By leveraging his creativity and partnering with an area rep firm, Ohio restaurateur  Steve Schimoler has turned a 1920s-era bank into a dynamic foodservice operation that includes a burgeoning restaurant, test kitchen and more.

Crop-Bistro-Cleveland-diningroomCrop Bar and BistroFive years ago, when Steve Schimoler opened the original Crop Bistro and Bar on Sixth Street (aka, restaurant row) in Cleveland's warehouse district, the 30-year foodservice industry veteran started a wave of farm-to-table concepts in the area and set an example for the rest of the country.

But Crop was a small space — just 85 seats served by a tiny kitchen. As such, Schimoler never intended for the restaurant to have a long run in that location. Schimoler had purchased the space from an existing restaurant owner, only to make a few changes to the equipment package and décor. In addition to running the restaurant, Schimoler runs Rolling Fire Foods, a consulting business that draws from his extensive foodservice background, which includes experience as a chef and restaurateur, and as product developer extraordinaire for Cabot Creamery and Nestle.

As both businesses evolved, it became apparent to Schimoler that he was due for either a major remodel or a move. "It was the first restaurant that I didn't design or do the build-out, so we were very restricted in what we could do there," he says.

Schimoler had been looking for a manufacturing-like space to expand Rolling Fire Foods. His real estate agent at the time, MRN Ltd., a Cleveland-based development firm, discovered a vacancy at the former United Bank and Trust Building, a historic building that opened circa 1925 at Lorain Avenue and West 25th street in Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood. Schimoler took one look at the space and knew instantly: This would make a better restaurant. The timing for a new, larger Crop and shared consulting space couldn't have been better.

Schimoler knew immediately why the bank space was the perfect restaurant setting: the 1920s architecture and gorgeous detailing were still in place — intricately carved ceilings nearly 40 feet overhead, copper-topped green marble pillars, rows of arched stone-framed windows, original walnut-wood details, ornate tiling, and even a fully intact turn-of-the-century-style bank vault. But, the focal point of the space would become a mural that Schimoler discovered during the initial cleaning.

Crop-Bistro-Cleveland-BarSchimoler designed the bar to sit directly underneath the mural and work with the building’s existing stone and marble archways."When I first started the design, I had this vision of having the bar and chef's table look like a bank teller booth archway, and everything would be 'banky,'" Schimoler says. "But then I saw the 22- by 15-foot mural — it was hidden under layers of dirt and grime. It was amazing how dirty it was." The first wipes turned the soap-soaked white linen cloth pitch black, probably due in large part to the fact that smoking was legal in the bank for a long part of its life.

What they discovered underneath the filth was a beautiful mural, painted by commissioned artist Glen Shaw in 1925, when Walker and Weeks (renowned architects of the time) built the space. The mural depicts a Renaissance-era marketplace scene with merchants trading produce and other goods. Ironically, Crop's new neighborhood has been informally dubbed the "Market District."

But what really caught Schimoler's eye were the dark storm clouds and lighting painted above the merchants' heads. "It was a very ominous scene," Schimoler says. "With all the lightning, it would seem that the painter saw something on the horizon." Maybe the painter foresaw a financial crisis happening because the bank was open just four years before the stock market crashed.

In that moment, Schimoler abandoned the idea of a bank-inspired design. Instead, he drew upon the building's natural beauty, adding lighting and superficial decorations to simply enhance, not change, the existing drama of the space.

Schimoler, has designed his many other former restaurants himself, with the new Crop location making 10 total. He also has a knack for fixing up historic spaces like his Grist Mill restaurant, which was built out of a historic mill located on 70 riverfront acres in Springfield, Vt. With Crop's new location, he saw the opportunity to fix a historic space into a new restaurant space.

"I'm a sucker for historic buildings, and I envisioned immediately where the bar and kitchen would go and how to lay everything out since it was so simple to see the place as a restaurant," he says. "The space was in bad disrepair, but I felt I was able to see through that."

