Originally published in Cleveland Magazine
Retired Eaton chairman and CEO Sandy Cutler dishes on his new endeavor, a French country restaurant in Moreland Hills.
A quick tour of Cru Uncorked makes it clear that the Moreland Hills eatery retired Eaton chairman and CEO Sandy Cutler opened with wife Sally and son Bill in May 2017 isn’t your usual French restaurant. The mustard-colored octagonal foyer, with its handsome, beamed ceiling and limestone floor, looks and feels like a grand private home. Huge plaster-and-resin reliefs, each featuring an identical image of Josephine Baker inspired by a Folies Bergère performance in which she danced in nothing but a skirt made of bananas, flank double doors to the dining room. Sandy explains that the building and its interiors were modeled after old chateaus, right down to the cornices.
“The concept is a French country, not a French Parisian, restaurant,” the 67-year-old executive-turned-restaurateur clarifies. “So it’s not as formal.”
The dining room actually is a quartet of intimate spaces, each of which pays homage to viniculture and winemaking with the help of various 19th- and early 20th-century French antiques. Cutler shows off a collection of barrel markers on a salvaged marble mantel in the Terroir Room, arrangements of tastevinsand hatchet-like cheese-cutters on the Wine Cellar Room walls. Ornate gates, perhaps from a Parisian garden, open to an arched stone hallway lined with lighted cases displaying approximately 1,200 bottles of wine. Another 4,000 are stored in a state-of the-art wine cellar modeled after Restaurant Le Clarence’s in Paris. The hall dead-ends in a cozy lounge boasting a bar that mimics the curve of a wine barrel, along with original Mouton Rothschild-label posters and maps of early 20th-century Paris.
“I always get a kick out of watching people come in and look for the Cuyahoga River,” he says with a smile.
Sandy spends five to six hours a day, six days a week, at Cru helping implement business processes and the like. (The French word cru refers to a vineyard producing wine grapes, particularly one formally graded on the quality of its annual production.) He doesn’t hesitate in answering why, after 16 years of leading a major corporation, he and his wife joined their 32-year-old son in a notoriously tough industry, one in which the fate of a painstakingly cultivated enterprise is vulnerable to the whims of a fickle public and ever-changing food and dining trends. For years the trio had discussed opening a restaurant that facilitated the more leisurely dining experience Bill had learned about while attending hospitality management school in Florence, Italy, something he remembered while working in various capacities at restaurants and catering companies in and around Cleveland. While Sandy acknowledges that the city has “many spectacular restaurants and spectacular chefs,” he adds that he offers a more European dining experience that is an alternative to the American a la carte dining style.
“We thought, well, if there was something we could kind of give back to the community in that regard, it would be to help bring a fine-dining restaurant here,” he says. “A city of our size and our breadth, it really ought to have at least one.”
Sandy estimates the trio spent four to five years developing their concept. They decided to open an upscale French eatery, mainly because the closest similar dining experience was the venerable Chez Francois in Vermilion. One of their first objectives was to find a site that met the key needs of the approximately 400 people interviewed about their dining likes and dislikes — mainly, free parking in a safe spot close to home. “People are much more conscious of drinking and alcohol consumption,” he notes. “So we wanted to be located within about 15 minutes of [a] prime market for us.” After 3.5 years of negotiations, they finally managed to buy approximately 2 acres at the southeast corner of Chagrin Boulevard and SOM Center Road, home to a long-closed garden center and gas station, from a historically reluctant-to-sell owner.
“We felt strongly about this concept and that, given our experience, we felt that we needed to build this restaurant,” Bill says.
The effort to create the perfect dining environment began on the drawing boards of Moreland Hills-based Richard Kawalek and Lakewood-based Jim Larsen, architects who worked closely with Sandy and Bill to implement their vision. Sandy, who also oversaw construction by the Albert M. Higley Co. after workers broke ground in April 2016, explains that the building is acoustically designed to “suck noise up into the attic.” That feature is enhanced by finishes such as carpeting rather than wood or laminate flooring in the dining rooms and heavy draperies that can be drawn between dining spaces and parquet-floor halls to muffle sound and increase privacy.
The noisy, drafty blasts of a traditional forced-air HVAC system have been eliminated by installing radiant heating in the floors and cooling that Sandy says “float[s] air-conditioning down the walls.” Point-of-sale stations, along with the various clicks and beeps they emit, were banished to the kitchen. Tables, spaced approximately 3.5 feet apart, are pin-lit so diners can read a menu comfortably without being blinded by in-your-face glare. (Even electronic wine lists were eschewed because of the light their screens emit.) And the upholstered dining chairs are a subtle invitation to linger, with backs higher and seats wider than their usual restaurant counterparts.
“You’re comfortable sitting here for three hours if you want,” Sandy says.
Sally collaborated with Philadelphia-based interior designer Barbara Gisel on the decorating, while assistant manager Bill helped compile an employee handbook and hire staffers, including servers capable of providing simultaneous service. He also picked out the Christofle silverware, Churchill china and Stölzle glassware with executive chef John Stropki and provided an occasional suggestion in developing the dinner menu. At press time, entrees, which change quarterly, ran the gamut from a $32 corn agnolotti to a $46 lavender-cured duck breast to a $65 veal chop, each of which is plated with sides included in the price. Everything from stocks to sorbets is made from scratch.
Wine aficionado Sandy compiled the wine list, which consists of more than 350 selections from around the world, and suggested designing the main cellar so it facilitates Kanban-style visual inventories. “You read a great deal, and you talk with people who sell wine,” he says of his education. “It’s like any other subject. If you’re willing to learn, you’re going to learn.” Cru offers opportunities to explore new wines with regular for-a-fee tastings and multicourse dinners.
“Our wine programs are a big part of what we try to do here,” Sandy says. “We try to make wine accessible to people. We try to give people a chance to taste wines they might never taste.”
The Cutlers have made their operation more approachable in other ways. Sandy points out that approximately 35 percent of Cru’s wines are priced under $100 a bottle; the least expensive goes for $35. Business-casual dress is recommended for patrons. The lounge, initially available only to diners, is open to anyone who wants to stop by for a drink or order from the bar menu — an abbreviated version of the dinner menu — or a warm-weather patio menu of dishes priced at $30 or under.
The Cutlers are committed to establishing a mainstay in Cleveland’s culinary scene. “Our major concern right now is making sure that we do all the little things that make the experience perfect,” Bill says. They offer full medical benefits — an uncommon perk in the restaurant business — along with ongoing education in wines to attract the best employees, which now number more than 30. According to Sandy, everything purchased is first-rate, right down to the premium cooking oils. He and Sally dine at the restaurant multiple times a week so they can mingle with customers they hope will become regulars. He disputes the notion that Cleveland isn’t ready for a place like Cru.
“Our Friday and Saturday nights are crowded,” he says. “And that’s just the way we want them!”