YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – There have been many who have tried to make the Valley home for their culinary talents. From local owners to chains, many restaurants have come and gone, but some have been around for decades and others that have opened more recently are keeping the momentum going.
Is there a recipe for success in pleasing Valley diners? Are we different from other parts of the U.S. or even other regions of Ohio? The answer is – maybe.
The area has a very diverse population and a history of immigration that brought with it varied culinary tastes. England, Ireland, Germany, Wales, Italy and Hungary are the top countries from which our Northeast Ohio ancestors came. It shows in our Italian Festivals, pierogi and haluski sales and other ethnic dishes we’ve come to know so well. But that does not mean we don’t have a taste for something else. Many restaurants offering up cuisine from around the world can be found in the Valley, but we are partial to dishes that reflect our ancestral roots.
According to the Ohio Restaurant Association (ORA), there were 1,509 new restaurants that opened statewide in 2022, 51 of those were in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties: (Source: Ohio Restaurant Association, with specific numbers in larger communities)
- Mahoning County – 28, with 12 in Youngstown, 4 in Canfield and 5 in Poland
- Trumbull County – 19, with “big movement in Niles,” according to ORA
- Columbiana County – 4 (no breakdown of location was provided)
There have been others that have closed, too. ORA doesn’t keep numbers on those because many just silently close their doors and it’s not reported. But an Austintown restaurant owner recently said the economy took its toll on his business and his mental health. Supply costs, staffing, and coming up with a menu that is sustainable over time and turns a profit is not easy.
“The restaurant industry is notorious for people not making it because it’s so very hard and that is usually the reason – the financials,” said John Barker, president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association. “They get in over their head a little bit, and before you know it, they can’t afford the rent, the employees, whatever the case is.”
Some restaurants in the Valley have been more successful than others, and when you think about those that have made it through decades, you can’t help but recall Howland’s Leo’s, Sunrise Inn in Warren, Youngstown’s MVR and Station Square in Liberty, and countless others, too. But offering up an appealing plate of lasagna or cavatelli and meatballs is no guarantee of success, but they do have some things in common.
Sunrise Inn Manager David Mahan said their 90-year success story begins and ends with consistency.
“I can stand here right now and look down the bar and I know every one of these people sitting at the bar. I know what they’re drinking, so they feel very comfortable when they are here. And that goes for our waitresses and the customers sitting at the tables,” Mahan said. “Customer service, being comfortable is what it’s all about.”
Mahan says customers know what they order will taste the same every time. You can’t change your ingredients or buy cheaper products, he said
“Keep quality consistent. People buy our pizza because the recipe has not changed in 92-plus years. We use the same flour, the same oil, the same cheese and we don’t deviate from it,” he said. “We try different things like we have our seasonal menu and our daily specials that are different, but our core menu stays the same. If the price of your tomato sauce goes up, buy it. Don’t try something different.”
Mahan said his advice is to go over the top with customer service and staff training. Pricing is important, too, but it’s not everything and people are willing to pay for something they see as a value.
“People like big portions. One of the things I like hearing at the restaurant is how many people say when we set food down in front of them. The first thing they say is, ‘I am going to need a box.'”
Building that consistency is tough for a first-time owner that might not have the longevity of a Valley staple like Sunrise. Melissa Poland opened Sweet Melissa’s in Boardman in 2017. She was told by some that opening a restaurant that specializes in wraps and salads would be a hard sell in the Valley.
“Youngstown, Ohio’s pretty tough. We love our food, and you can’t fool people in this Valley, ” Poland said. “This is meat and potatoes country.”
But Poland wanted to try something new. She decided early on that she was going to focus on serving up a high-quality, fresh product and hoped that people would give her a chance.
“I stuck to my guns with if I was going to make a good fresh product, I was going to be consistent with that product,” Poland said “I was told I was going to fail, and look at us now.”
Sweet Melissa’s has grown since its opening in 2017. Poland’s plan to stay consistent with her menu and embrace her customer’s ideas, even creating a salad named after one of them, has paid. off. She opened a second location in Columbiana, even during the pandemic.
The road has not always been easy, the pandemic, product shortages and staffing hit Sweet Melissa’s just like every other restaurant. Navigating that was a challenge, but again, consistency had to be a top priority, so much so that a pepper shortage and a lettuce recall put many menu options on hold for a time.
“I think so many times, you have restaurants that have really good intentions, and they start off really strong, and then they start substituting for a cheaper product,” Poland said. “People appreciate quality and consistency. That’s a recipe for success for anybody who wants to open in the food industry.”
Ohio is the seventh-largest state in the country in the number of restaurants and total revenue, according to ORA, and it’s also a bellwether for companies looking to test their restaurants and menu items.
“I think the reason is Ohio represents a nice cross-section of the United States – income, age bracket, types of ethnic food,” Barker said.
Barker knows opening a restaurant is tough anywhere. Lining up a mentor and getting support is the best first step. The Ohio Restaurant Association can help with that and with other services ranging from marketing, financial advice and even suggestions on staffing.
“Restaurants require people to be all in. If it’s a mom-and-pop, it’s pretty hard. I don’t know too many mom-and-pop’s where the founder or the owner is not there 50-plus hours a week. That’s just the way it is,” Barker said.