While no one was paying attention, Will Hollingsworth was quietly assembling one of Cleveland’s most important hotel groups. Under the umbrella of Buildings & Food, Hollingsworth has grown his portfolio from a lone cocktail bar to a fledgling four-establishment empire with several ambitious projects in development.
Now 36, Hollingsworth has been working in Cleveland restaurants for 13 years. Back then, you could find Gabby the bartender behind the bars at Lalita, which he calls one of the best restaurants this town has ever seen. Working as a busboy and bartender, he managed to transform a dusty basement corner of a 150-year-old building into an elegant neighborhood bar called Spotted Owl. Five years later, Hollingsworth opened a second Spotted Owl in a converted firehouse in Akron. When Prosperity Social Club hit the market two years later, it snapped up that timeless Tremont Tavern for New York’s second location.
When I meet Hollingsworth, we’re sitting in a quiet, half-finished bar on Detroit’s Shoreway. For less than two years, the space housed a quirky bar called the Tributary. In a few months, Hollingsworth will reopen it as Old 86, a “casual bar,” the newest addition to Buildings & Food.
While other employers struggle with staffing challenges, this group seems to be growing happily.
“We can’t achieve our goals as a hospitality company without the best people — people who are motivated, people who are passionate, people who have big ideas,” Hollingsworth says. “We find people who share our values and try to build a big tent.”
That was the thinking behind Good Company’s recent acquisition in Battery Park. Chef Brett Sawyer’s talent, passion and commitment to excellence is what drove the union. This “big tent” approach is also behind a new partnership with Charlie Eisenstat, who will now operate his local coffee roaster under the Buildings & Food umbrella.
When Hollingsworth talks about what projects he wants to tackle, he uses words like innovation and conservation that drive his obsessive decision-making process.
“It’s a hospitality group with its own values, with its own mission in the industry, and what we’re doing in the city represents those values,” he explains. “Innovation that has characterized the last eight years of the spotted owl. Conservation characterized by Prosperity Social Club.”
Hollingsworth’s definition of preservation goes beyond Cleveland’s “buildings and food” to include a broader focus on our city’s distinctive culture of hospitality.
“That’s what I spend most of my time on,” he says. “When Sokolovsky leaves, when Seven Roses leaves, you won’t get these places back. Cleveland has a classic hospitality experience that doesn’t exist anywhere else, and it should be preserved. And there’s a huge urgency to that.”
That sense of urgency is a response to the influx of developers taking on functions normally reserved for restaurateurs, Hollingsworth says.
“Restaurateurs like Doug Katz and Jill (Vedaa) and Jessica (Parkison) should build restaurants — and they should have the freedom to do it the way they want,” Hollingsworth says. “Developers are building restaurants in this city, and that’s not good because it creates cynicism, it speeds up the race to the middle, and we end up with these restaurants on Instagram. There’s a risk that in 10 years you’ll go to Indianapolis or Detroit or Pittsburgh or Rochester and you won’t be able to tell where you are because they’re all the same.”
The next plan for Buildings & Food is to expand Good Company, which Hollingsworth describes as a “family-friendly burger joint.” Akron’s Spotted Owl is currently being converted into a second location for the restaurant, which is slated to open this summer. If all goes well, maybe another place.
“When you go there and have that experience, it’s very easy to imagine that you’re taking it to where the families live,” Hollingsworth says.
And in what Hollingsworth calls a “spiritual coup,” Buildings & Food recently bought the Lola/Lolita building in Tremont. It’s a full-length play for longtime partners Jonathan Sin-Jean Satayatum, Kathleen Sullivan and Hollingsworth, who worked together for 23 years at 900 Literary Road.
“We all worked there, we all met there,” he says. “So the fact that we were able to build this together, which allowed us to acquire what I think is the most iconic restaurant in the city, is really special.”
The building, shuttered after a fire devastated it seven years ago, is essentially a brick structure with a new roof. Given that it needs plumbing, electrical and HVAC, Hollingsworth sees it as a two-year project.
“I want to build the best restaurant in this city in the last 25 years,” he says. “I want to fulfill the promise of this building.”
Soon: Cleveland Scene Daily Bulletin. Every morning we’ll be sending you some interesting Cleveland stories. Subscribe now so you don’t miss a thing.
Follow us: Google news | NewsBreak | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter