Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Eric + Heather Williams: The She & Him of Momocho, The Happy Dog(s), El Carnicero and Jack Flaps

If you follow the local food scene, you’ve no doubt heard of Eric Williams. Eric is chef/owner of Momocho and El Carnicero, and a partner at The Happy Dog(s) and Jack Flaps Urban Breakfast Shoppe. But you may not know his wife — and partner in life and business — Heather Williams. Eric and Heather have been sweethearts since their days at Chanel High School in Bedford. They have a son, Jaxson, who is 11 years of age and is really pushing them to buy a food truck that features deep-fried Oreos. Heather was quietly tending to the bookkeeping when I met with Eric for the first time seven or eight years ago. I couldn’t help but notice her calming presence – just do not mistake her silence for a lack of interest in their business. Heather is Eric’s watchful eye and she constantly brings potential problems to his attention. It may be a front-of-the-house dilemma, a problem with how a dish is plated, a spot on a wall that needs to be touched up … Heather notices everything. “She goes through all of the receipts, which means there are three sets of eyes on them,” Eric said. “Without Heather taking care of everything at home I wouldn’t be able to remain focused on our business 24/7.” It is an arrangement that has led to great success.

Eric + Heather Williams
Eric worked in a variety of kitchens for nearly 15 years before opening Momocho in March of 2006, including the kitchens of some of Cleveland’s all-time notables. At Lopez y Gonzalez, he learned from arguably the foremost authority on modern Mexican-American cuisine in the country, Rick Bayless. (Bayless was originally hired by owners Craig Summers and Brad Friedlander as a menu consultant and was a visible presence during Lopez y Gonzalez’s first few years of operation.) That is also where he met Nolan Konkoski and Molly Smith (co-owners of SOHO Kitchen & Bar in Ohio City). Nolan became his Sous Chef at Momocho and Molly, his Bar Manager. (The incestuous nature of Cleveland’s restaurant history really should be mapped out like they do with ancestral trees at some point. It is a fascinating history.) Eric also worked at Cleveland PM, Maria’s Roman Room, Pete & Dewey’s Planet (he created one of my favorite dishes there, the BBQ Chicken Pizza), Napa Valley Grill, Johnny Mango, and Keka (where he worked for Susan Walters, who is set to open Cha Spirits and Pizza Kitchen in the Battery Park Wine Bar space, and where he met Michael Symon and Tim Bando). He joined The Happy Dog as a consultant in October of 2009, becoming a sweat equity partner shortly thereafter. El Carnicero was added to their collection in July of 2013, and Jack Flaps in December of that same year. Recently, Eric was excited to announce “Momocho will be providing food on Saturday nights to Platform Beer Company,” Ohio City’s newest brewery. They are also about to add another feather to their hat: The Happy Dog is weeks away from opening a second location in the legendary Euclid Tavern space in University Circle.

Eric Williams

As regulars at Lopez y Gonzalez, we anticipated Momocho with great interest once we learned Eric was opening his own spot. We were impressed not only with the food and execution, but with how Eric interacted with his staff and the Ohio City neighborhood. I remember sitting on the patio one summer evening when, at 10:00 pm, the music outside stopped. I asked Eric what happened. “My neighbors need their quiet time.” That sort of thoughtfulness is the essence of the hospitality business. It can be taught but it comes naturally to Williams. When asked to define his job he jokingly explains, “At this point, my job is probably 90% management and 10% food related. My first priority is problem solving. Second, I’m a professional babysitter and adult counselor. Lastly, I’m a chef. My level of involvement once the menu is set at a restaurant is to oversee and consult on menu changes, fill-in if a chef calls off, and plan special events.” It hasn’t always been easy in the past eight years. Certainly, one of the most trying times came this past year with the death of Sean Kilbane, part owner and founder of The Happy Dog. “We all sense a different dynamic,” Williams says. “We didn’t experience any decline in business since Sean’s death but our staff became closer, more cohesive and determined. We all came out of it stronger and more resolved to see Sean’s vision of a successful music venue through.” Another major adjustment in the past year was learning to adapt to a new and different customer base in Lakewood. Considering the community turnout at El Carnicero’s first year anniversary party, I’d say they’ve figured it out.

Best part of  being an owner, you can go rouge on the menu and order the Lemon Curd at Jack Flaps on a waffle

At 43 years of age, Eric will be in charge of a staff of 200 employees once The Happy Dog (East) opens. When asked how he goes about selecting his impressive team, he answered, “I run ads on Craigslist and I make it perfectly clear, no wallflowers or cell phone junkies need apply (gulp).” There are 32 staff members at Momocho, 39 at El Carnicero, 42 at Happy Dog, eight at Jack Flaps and there will be 50 at The Happy Dog in University Circle. Eric prefers people who are interested in growing along with him and, to that end, he cross-trains them so that they understand more about the industry than merely their “job.” His staff includes some local industry greats: Mike Smith, General Manager, FOH, Momocho (responsibilities extend to other restaurants); Tom Burke, Corporate Executive Chef, BOH, Momocho, (responsibilities extend to other restaurants); Cristy Shumaker, Assistant General Manager, Momocho (responsibilities extend to other restaurants); Tony Kost, FOH Manager, El Carnicero; Adam Legler, Chef BOH, El Carnicero, Alex Arscham, Chef BOH, El Carnicero; Justin Hearl, Kitchen Manager BOH, El Carnicero; and, many more. Randy Carter started in the kitchen at Momocho and is now part owner of Jack Flaps. Eric says, “Three good examples of the upward mobility I promote are Mike Smith, Cristy Shumaker and Tom Burke, but I rely on all of them.” Just as an example of how responsive his staff can be when needs arise, he mentioned, “I no sooner text them that we will be serving food at Platform Beer Company on Saturday nights and I receive a half dozen texts telling me how they can accommodate the added work load.” There’s a deep sense of trust and respect between Eric and his staff and I happened to witness this one afternoon, when I was at Momocho before-hours for a staff meeting. Everyone’s opinion was welcomed and appreciated as they figured out the best way to accommodate their customers (who were already lining up outside) on yet another evening in one of Ohio City’s busiest and most successful establishments.

Heather Williams

From the Mod Mex cuisine at Momocho and El Carnicero … to the endless ways that one can personalize a hot dog at The Happy Dog … to the eye-opening variety of sweet and savory pancakes and waffles at Jack Flaps … Eric Williams has helped shape Cleveland’s current food scene. Despite his celebrity status, he’s the first to credit Heather with keeping him on point and focused; he’s the hands-on manager who relies on her advice and counsel when it comes to the restaurants they oversee. “She’s my fiercest food critic. But more important, Heather is my sanity. She brings me to solid ground.” So much for the tatted, tough-guy image; Eric’s actually one of the sweetest, kindest and most generous people in the industry. We’ve seen him drive around town delivering popsicles to various kitchen staffs on hot summer nights. And there’s no end to the kindness he shows his staff when it comes to staff outings or parties. He truly loves indulging them and rewarding them for their hard work and loyalty. Williams is also quick to say “yes” when it comes to charities. He will once again participate in this year’s Autism Speaks Event featuring Mario Batali and led by his friend Michael Symon at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s new Central Atrium taking place this Saturday, August 9th.

What appears to be the Williams’ good fortune turns out to be nothing more then a mix of talent, tenacity and tireless toiling … all the usual suspects.

No comments:

Post a Comment