Sterle's Country House Sterle's Country House
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The bar inside Sterle's Country House on East 55th Street feels flash-frozen in time.

Waitresses push three-shelved serving carts with plates of Wiener schnitzel, stuffed cabbage and prime rib loaded with heavy potatoes. The Polka Pirates, of the banjo-trumpet-accordion variety, are playing — "In heaven there is no beer, that's why we drink it here. ..." — and the mostly older crowd gets up and dances between salad and entree.

In that sense, Sterle's is unchanged since Slovenian immigrant Frank Sterle opened it on the same stretch of East 55th Street in 1954. The long tables. The murals with an Alpine village under snow-white peaks. It is a place that both the kids and the walking-cane crowd can enjoy, with fare that is not the least artisanal, fusion or experimental.

On this Friday night, diners fill only about a third of the tables, mostly with special-occasion family groupings, maybe celebratingstara mama's birthday with her grandchildren or a couple out for their wedding anniversary with their grown children. Most of the customers are tourists in a sense, driving in from the suburbs to eat near where their families used to live.

At the end of the bar, Sterle's owner Rick Semersky stands near the kitchen doors in jeans and a light jacket. Hockey-player handsome with tousled dark hair, a wiry build and flecks of gray on his didn't-shave-today face, he nurses a draft beer and watches the movement of the staff. He talks to everyone from the busboys to the bartender with an engaging smile that morphs into a playful smirk at times.

"What I've learned about the restaurant business is that it is not as simple as it looks from the outside," he laughs. "It isn't just about putting food on plates and getting it to the table."

The 42-year-old never owned a restaurant or bar before he bought Sterle's in 2012. Semersky worked next door at VIP, a 200-employee construction company, for more than two decades. A former intern who dropped out of college to join the restoration firm, Semersky has owned VIP since 2007.

But when one of Sterle's owners died and the other wanted to retire, the neighborhood anchor went up for sale. After no buyers came forward, Semersky figured if he didn't buy the Cleveland landmark, it was going to go under. "I know this neighborhood," he says in a stern voice of a protective parent.

Semersky's grandparents lived down the street from Sterle's on Bonna Avenue near St. Vitus Catholic Church before eventually heading to the suburbs. His father used to drive him around the St. Clair Superior neighborhood, showing him the old houses around St. Vitus, pointing out who lived where and how Sheliga Drug store still had items you didn't even know you needed until you walked in.

When he was older, Semersky walked the streets on his lunch breaks at VIP. An architecture and urban planning student at Cleveland State University before taking the job, he enjoyed seeing how everything fit together — from retail on St. Clair Avenue to the impressive church to the houses with big porches — and imagined giving it a purpose again.

He had always seen Sterle's as more than a place to eat sausage and sauerkraut, and listen to polkas. "The customers have to feel like they have an ownership in it as well," he says.

So after taking over, Semersky went to work by adding newer bands, like the Chardon Polka Band, to the polka nights on Friday and Saturday. In 2013, he added Szemerszky's, a European-style beer garden out back that offered its own menu of grilled meats, poured beer from Milwaukee's Sprecher Brewing Co. and carried his family's name with its original spelling. To draw unfamiliar crowds to the neighborhood, he hosted the successful Cleveland Flea artisan market in the parking lot until it eventually outgrew the space.

But given that Semersky works in real estate, and everything is in phases, owning the classic restaurant was just the beginning. His master plan, which begins to take shape this month, is dubbed Hub 55 and includes the former St. Clair Cleveland Public Library and the Lakeshore Banking and Trust building.

Cafe 55, a new healthy, fast-casual breakfast and lunch spot, opens next door to Sterle's this month followed by Goldhorn Brewery, a small craft brewer with a tasting room and beer garden, in late July or early August.

A market featuring food from locally grown community gardens and artisanal bread, cheese and other goods is planned for early 2016. Later, a higher-end restaurant in the bank building and redesigned office and retail space are expected to follow.

Open plazas will connect the various components, but Sterle's will remain the anchor.

"This has never been merely about saving some old buildings," Semersky says. "When I talked to my dad and my grandmother, I always heard about how they had everything they needed. Neighbors you knew. Markets close by. Your job very close. The church bells ringing so you knew what time it is."

He's convinced some of the city's top culinary talent to buy in to his vision and oversee the operations. Courtney Bonning of Ohio City staple Bonbon Pastry and Cafe helped get Cafe 55 started. Jeff Jarrett, formerly of Amp 150 at the Cleveland Airport Marriott, will oversee the food operations at Hub 55, including Sterle's. Brewer Joel Warger, a 14-year veteran of Great Lakes Brewing Co., will lead Goldhorn.

