It is impossible to have a conversation with Alan Glazen outdoors in Ohio City without the ad-man-turned-neighborhood-developer stopping to wave at passersby, inquire about a homeless man or squeeze the shoulder of patrons.
Glazen wouldn't have it any other way.
Sitting around a cast-iron table on the patio outside ABC the Tavern with co-owners Linda Syrek and Randy Kelly, Glazen looks like the host of his own backyard barbecue. Tanned and fashionable in a navy polo and a pair of large, round, owl-like glasses, Glazen jokes with his partners, slapping them on the back and nudging them with his elbow as he tells story after story, stopping occasionally to nibble calamari.
Syrek and Kelly, looking casual in sandals and jeans, listen politely to their friend, only rolling their eyes a little whenever Glazen starts into a diatribe on everything from the return of workplace formal wear (he's for it) to whether burlesque pictures are anti-feminist (he thinks they're not).
"Alan's lips can barely keep up with his brain," Kelly jokes later.
But the partners let Glazen run on because he is an entertaining narrator — and because they know that buried in the deluge of words are nuggets of genius.
Indeed, it was Glazen's creativity and heartfelt pitches that served as keys to his success in building the advertising firm that bears his name, Glazen Creative Studios.
"Alan put Don Draper to shame," says Tony Weber, who worked with Glazen in the '90s and is now the company's CEO. "The man could sell beachfront property in Kansas."
Today, the former agency founder, with a self-diagnosed case of attention deficit disorder, has refocused his creative energies on building an empire of coffee shops, bars and restaurants in
Cleveland's most up-and-coming neighborhoods. The eateries emphasize comfort in both liquid and human form, serving up platters of good, affordable food and beer. Relying on his own tastes, expansive imagination and deep pockets, Glazen has created a professional afterlife as an innovative neighborhood developer, using working-class bars as his medium and his talent for word spinning as a means to spur excitement.
Along with ABC the Tavern, Glazen and partners run and operate XYZ the Tavern, an upscale eatery in the Gordon Square neighborhood, and Viaduct Lounge, a restaurant focusing on small plates for the after-work crowd in Ohio City.
In the fall, they will open another ABC the Tavern in the triangle between Little Italy, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals, near developer MRN Ltd.'s highly anticipated $300 million mixed retail and residential revamp of University Circle. As if that weren't enough, their bid to buy the Ontario Street Cafe, a blue-collar bar near the Horseshoe Casino, was accepted in July. Glazen is also a founder of the Erie Island Coffee Co., which has locations on East Fourth Street and in Rocky River.
"Our goal is to be the poor man's Michael Symon," says Glazen.
And he's not done. Glazen has the bold idea of teaming with the city's most popular chefs to open several new restaurants in a single night, like a neighborhood edition of Extreme Makeover for the Waterloo Arts and Entertainment District of Collinwood, a few blocks from where Glazen's parents grew up.
They already have the buy-in.
"I am kind of psyched," admits Crop owner Steve Schimoler, a proponent of the project. "I think our strength in numbers is a huge advantage to having [Waterloo] be seen as a great destination neighborhood for food, music and entertainment. The timing is perfect for several people to join forces and really walk the walk."
If someone had told Alan Glazen 40 years ago that he would one day own a chain of coffee shops and bars, he would have said they'd been drinking too many Buds.
Growing up in South Euclid, Glazen was raised for a corner office. "My dad was a third- or fourth-generation carpenter who wasn't proud of his craft," he says. "As a result, I was never allowed to touch a tool."
Every morning, other fathers in Glazen's Jewish neighborhood would head out to their downtown office jobs with a briefcase, while his dad carried a toolbox and never knew where his next job would be. "Even though my dad could build a whole house without a plan, he was embarrassed he didn't wear a suit to work," he recalls.
So his father sent young Alan to shadow his uncle, Ivan Weinstock, a publisher and former president of Penton Publishing. He caddied at Highland Golf Course, even though he hated golf, so he could meet the right kind of people.