Schimoler designed the bar to sit directly underneath the mural and work with the building's existing stone and marble archways, where he added soft backlighting to subtly reflect the natural beauty. The resulting swanky, 1920s-era feel matches the pre-Prohibition era cocktails and the more modern concoctions on the bar menu, while the nearby 18-seat chef's table offers views into the finishing kitchen.

Lighting plays an important part in enhancing the building's natural ambiance for the bar and 200-seat dining room, which together take up roughly 8,000 square feet on the main floor (the basement is another 8,000 square feet). "The only lights up there in the 37-foot-high ceilings were these gymnasium lights," Schimoler says. "I wanted to get light specifically on the bar surfaces and where the chef's table is, but I couldn't put pendant lights on a 30-foot wire."

Instead, Schimoler commissioned elaborate track lighting to suspend 16 feet from the ceiling and essentially disappear from the eye. The mixture of LED flood and other bulbs now light every inch up and down with 160 feet of total track for soft, natural and varied — not blaring fluorescent — lighting.

In yet another way to pay homage to the mural, Schimoler designated the front part of the separate Lorain Avenue entrance to become Crop Shop, a retail outlet selling fresh salads, cured meats, cheeses, steaks and prepared dishes from the restaurant's menu, among other gourmet goodies. Coffee and pastries are available for takeout as well. "I think [Walker and Weeks] would be very proud of what I was doing — not trying to recreate a bank look necessarily, but instead, make it into a restaurant," he says.

The downstairs bank vault was left intact for aesthetics, but also to serve as a functional space: Schimoler's team serves private parties of up to 150 people there almost nightly. "The event piece works beautifully for us since our downstairs prep kitchen is huge and we can turn it into a banquet kitchen for those parties," he says. "We're able to serve 350 diners in the main restaurant and then have a party going on downstairs. We even have separate inventory, including china, glassware and silverware, for the banquet portion."

A major supporter of small family farms, Schimoler continues to use as many native Ohio and Midwestern ingredients as possible. The simple, seasonal menu features high-end elements. For example, a wintery menu once included braised short ribs from locally sourced beef with a fondue-like mac and cheese and farm-fresh spinach, as well as "duck duck chicken" — seared local duck breast with fried egg, duck confit, bacon and sweet potato hash. The simply prepared, artfully plated dishes showcase the quality of locally produced, fresh ingredients.

As a result of the locally focused menu, Schimoler keeps the tabletop simple and elegant as a way to show off the natural beauty of the food. "I did not want the formality of cloth," Schimoler says. Instead, he built his own tables out of walnut wood and stained them to reflect the dark-colored, old paneling from one of the boardrooms. Woven, neutral-colored placemats create a more contemporary look and continue the simple canvas for the delicate, crystal glassware, brushed stainless, flat-handled silverware and all-white plates in various shapes and sizes.

"We tried to take pieces that were very unique, that you're not seeing all over the market, because Steve's menu is so unique," says Jeff Johnson, territory manager with Top O' The Table, the tabletop division of Cleveland-based Zink Foodservice Group, which worked with Schimoler at this Crop location as well as the Crop in Vermont. FE&S awarded Crop an honorable mention in its 2012 Tabletop Competition earlier this year.

This tabletop design was a heady departure from the former Crop, where Schimoler took liberties with the design, scribbling funny idioms on the white butcher-block paper and showcasing an eclectic smattering of dishes, glassware and silverware. At the new Crop, "nothing is overdecorated," Johnson explains. "The focus for the tabletop was to keep things simple to pick up the personality of the food and the building décor." The restaurant is even free of any artwork to prevent covering up the natural beauty of the historic structure.

The lower-level kitchen has also been the center of Schimoler's forward-thinking and entrepreneurial spirit. "The way the basement was laid out couldn't have been more perfect for a test-kitchen lab," he says. "It has a big prep kitchen, and off the prep is the bank vault, which is very unique — it's the second-largest vault [in the country] after the Federal Reserve and can comfortably seat 150 people. So immediately I saw the downstairs floor as an ideal place for multiple businesses — both Crop and Rolling Fire Foods — to be going on at the same time."