Sterle's beer garden will have barbecue done by Walter Hyde, who ran a great roadside joint in Macedonia called Fat Casual BBQ.

"This isn't about going into the past in some nostalgic way," Semersky says. "It's about taking what was great in the past and bringing it into the present."

Semersky has always had a fascination with the neighborhood around East 55th Street and St. Clair Avenue.

Although he spent his elementary school years in Mentor and his father’s job in banking and sales took the family to Toledo when he started high school, Semersky was attracted to this place and how it tapped into his Croatian roots.

“He would talk to his grandmother about all sorts of things,” says his father Rich Semersky, who now lives in Sandusky. “But mostly he had questions about how different things were than they were in Mentor.”

Here, you could walk to church and the hardware store and to Sterle’s down the street. “These people had a very practical approach to life,” Rich says. “Everyone had a garden in their backyard. People sat on their porches and waved to each other. I think he is one of those in his generation who grew up in the suburbs and saw living on a cul-de-sac where you have to drive to everywhere you go isn’t what he wanted.” 

In fact, Semersky still enjoys walking others through the neighborhood. “All of the houses are still very close together,” he says. “There’s still a very tight-knit sense of community there.”

When it was time, Semersky attended John Carroll University and then CSU. After four years and two colleges, he applied for an intern job at VIP in 1996. Semersky figured he would learn some of the restoration business at VIP, then go back to college and work toward a degree. 

“I’m very hands on,” says Semersky, who enjoyed learning about buildings, their place and their importance to people. “As time went on, I didn’t think about school any more.”

His boss, Vince Piscitello, quickly recognized Semersky’s potential to balance the specific engineering and construction details of the job while selling VIP’s credibility. 

“He is very engaging,” says Piscitello, who eventually sold Semersky the business. “[He] knows how to tread that fine line of being one of the smartest people in the room without going out of his way to make sure people know he is the smartest person in the room.” 

Those characteristics have helped VIP prosper. A leader in the exterior restoration business, the company has worked on the Terminal Tower, Playhouse Square theaters, Old Stone Church, the West Side Market and Public Hall. 

Currently, VIP is restoring the terra cotta outer shell of the Schofield Building at East Ninth Street and Euclid Avenue. 

“The reason I have always been really engaged in these projects is they are about history,” Semersky says. “A valuable asset of a city like Cleveland is its incredible history.” 

Part of what makes the Hub 55 project interesting is how it incorporates parts of basic living that older Eastern Europeans in Cleveland have always thought of as nothing more than being thrifty and practical. They had survived world wars and communist takeovers and economic depression after depression. So living in Cleveland and working in a factory was a big step up. But you also grew vegetables in your backyard and kept parsnips in the basement and ate cabbage and noodles at many meals, because you didn’t know when the good times would end.

“Most developers don’t think about the neighborhood surrounding their project,” Semersky says. “What we are trying to do here is to add things into the neighborhood that it once had — neighborhood retail, food places that are a meeting place, public spaces that people gravitate to — things that this neighborhood used to have that are just as important now as they were then.”

Before the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway was built in the 1950s, St. Clair was the major thoroughfare running into downtown Cleveland from the east. It was one of Cleveland’s centerpiece neighborhoods. But the rerouting of traffic with the freeway left this area an island of sorts, and over time, the poverty of the East Side pushed in mostly from Superior Avenue on the south.

“The neighborhood isn’t dead,” Semersky says. “We can put things back into place to make it like it once was. I’m very confident we can do that.”

Sterle's Country House

Rick Semersky, owner of Sterle’s County House, opens Cafe 55 this month as the first phase of his Hub 55 project.

Accordian at Sterle's Country House

St. Vitus’ twin bell towers, in pale Fallston brick, rise 110-feet into the air.

They frame the large circular window and Romanesque details of the parish’s front entrance, which has welcomed parishioners of mainly Slovenian, Croatian and Italian descent since it was completed in 1932.

St. Martin de Porres High School, in a building with the name St. Vitus School still carved in stone below a large cross, is next door. The Catholic school, which combines work-study with traditional classroom education, opened in 2004 with about 100 students. It has about 400 now and is embarking on an expansion plan that will invest about $26 million in a combined new facility and rehabbed old structure on St. Clair Avenue.

And just a few minutes walk away, the squat, 1924 Slovenian National Home stretches for nearly a block with a main ballroom upstairs and smaller hall on the first level. With new T-shirts that proclaim, “Where Old School is the New Cool,” the organization celebrated its 100th anniversary last year and is exploring converting some unused space into loft apartments.