Weinstock introduced Glazen to the subtleties of the professional culture. "He taught me everything I knew, from how to polish my shoes, shake a hand and sell my abilities," says Glazen. He also introduced Glazen to Henry Eaton, the co-founder of the advertising and public relations firm Dix & Eaton, who helped the 17-year-old get his first job in the advertising field.
But Glazen didn't have the temperament of an office worker. "I need complete distraction to get my mind to stop," he says. "Most people need to focus. I need to unfocus."
After graduating from Brush High School in 1967, Glazen attended John Carroll University, where he took night classes while majoring in marketing. But he found more excitement in an internship with Dix & Eaton than he did in any of his classes. He skipped most of them.
The intern proved too eager. Glazen was fired a year after he started. "I was just overflowing with ideas and enthusiasm ... but I think as a young kid, I was sharing too much instead of listening more," he muses now.
Glazen dropped out of school and managed to talk his way into a job as the director of media relations at Case Western Reserve University. "People seem to find me somewhat convincing," he says impishly. "They like my enthusiasm and fearlessness."
In between assignments, Glazen spent his free time working on George McGovern's presidential campaign.
The bosses told Glazen he had to stop. Instead, he quit. In 1972, he formed Glazen Advertising, a boutique firm that focused on creative content and political campaign ads.
"Alan's services were inexpensive and low profile," says Joel Solloway, who worked with Glazen in the mid-'70s. "But he had this level of confidence that just encircled him."
In a town with heavyweight agencies such as Wyse Advertising and Meldrum and Fewsmith, Glazen saw an opening, positioning himself as free-thinking, creative rebel. "I was pretty lucky, because just as I began my career, the business world had discovered the power of creativity, and they were mystified by people to whom ideas came quickly and easily," he says.
By the early 1980s, he'd built a reputation for creating effective political ads, handling almost 50 local campaigns for the likes of Dennis Eckart, Ed Feighan and Lee Fisher.
But Glazen's 1986 ad for Northfield Park — "Every 19 minutes the place goes crazy" — was a real winner. "It was an iconic ad," says Lisa Rose, a senior managing director at Dix & Eaton. "It came with this catchy jingle, and it really helped Northfield grow."
It propelled the agency as well, attracting more clients that helped push it over $10 million in billing. Ads followed for National City ("One bank is not like all the rest") and Mr. Hero ("Follow your heart"). Glazen also owned four of the sandwich shops at the time.
"People would volunteer to be on shoots just to experience Alan's amazing creativity," says Tony Weber, who took over the agency in 2002. "His name was synonymous with creativity."
Glazen's strength was in the vision, not the details. "Sitting in pitch meetings, we were often like, Alan, that's a great idea. Now how the hell are we going to do that?' " recalls Weber, who was often left with the task of executing the ideas.
One time, when the Cleveland Museum of Art was looking to expand its outreach, Glazen sold them on the idea of having Mike Hargrove, then manager of the Cleveland Indians, give a tour of the museum. One problem: Hargrove had never been to the museum.
But after a few decades, the everyday pressures became too much. The job, says Glazen, was "becoming less and less about creativity and more and more about cash flow."
The stress weighed on him. "I was in the hospital every other week, thinking I was having a heart attack," Glazen says. "My wife stopped going with me after a while."
After four hospital visits, Glazen decided it was time to rethink his trajectory. "I'd made it into the Advertising Hall of Fame [in Cleveland] — even though I never actually belonged to the Ad Club that presented it," he says proudly. Glazen figured he'd retire to New York, and finish the one thing he'd never accomplished: his degree.
So the co-founder of the Cleveland International Film Festival and playwright who penned The Trial of Anna Hahn about the first woman to die in Ohio's electric chair, studied American literature at the New School in New York. He graduated magna cum laude at the age of 58.
But after four years, he realized he was missing something: Cleveland. He missed the community, the people, the neighborhoods.
