a better term, the ‘crumblies’ on the bottom of the pie…it doesn’t matter what you want; if you want cheese or you want every topping, it’s all the same price. We do it all.”
Althoff noted the positive customer reaction to the developments at XYZ the Tavern: “People have taken to it. It’s become a tavern. It’s very much a local tavern. We see a lot of young professionals moving into the neighborhood – people that I used to serve at ABC five years ago have now graduated to the XYZ, and you’ll see them populate this place Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday nights.”
The XYZ has plenty of room to accommodate all their ABC graduates, and then some. Althoff said, “We’re very quaint, but that’s why we like the summertime, because we can double up – we have that great wrap-around patio…it works out well.”
Althoff sees great value in small business acting as early adopters of Cleveland neighborhoods. He cites Detroit Shoreway as an example: “We’ve gotten in on the ground level and we’ve worked with the neighborhood. The City of Cleveland and Matt Zone work with us here; we see him consistently, we talk to him consistently. We’re a part of the Gordon Square Business District meetings, and the merchant meetings, the associations. Dyngus Day is coming up the day after Easter – it’s gotten bigger and bigger and bigger each year. It’s not only a celebration of Polish heritage and a day for people to go out and have a good time…but it’s really a celebration of what this neighborhood has become.”
Althoff believes development at W. 65th Street and Detroit Avenue impacts businesses that are blocks away and vice-versa. He specified, “Norm [Plonski, owner of Hoopples and] the Parkview, and the folks down at the Happy Dog, and Spice, and Luxe…it’s really working together in concert with those guys, and it’s really taken off. Most of the guys and gals that work here live within a half a mile of where we’re sitting right now. Same thing with W. 25th Street. The commitment to the neighborhood is very important.”
Althoff sees a serious commitment to neighborhoods in every Cleveland A to Z Taverns location: “We’re committed to the city; we’re committed to the neighborhoods we’re in – we always want to be a team player; we want to work with our constituents in the neighborhood,” he said. Many times, urban neighborhood residents find themselves at odds with bars located on residential streets. A to Z Taverns has a philosophy of bolstering the blocks in every community they establish an outpost. Althoff explained, “We want to have a positive effect – people so often think of a bar or tavern negatively…there’s that bar; they can cause some problems in the neighborhood…that’s the exact opposite of what we want to do. We want to be a really big component; we want to be a big contributor; we want to be involved, and I think our track record proves that, and that’s something that’s very, very important to us.” He concluded, “The city is important but the neighborhood we service and work with, the people that we know are very, very important to us.”
This approach is turning out to be as good a business model as it is a community reinvigoration model. “Ultimately, why we see so much repeat business is because of our staff,” said Althoff. “I mean they’re friendly, they’re nice. This business is not rocket science – it’s not. I’d be lying if I told you it was. Why would you want to return to a place? Number one: They have what you like or at least some semblance of what you like; the product is good – you don’t feel like you’re getting ripped off; and, finally, the person’s not an asshole. You know?”
Althoff partially attributes the success of A to Z Taverns to a changing industry. He said, “This business has become a profession. I think 10, 15…maybe even five years ago, people didn’t look at it as a profession. My first question I got when I was working just at the ABC was, ‘What’s your real job?’ Like this is just a hobby or something. For some people it can be, but if this is your job, this is your profession, you want to master it…this is what we do. If you’re good at it, it can be a profession for you.”
Althoff finds a nexus between the innovation within his industry and the innovation within Cleveland’s economy. “Look at Cleveland now,” he said. “It was manufacturing, manufacturing, manufacturing. Well, that’s dwindled. Now what is Cleveland becoming known for? You see it on TV: The food and restaurant business.”
For more information about A to Z Taverns, search by individual bar/restaurant name on Facebook.