Although Semersky won’t give out specific costs for the Hub 55 project, he estimates he’s investing about $1 million of his own money. Government grants and foundation funds will make up the rest. 

“If you look up ‘hub’ in the dictionary, it’s a center where things kind of radiate,” he says. “It’s all about what brings people together.” 

Semersky and others like to point out that 10,000 people work in the neighborhood of 7,200 residents, providing a good base that is underserved in terms of restaurants and shopping. 

“If we make the neighborhood better for the people who already live here, it will be seen as a great place to move to by others,” says Jamar Doyle, assistant director of St. Clair Superior Development Corp. “But we know what we have to take care of first to make this succeed.”

While St. Vitus, the Slovenian National Home, St. Martin and others have invested in the community, many left during the nearby race riots of the 1960s, and the high crime and poverty remain a concern.  

The latest FBI stats place Cleveland as the fifth most dangerous city in the country, and the St. Clair Superior neighborhood has crime about 40 percent higher than the rest of Cleveland. 

About 45 percent of the residents have incomes below the poverty level, compared to 31 percent in the rest of the city.

St. Vitus, which has operated a parish food pantry since the early 1980s, gives out more than 1,500 pounds of food at its monthly distribution. The church also has programs that help with shut-off of utilities, rent assistance, appliances assistance and other social services. 

Semersky’s Hub 55 market, in fact, received an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The 12,000-square-foot grocery store and education facility will be part of a program designed to give urban areas more retail food options — to reverse the urban food desert. Besides providing access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy food options, the market will offer programs to teach young people how to cook. 

In addition, the Kresge Foundation recently awarded St. Clair Superior Development Corp. a $735,000 grant for food projects that promote public health in low-income neighborhoods.

The thinking is simple: A locally sourced food business will encourage better eating, help entrepreneurs, give locals a close place to shop and bring in outsiders who want better choices of local food.

“We can grow it, we can can it, we can cook it, we can sell it,” Semersky says. “That’s how that neighborhood started. Everybody took care of themselves, took care of their friends, neighbors and everything else.” 

But housing is among the biggest issues. About 37 percent of the homes are vacant in the neighborhood, compared to 19 percent in the rest of the city. 

If you go south from St. Clair toward Superior, the abandoned single-family and duplex homes with equal parts plywood and graffiti go up dramatically. Bonna Avenue — where Semersky’s grandparents lived — acts as sort of a dividing line.

“I see people just wandering these streets some nights and stealing everything they can,” says Laura Archacki, in her early 60s, who now lives in her parents’ house where she was raised, across the street from the Cleveland Crops farm. “We need to get a handle on safety.”

For many of the area old-timers and not so old-timers, the general feeling is that this neighborhood has been ignored by the city far too long. 

“This area has almost been an afterthought, yet [it] has the strengths of areas like Ohio City and Tremont in terms of location and anchor points,” Semersky says.

So, like the tall, fuzzy Kurents — strange Slovenian monsters that symbolically scare away winter and welcome spring at the annual pre-Lent Kurentovanje festival — change is beginning to thaw.

In 2013, the National Endowment for the Arts gave the neighborhood group $375,000 to help upcycling, the reuse of discarded industrial and commercial materials that can be turned into saleable art and craft items. In addition to selling nuts, bolts and other rescued items, the Cleveland Upcycle Shop on St. Clair offers art classes and workshops.

“If you’re from an Eastern European family like I am, you didn’t waste a whole heck of a lot,” says Semersky. “This upcycle movement, that St. Clair is leading the charge on, is showing people there are all these things that we can do so much more with.”

That includes St. Clair Avenue itself. A former streetcar route, the wide thoroughfare has plenty of extra capacity that planners would like to turn into bike lanes running down the median between East 72nd and East 55th streets. If funding falls into place, it could be the first two-way, center-of-the-road protected cycling lanes in the region. 

“Why not repurpose [the roadway] just like everything else and do something that people do now,” says Semersky. “They want to get out and walk and they want to get on their bike.”

Joe Hocevar, 70, a retired accounting executive who has been a lifelong resident of the neighborhood and lives in the St. Vitus senior housing facility, is happy to see the city and others investing in the area. “A lot of people have left for the suburbs over the years, but there are a lot of us who stayed,” he says. “We know what this neighborhood can be because we know what it once was.”

That’s part of what will make this project succeed, according to Cleveland city councilman Joe Cimperman, who grew up in the neighborhood and attended St. Vitus School. He understands that this area’s immigrant past, from its Eastern European roots to a recent influx of Ethiopian refugees, is part of its strength. 

