Is Cleveland a town of redemption? Maybe. Depends what you’re offering. At Cleveland Sandwich Co., not much is off the table. The sandwiches are arranged right in front of you by Kevin O’Connell, the chatterbox chef and owner who joyfully stomps around the 1,200-square-foot counter service shop in the lobby of his space in downtown’s Superior Building.
The meat is hand-carved, cheese house-made and focaccia bread sourced from Cleveland’s Stone Oven Bakery. Altogether, these sandwiches tower over the downtown deli competition.
Next door, O’Connell hosts Cleveland Supper Club, a Friday night tasting menu in a renovated office space. Opulent meals of steak, pasta, pork belly and lobster, depending on the week, show off the other side of a man who once had white-tablecloth dreams. During a jam-packed sneak peek of the in-the-know spot, he jokes that he’s “running from the law.”
Except, it’s not totally a joke. More accurately, O’Connell is running from his past.
“It was 15 years ago,” he says. “I fell on the sword. I had to do what I had to do.”
O’Connell grew up in Los Angeles but was born in Buffalo, where his father, Kevin O’Connell Sr., was a newscaster. After a stint in New York City, O’Connell became co-owner and chef of Blue Smoke in Great Falls, Montana. Later, it changed to Indigo: An American Bistro, which closed in 2005.
So O’Connell returned to Buffalo to launch O’Connell’s Hourglass, which later changed to O’Connell’s American Bistro, with his parents in 2005. The latter earned 4 out of 4 stars from Janice Okun, longtime dining editor for The Buffalo News. She called the food “carefully seasoned” and “high quality, no matter which route you choose.”
In 2008, O’Connell was arrested for fraud he’d committed in Montana. After pleading guilty to stealing more than $44,000 from a customer’s credit card to buy restaurant equipment, he spent a year in prison and house arrest and paid $13,000 in restitution.
“I paid my penance,” says O’Connell. “I was a much younger man, and there hasn’t been one iota of problem since.”
O’Connell’s American Bistro closed shortly after O’Connell was released, and he moved to Los Angeles in 2012. The chef, no stranger to embellishment, remembers his time fondly. He launched two food truck concepts The MacDaddy and The Codfather, which served mac ‘n’ cheese and fish, respectively. He worked on bigtime film sets and can be seen parked next to celeb Roy Coi’s Kogi BBQ Taco Truck in the movie Chef, he says.
But there were failures, too. In 2013, he opened a restaurant called 9 Olives in the famed Chaplin House on Sunset Boulevard, which lasted less than a year. Once again, he rebranded, this time into a bar called Punk’s, which wasn’t much more successful.
In 2020, he returned to Buffalo. He felt he’d paid for his sins and hoped to recreate the decadent O’Connell experience at home. But The Standard never got off the ground. The State of New York denied the restaurant's application for a liquor license due to a ban on former felons being granted that permit, according to The Buffalo News. O’Connell, who says his owner mother was the applicant, felt the story was misreported. Nonetheless, Buffalo no longer felt welcoming.
“My father has done more philanthropic work in Buffalo than anybody. My mother should be a saint,” he says. “People were saying nasty things about them. I was not going to make my parents go through that. So I left.”
But why Cleveland?
“There’s an evolution happening here, and I wanted to get in right on the ground floor,” he says. He also spent a little time here growing up. It’s not far from Buffalo, where he hopes to launch a food truck. Fahrenheit's Rocco Whalen, a friend, suggested he come here, where the O’Connell name carries less weight. “We’re a city of redemption, bro,” the chef told him.
More importantly, he’s got big plans. A second Cleveland Sandwich Co. is set to open this summer at the Cleveland Food Hub on Carnegie Avenue. He applied for a stall to serve hand-carved sandwiches at the West Side Market. Reservations for Cleveland Supper Club — BYOB, by the way — are booked out weeks ahead. He’s got a girlfriend whose talented 16-year-old daughter painted the aerial map of downtown and other art that hangs in his shop.
So for better or worse, he’s here. Bearing sandwiches. Asking for forgiveness.
“I’ve started a new life here in Cleveland. I’ve employed some people and tried to do things that other people
aren’t doing,” O'Connell says. “I’m just trying to win on the merit of what I’m doing now.”
Try This: There are certain sandwiches you look at and wonder How the hell am I going to eat that thing? Cleveland Sandwich Co.’s Muffuletta is one of them. As you watch Kevin O’Connell build it behind his counter in the Superior Building, the fist-sized hunk of house-made burrata catches your eye first, of course, but don’t underestimate the stack of Virginia ham, salami and mortadella. “We make all our own cheese and fabricate and slice all our own meats,” says the chef. “I’m a big believer in local but also serving the best ingredients.” The New Orleans classic, complete with fresh olive tapenade, gets its O’Connell twist and its Cleveland shout from the basil aioli spread across a rustic sesame seed brioche roll from Stone Oven Bakery. Believe me, you’ll find a way.