Steve Schimoler is calling from a restaurant kitchen in Siesta Key, Florida, where he’s smoking mangoes for pico de gallo.
“Basically, we took over the kitchen yesterday morning at 7 a.m.,” says Schimoler, the former chef and co-founder of Crop Restaurant Group in Cleveland. He’s been back in the country for two months after a yearlong sabbatical in Italy.
This turnaround project at a floundering Latin restaurant on the barrier island is kick-starting his relaunched food consulting and development business. But the timetable is tight.
“We reopen for dinner tomorrow night,” he says. “We had a plan kind of like the Normandy invasion.”
These are the kind of high-octane experiences Schimoler was known for in Cleveland. Besides running the inventive Ohio City eatery, Schimoler operated a food product development lab kitchen in the Crop Bistro basement, fine-tuning products for the likes of Starbucks and Jamba Juice. In fall 2014, he opened Crop Kitchen in Uptown and helped anchor the Flats East Bank when it opened in 2015 with Crop Sticks, Crop Rocks and On Air Studio.
Which made the sudden, mysterious closure of the restaurant group’s Uptown and Flats locations in July and September 2016 so shocking. Looking back, Schimoler attributes the failures to a number of factors — the brutal 2015 winter, low traffic, tricky locations and lack of interest from Case Western Reserve University students in the Uptown neighborhood.
“You have to make difficult choices sometimes when you look at your financials,” says Schimoler. “You can spend thousands trying to keep something going while you’re waiting [for the market], but you hit a certain point where the return is clearly not there.”
In the middle of it all, Schimoler left as his restaurants were shuttering. When he announced a six-month sabbatical to Lucca, Italy, in August 2016 — which would later turn into a year — the restaurateur left little clue as to why he’d departed Crop Restaurant Group and Cleveland. In April, Schimoler wrote a blog post, which has since been deleted, about the mounting stress and frustration of juggling all his responsibilities. The strain intensified, he said, when his two brothers died within six months of each other in 2013, a loss he never really allowed himself to grieve.
“The pressure, stress, worry, loss and mental anguish wasn’t worth the gain anymore,” Schimoler wrote.
While in Italy, he worked at the 16th century Villa Valentina, a private rental villa in the coastal town of Levanto. As he was happily cooking the best food of his career — nightly five-course meals for the guests, with ingredients he’d picked and planted — Schimoler decided he wasn’t coming back to Crop Bistro even though he was welcomed back by its new owners.
“I’m just too engaged,” he says. “I would go right back into working 12 hours, seven days a week.”
Today, he’s refocused his career. Resettled in Sarasota, Schimoler spends most days consulting, working on everything from a national brand food supplier to the occasional restaurant rescue.
But his biggest venture is a top-secret food product concept he’s launching with his daughter Kirsten, a former flavor guru for Ben & Jerry’s. He expects their product to come with a national brand introduction, and Schimoler is confident it may even land him back on the TV morning show circuit.
As for returning to Cleveland, Schimoler promises to “never say never.” In fact, he’s currently eyeing two production locations for their business in Northeast Ohio.