“This neighborhood has always accepted newcomers and change,” he says. “The people who have survived through all sorts of historical problems are still there and are more like what we think of in Cleveland than almost any other neighborhood in the city.”

Semersky finds ways to get what he wants.

Take his Bratenahl home, for example. Built in 1915 by former Glidden Co. president Adrian Joyce, it was set to be demolished in 2001. But Semersky saved it and even served on the village council from 2008 to 2010 just to make sure the rehab process went smoothly. 

“After he bought Sterle’s, I noticed he would get real defensive when anyone said anything bad about that neighborhood,” says his partner, Melissa Knelly, with whom Semersky has two children. “It has now become a very important part of who he is.”

From the beginning, Semersky sought out Cleveland’s brightest chefs and brewers to come aboard his project. 

He used the expertise of Michael Fleming, executive director of the St. Clair Superior Development Corp., who has a background in the restaurant business, to help make connections.

“Rick sold me on the idea that we would be doing everything from old European food to healthy fast-casual to barbecue and catering,” says Jarrett, the former Amp 150 chef who will oversee all food operations. “I was hooked.” 

For his part, Semersky’s goal was simple. 

“We have great chefs and food minds in Cleveland right now,” he says. “I thought that getting the best was both reasonable and not a hard sell on this project.” 

Semersky, a fan of stoner bands such as Phish and Widespread Panic, comes from that ‘90s grunge era and is part of a generation that wants urban living with a sense of purpose. 

“If we do this right, it can be the beginning of a major difference for this part of Cleveland,” he says. “But it’s going to be a struggle in many respects, and I’m ready to invest my time to make sure this works.”

Original plans had Cafe 55 opening last fall, but delays with permits, grant applications and historic building tax credits pushed things back. He’s also waiting a few months to open the market so the cafe and brewery can establish an initial customer base.

“I don’t like to just save old buildings just because they are old,” he says. “But I definitely think what we are doing is replicable in other neighborhoods in Cleveland and in other cities. No doubt we’ll learn from this first one.”

Another challenge has been bringing Sterle’s into the modern world without losing its Old World charm. Semersky has no plans to have the waitresses wear bosom-lifting dirndl dresses nor have the bartenders don lederhosen. Instead, servers wear T-shirts with the kitschy line, “I’ll Show You My Weiner, If You Show Me Your Schnitzel” on the back.

But making any change is difficult. 

If any alteration is made to the menu,
Semersky hears about — like taking liver and onions off even though hardly anyone ever ordered it.

Jarrett doesn’t envision an overhaul at Sterle’s, but the planned brunch and beer garden choices will likely be more experimental. 

For example, he wants to do different versions of city chicken (pork on wooden skewers) and entrees featuring chicken livers. He’s considering brunch items such as paprikash over biscuits with eggs, and smoked salmon-stuffed pierogies with sour cream. 

“For the life of me,” Jarrett says, “I have no idea why buttered noodles hasn’t been a side dish at Sterle’s.”

Likewise, the new Cafe 55 is simple in many ways. With wooden tables and chairs and big windows looking out on East 55th Street, it blends with its surroundings but also draws them in. 

Jarrett’s preliminary menu has breakfast with scrambled eggs served on oven-roasted potatoes topped with choices such as goat cheese and red peppers. The build-your-own healthy lunch bowl also gives diners a choice, which might be brown rice topped with pulled pork, broccoli, red peppers and cheddar.

“Rick is trying to keep a good balance,” says Bob Hopkins, president of the Slovenian National Home. “I think people see that he is trying to mix the old with the new.”

That’s especially important if the retail-first push to draw new visitors and then residents to the neighborhood is to succeed. 

“We all agree that we do not need to set things up here where people just come down here once a month on a Sunday for dinner,” Hopkins says. “We need to get people to move here and live here.”

As Semersky sits at the Diner on 55th, an old-fashioned metal diner car that has been serving food at the busy East 55th and St. Clair intersection since 2001, you can tell he sees things perhaps others might not. 

“This isn’t going to be the next Ohio City or Tremont,” he says. “But we are going to make changes here.”

Looking out the window, he envisions the former gas station across the street as an open-air plaza, the old bank becoming a busy destination restaurant with high-end offices. Bicyclists will ride on dedicated lanes down the middle of the street. People living and working in the neighborhood will pop in the cafe for an early cup of coffee and then drop by the market to see what’s fresh. The after-work and weekend crowd will hang out and listen to music in the beer garden. 

And Sterle’s will still be, well, Sterle’s.

“It will work because this area has always been more functional than trendy,” he says. “More people want that now, and that’s what we’ll give them.”

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