Adjacent to his downtown Cleveland restaurant Noodlecat, James Beard Award-winning Chef Jonathon Sawyer’s commissary churns out homemade pasta, vinegar, and pickles for his celebrated group of restaurants. The 2015 Best Chef: Great Lakes hopes to eventually mill his own flour for breads and pastries, as well as produce other in-house concoctions. But, until then, the space will have a chance to serve as the homebase for Sawyer’s foray into the expanding arena of chef-driven delivery service.
On April 4, Sawyer linked up with Mod Meals, a Cleveland-based farm-to-doorstep company started by Bruce Teicher this past fall. Mod Meals’ goal isn’t to necessarily deliver original menu items found in restaurants, but to offer homestyle meals curated by chefs. Initially, the lineup included Ben Bebenroth (Spice Kitchen and Bar), Brian Okin (Cork and Cleaver Social Kitchen, Graffiti), Karen Small (The Flying Fig), and Eric Williams (Momocho Mod Mex and El Carnicero). For Sawyer, who along with mentor Michael Symon, is one of only two Cleveland-area chefs to win a James Beard award, the decision to join the growing crowd was an easy one.
“A city, geographically speaking, as spread out as Cleveland, has been devoid of proper delivery services for a long time,” Sawyer says, explaining how it can take him over an hour to drive across town at times. “… We’re really excited to get on board with Mod Meals and get involved with something that can get meals around the city at appropriate times with easy pickup and quality control.”
Sawyers says his restaurant group, which includes Noodlecat, Trentina, the iconic Greenhouse Tavern, and two stadium venues, already had the logistics in place to streamline the added operation. In fact, it’s allowed him to expand production at the aforementioned commissary, something he’s been thinking about for some time. Lance Boswell, the general manager of Noodlecat, is executing the Mod Meals orders along with corporate executive chef Brian Goodman. Wil Novak is also assisting from the corporate side.
Mod Meals takes care of the ordering and shipping. “We just do what we already do, which is fill the order, or cook food as I like to oversimplify it,” he says. “So, when we get an order from Mod Meals, we get multiple at the same time, fill them, and then ship them out. It’s not an a la minute situation, but it is, for us, something we can control the quality of and we’re not worrying about what ingredients a third party is bringing in or are they really sticking to the recipe. Literally, every recipe is executed by our hands until it leaves the restaurant.”
Mod Meals often varies its menu online, offering everything from a 2012 vintage bottle of Avancia Godello for $26 from The Flying Fig to a chilled can of Tecate Cerveza from Momocho. Fittingly, Sawyer debuts the new Kids & Family section. Sawyer, who has two children, 10-year-old Catcher and 8-year-old Louisiana, has always planted a flag in the discussion about healthier options for young eaters. Noodlecat is the home to Noodle Kids, where families visit the restaurant once a month from spring to fall to mix up ramen bowls. He’s also the author of “Noodle Kids: Around the World in 50 Fun, Healthy, Creative Recipes the Whole Family Can Cook Together.”
“We’re not going to pretend to change the world but even if one family is a little different, or thinks about [eating healthy] a little differently from this relationship, I think it’s a success,” Sawyer says.
The early offerings were:
- Grilled Ramen & Cheese—noodles folded into a cheddar and Parmesan cheese mixture and grilled to create a distinctive kid’s meal reminiscent of potato latkes.
- Classic Lasagna—classic lasagna, loaded with tons of cheese and Italian sausage.
- Veggie Lasagna—filled with locally sourced veggies.
- Whole Roasted Eggplant—served with homemade marinara and Parmesan cheese.
- New England Clam Chowder—a homemade classic with tons of clam, along with corn and potatoes.
The meals are chilled after cooking and delivered to consumer’s homes in the evening. Sawyer says he adds labels with cooking techniques on the packages, along with some anecdotes and pictures. For example, the lasagna will arrive with directions to cook in the oven and microwave, depending on what works best for the family.
Prices on the website range from $10.95 to $13.95 (Sawyer’s Classic Lasagna is $12.95) and there’s a service charge of around $3.
“I think having more sales was the biggest thing,” Sawyer explains. “ … The more business each unit can do, the more people we can hire and the better we can train them. For us, it’s always about increasing revenue and increasing in a vertically integrated kind of way. So this goes along with us wanting to expand our commissary hand in hand.”
“There’s been a lot of chatter about who was going to be the next delivery system here in Cleveland,” he continues. “We’ve always had kitchens that can handle the food. So while we’re there and we’re staffing it, we might as well sell more food. That’s always been our M.O.”