The recipe that goes into making a guy like Sean Watterson is anything but conventional.
He’s one part businessman (when pressed, he estimates he’d be making more than $1 million a year if he’d stuck with his banking job in New York City), one part foodie (he co-owns Happy Dog in Gordon Square), one part enthusiast (have you been to Happy Dog?) and one part advocate.
Watterson and Sean Kilbane opened Happy Dog in 2008. The local hot spot is known for its menu of hot dogs and veggie dogs served with a choice of 50 toppings. It’s also a destination known for supporting local musicians.
Admittedly, Watterson and Kilbane had no experience in the industry. Happy Dog turned out to be a success — until the pandemic. That’s when the advocate side of Watterson kicked into an even higher gear. He’d long been an advocate for community and the arts, helping to form Art EverySpace, which connects local artists with real estate developers, and taking home the Cleveland Arts Prize in 2021.
The new challenges created by COVID-19 inspired hundreds of venue owners nationwide — including Watterson, who led the Ohio precinct — to launch the National Independent Venue Association. The group successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress for a $16 billion Shuttered Venues Operators Grant in 2020.
Trying to help restaurants was an easy bridge for Watterson to cross.
The Fund for Our Economic Future formalized the work Watterson had been doing informally by selecting him to lead a one-year project on how to help the local hospitality industry.
“The entire model is built on lower wages, so this is something we’re going to be grinding through for a while,” Watterson says. “It’s not just a Cleveland problem. It’s a nationwide problem.”
We’re still in a period of adjustment, Watterson counsels, and it remains to be seen how everything will shake out. It could be that prices — and wages — will be higher. It could be that hours are shorter or less certain. It could mean more takeout and delivery.
Everything, says Watterson, is on the table. “Restaurants are adjusting on the fly,” he says. “There are no magic wands and no secret sauce.
“It’s good to come up with different ways of delivering for folks, but while you’re doing that you’re not making the money you were making,” he adds. “It’s a lot of stress.”
So what can customers do?
“Empathy helps,” Watterson says. “If you want your favorite local businesses, your favorite pub or your favorite restaurant to survive, show up and be generous and know they’re giving you everything they’ve got right now.”