The kitchen is massive enough to handle the high volume banquet and à la carte menu services in addition to serving as Schimoler's lab. The kitchen's equipment package includes induction burners, steam-jacketed kettles and combi ovens; rolling racks and an elevator make the transfer of product between the spaces easy.

Schimoler took a unique route when designing the kitchen: He partnered with a foodservice equipment manufacturer to not only outfit the space with top-of-the-line, energy-saving equipment and cold storage but also develop a working test kitchen for Rolling Fire Foods. Through this business, Schimoler brings in chain restaurants, food manufacturers and other clients into the kitchen for real-life, real-time testing capabilities.

"Let's say it's a sandwich chain wanting ideas for a dinner daypart. We'll sketch out 50 or 60 menu items on paper; then we're in the test-kitchen lab producing those prototypes," he says. Sometimes the restaurant diners become the real-life guinea pigs, as long as the ideas fit with the Crop concept.

Schimoler is particularly excited about his latest project with a major water-filtration company. The team installed a high-tech reverse osmosis system with four levels of filtration that can be manipulated to recreate New York City's water pH balance for New York-style pizza dough, or Vermont spring water for making beer. Crop also serves the still and sparkling filtered water to diners in lieu of bottled options. In addition, culinary staff use the filtered water when making chicken stock and other menu items.

"We designed the kitchen so that anything can be moved at will so when we have a chain account coming in for three days of development work, we can unplug the fryer, for example, and put in [a] different model if they want to use that for testing," Schimoler says. "The whole kitchen is built on a quick-disconnect format."

Schimoler and team were lucky to end up with a duct system that bypassed the eight floors of office space above the restaurant; because one section running the length of the main room was only one story, ductwork could go through the ceiling straight through to the roof instead of having to go through the upstairs floors. This translated to enormous savings.

Not everything in the design process was that simple, though. "When you're doing a renovation, you're always faced with existing obstacles," Schimoler says. "When we were finally able to break into the wall to put in the exhaust hoods, we found 14-inch, load-bearing steel beams running parallel to it." Luckily, the solution involved simply moving the hoods six inches to bypass the beams.

In the heart of the kitchen, a double-sided line with a center island allows enough space for multiple cooks to work on their own and with each other when necessary. "The line is basically set up with two triangles, and they meet in the middle where the plates are gathered, finished and sent out to expo," Schimoler says.

The kitchen is also outfitted with plenty of undercounter refrigeration and a walk-in cooler measuring 15 feet by 10 feet to handle the fresh local produce. "We don't need a walk-in freezer, just two little undercounter freezers," Schimoler says. "The only frozen stuff we get is mainly pastry dough. It really is more about daily inventory management with all the perishables. We are very busy at 350 to 400 diners at a clip, so the turnover of ingredients is very high."

The laboratory is also partly used by Zink Foodservice Group. In addition to a small conference room outfitted with smallwares and tabletop products for live demos and presentations, the Columbus, Ohio-based manufacturer's rep and marketing firm rents out part of the office space above the restaurant as a satellite location.

"Steve wanted culinology to meet kitchenology," says Jim Zink, managing partner. "He wanted the right manufacturing partner for his kitchen, where he could design prototypes and try out new equipment." The timing was right for the Zink-Crop partnership; Zink had been scoping out office space in Cleveland as the company's next move, and the kitchen and office space at Crop offered the perfect combination of meeting and demo space.

Schimoler has been busy — very busy. A drummer, Schimoler also continues to play with his band, Cream of the Crop, at Crop Bistro on the occasional Friday night, even playing with guest musicians like Bootsy Collins.

"A lot of chefs are also musicians," Schimoler says. "If you think of it, our menu is like a set list; just like each song has its rhythm and melodies, a dish has different flavors and composition. The kitchen is the same way — if you lose your rhythm, that's when you're in the weeds."