Since opening its doors to the public in February 2023, Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s student-run restaurant, the Executive Grille, has served more than 3,500 customers and brought in $29,000 in sales, according to the school district.
As part of its plan to increase and improve career and technical education programs, CMSD spent about $5.6 million to convert East Technical High School’s unused pool into a state-of-the-art restaurant facility. The space includes an industrial kitchen, cooking demonstration classrooms, and a full-service dining room open to the public during the school year. This summer, the Executive Grille’s chefs will take their menus on the road.
From serving teachers, school board members and department heads to catering events for district officials and Cleveland companies, the 21 students in East Technical High School’s culinary arts program this year created a new go-to spot for quick chats and meetings that might have otherwise lacked the delicious food and ambiance the restaurant provides.
Michael Szalkowski, the Chef Instructor at the Executive Grille and longtime head of the Culinary Program, told Signal Cleveland that they even had some VIP regulars, including CEO Eric Gordon and Cleveland Teachers Union President Shari Obrenski, who dined in about once a week, Szalkowski said.
And for the general public, the Executive Grille is a new neighborhood dining destination. It draws neighbors from the Central neighborhood and those nostalgic for their time at the now-closed Jane Addams High School, where a previous version of the Executive Grille once stood.
A restaurant run on dedication
Szalkowski told Signal Cleveland it was the students who brought the new restaurant together from day one–and they kept the operation running smoothly.
The East Tech culinary arts students started their year working at Jane Addams. The high school closed in 2021, but the team could use its still-functioning student kitchen, commuting between there and East Tech for cooking class. In January, with the new Executive Grille build out complete, the students took a break from their training to start moving in.
“The kids were all troopers,” Szalkowski said, “helping unpack hundreds of dishes, getting the whole operation up and ready. Getting the dining room set up too. All of that stuff had to take place before we could actually cook the first meal in the new kitchen.”
The Grille’s final form was a combined effort of more than 100 kids. Students from the Cleveland School for the Arts contributed artwork to the space. Once the tables were put together, students from East Tech’s horticulture program brought in flower arrangements to decorate them.
Stories of growth
Szalkowski said there were a few dedicated students who really stood out to him. Their passion for the work helped make the restaurant what it is.
Joe Davis, an 11th grader who fell in love with the customer service part of the work, took the lead on learning how to use the restaurant’s new handheld ordering system, Szalkowski said.
“I’m struggling trying to understand the technology as we’re opening, and Joe comes to me one day and is like, ‘Here Chef, this is all you need to do!’,” he said.
“[Joe] was able to figure something out a lot quicker than I was. He became an intricate part of learning the process and teaching others to use it,” he said.
Senior Sharion Anderson took every possible opportunity to work in the restaurant this year. Before school, after school, and at off-site catering events, you could find her there.
“She just put in every extra hour, every extra available minute she could because this was her senior year and she was only going to get to work in this amazing kitchen for one semester,” Szalkowski said. This fall Anderson will attend Kent State University to study hospitality.
Szalkowski described the transformation of another student, LaBrenda Alexander, who started out a shy sophomore, afraid of customer service. Now as a senior, she runs the cafe-bar area during restaurant hours, taking drink orders and chatting with the customers, he said.
“I just love those stories because that’s kind of what the program’s all about, you know, finding your voice and finding your niche,” Szalkowski added. “Culinary arts isn’t just cooking. There’s so many other aspects of it.”
Coming this Tuesday–The Executive Grill on the Go
While the restaurant is officially closed for the summer, a group of students in the program will operate a food truck with a twist. It’s a converted yellow CMSD school bus called the Executive Grille On The Go.
The district has offered the summer opportunity to its culinary students in the past, but this year, with the launch of the new space, the bus has some refreshed branding.
Officially employed and paid through Youth Opportunities Unlimited, a partner in CMSD’s new career-planning program PACE, the students design the menus, cook the food, and serve customers directly from the truck. Participating students must have completed their basic food service and safety certificates, which they receive in the first year of the culinary program, Szalkowski said.
Students will work 35 hours a week for four weeks during the summer. Two days each week, they take the truck around the city and serve food at local food truck events. Tuesdays they are at Public Square downtown, and Wednesdays on East 12th Street between Walnut Avenue and Chester Avenue as part of the Walnut Wednesdays event.
As a special opportunity this season, the Grille On the Go will run its first private event. The Gilbane Building Company–the group currently building the new Sherwin-Williams headquarters, reserved the truck for their 100-plus workers on two separate Thursdays.
The Grille on the Go will make its first appearance of the summer on Tuesday, June 20, at Public Square.