Celebrity chef Michael Symon may be known for his TV appearances, but he’s first and foremost a restaurateur with immense pride for his hometown of Cleveland. For his latest concept—located downtown, next to his restaurant Lola—he opted for barbecue. “[Chef Symon] has always had a real talent for preparing meats,” says Jude Feyedelem, director of fine dining for Michael Symon Restaurants. “Why barbecue? The demand was there in Cleveland. There’s not a downtown location where you could get barbecue,” he says. But Symon felt the cafeteria-style, stand-in-a-line-and-sit-at-picnic-tables format didn't make sense in his market, so he went another route.
An overnight crew rubs meats with an Eastern-inspired blend and smokes them for 12 to 18 hours in one of three 600 pound-capacity smokers over mostly oak with some fruit woods to develop flavor. It’s served dry, and all tables are topped with one kind of sauce—what Symon calls Cleveland barbecue sauce—that’s made with a local ballpark mustard and apple cider vinegar. Feyedelem says that some guests come in looking for the traditional red sauce, but Symon is sticking with his version—and diners don’t seem to mind once they try it.
Full service, fast
The full-service restaurant doesn’t take reservations for its 115 seats inside or the newly opened 36 patio seats. So to keep things moving quickly, food and drinks were designed to be at the table within three to five minutes of ordering, says Feyedelem. The bourbon-heavy cocktail menu is made to be fun with some throwback brands, but drinks can be whipped up rapidly. And for the meals, diners can order individually (and will be served their food on a quarter-sheet tray), or order more of a combo plate for the table on a larger tray, which has been the more popular option. Meats come with spicy kraut, pickles and white bread. For the meatless crowd? “There are some things you could enjoy, but it is limited,” he says. “It’s meat-centric. The majority of our food is not vegetarian-based.”
“There’s a line out the door of 50 to 100 people before we open,” says Feyedelem. And thus far, Mabel’s is seeing 800 to 1,000 diners a day, he says. Since opening in mid-April, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, he adds. As far as the sales, checks average $25 to $35; but that varies greatly, says Feyedelem, because some are stopping in for a quick lunch or bite before a ballgame (it's across the street from the Cavaliers arena), while others are having a leisurely dinner and cocktails.
Symon's hands-on training
The celebrity chef is heavily involved, says Feyedelem. “This concept is a passion project for Michael,” he says. For the first four weeks, Symon was on the line cooking every day, working 12 to 16 hour shifts. “He was the cutter, the most important person when it comes to execution … it’s invaluable to get cooks up to his standards.” While he isn’t in the restaurant every single day now, he’s checking in with the chefs and his team daily and is back when he doesn’t have other obligations.
Designed for Cleveland
The restaurant concept was inspired by Cleveland’s West Side Market, keeping some of the distressed, unfinished pieces of the original building intact. It’s got a Mabel’s BBQ sign made of reclaimed black leather belts and a giant neon “Eat More Meat” sign to reinforce the menu’s focus. Two large communal tables seat guests right as they walk in. “We weren’t sure how it would be received, but people love it,” says Feyedelem. And the bar: It was styled to look like a Coleman cooler, complete with green bottom and white top. Above it, a giant board has slots for the menu items, printed on fiberglass, to be slid in and out when needed.
Tech meets an old-school cuisine
When Mabel’s goes on a wait, it offers to text guests when their table is ready. And of the thousands of diners, maybe one has been hesitant to hand over their phone number, says Feyedelem. “Text is the best thing we’ve done … it allows some communication between the diner and the restaurant,” he says. Mabel’s also has a high-tech system that monitors the weight of its beer kegs via cellular signal in order to keep track of its 24 draft handles, composed of craft options, local favorites and other barbecue pleasers, says Feyedelem. “It helps monitor and keep servers up to date,” he says.
Mabel’s isn’t offering takeout just yet, but “it’s a big piece of the business we plan on doing very soon,” says Feyedelem. The concept originally started with two smokers, but quickly realized that wasn’t going to meet the demand—its capacity of smoking was just able to cover in-house diners. Symon had another smoker made almost immediately. Catering, however, isn’t in the picture right now. “Catering is something we haven’t gravitated to as a company. It’s a whole other kind of business we haven’t [gone] after,” Feyedelem says.