"Cleveland," Glazen says, "has always been and always will be my home."
In 2008, he bought a home in Kelleys Island. There, he started investing in projects that interested him, including the Erie Island Coffee Co. on Kelleys Island that was later expanded to East Fourth Street and Rocky River.
The experience of starting a business whetted his appetite for the hospitality industry. Then, in 2009, Randy Kelly approached Glazen with his big idea.
Growing up, it seemed obvious to everyone but Randy Kelly that he was destined for the bar business. Kelly lived above a VFW hall in Walton Hills where his father worked as a bartender. Later, after moving to Streetsboro, "my mom sent me with my dad on the beer runs to make sure he came home," he says.
After high school, Kelly followed his father's path, making drinks and pouring beer. He was managing Sammy's at Gund Arena in 1994 when he was introduced to Syrek.
They were set up by a friend who told the duo the staff was meeting for drinks in Tremont. By the time Kelly and Syrek ordered their first beers, they realized no one else was coming, which turned out to be just fine. They sat at the bar talking for hours — and a few days later they were a couple. "We haven't been apart since," says Syrek.
The husband-and-wife pair have worked together ever since, too — at Velvet Tango Room and co-managing The ParkView and The West Side Market Cafe.
"They are just good, kind people," says Trace Althoff, a former West Side Market Cafe patron, who now works for Kelly and Syrek. "When you bring parents or relatives into the bar, they are genuinely excited to meet them."
But they always dreamed of having their own place — a dream that sat dormant for decades until they partnered with Glazen.
After returning from New York in 2008, Glazen began many of his mornings at The West Side Market Cafe, where the couple worked as managers.
They had long been acquaintances — Glazen's cousin is one of Kelly's best friends — but they weren't close. That changed after mornings spent talking over plates of eggs and bacon, reminiscing about the good old days.
One morning, Kelly offered an idea: ABC the Tavern was up for sale. How did Glazen feel about buying and preserving the place with them?
The first time Glazen entered ABC the Tavern, he felt like he'd walked into the 1930s. He loved the bones of the bar, with its exposed brick walls, dart boards and long, curved bar. "It seemed the sort of place my grandfather would have a shot and a beer at," he says. "I loved its authenticity."
The day after touring the place, he called Kelly: "Let's do this."
The startup capital for the bar came from Glazen's pockets, but the logistical details — construction, hiring and menu planning — were Kelly and Syrek's domain. "I didn't know how to get a hamburger from a cow," explains Glazen. "I still don't."
They kept the original decor of ABC the same, hired a chef and created a beer list with 100 different brews. In late 2009, ABC the Tavern opened, quickly becoming a home for hipsters, industry people and neighborhood regulars.
"It was crazy," says Sam McNulty, the owner of McNulty's Bier Markt and Market Garden Brewery. "ABC had been for sale for years and nobody stepped up to the plate until Randy and Linda. Now everyone who looked at the place and turned it down all regret it."
ABC became a second home for Glazen, who enjoyed sitting at the bar, chatting with the patrons. "No one told me the restaurant business was so fun," he says.
A few months later, the partners were sitting together for one of their daily meetings when Glazen threw out an unexpected proposition: "You know what we have to do?" he asked.
"What?" Kelly responded.
"We've got to open another one."
No way, thought Kelly.
"We were content just to have this," Syrek explains.
But Glazen pushed forward. "If we feel good now, having two will make us feel even better. Why shouldn't we feel better?"
The competitive and antsy Glazen, who once left a Rolling Stones concert because he was bored, places no faith in the status quo.
"Alan doesn't do anything in ones," explains Solloway. "He sets a plan, fulfills it, then goes on to the next plan."
Kelly and Syrek turned out to be an easy sell. "One of Glazen's gifts is his ability to get people excited," says Courtney Bonning, the owner of Bonbon Pastry & Cafe and one of Glazen's good friends. "He has a passion for everything business and he makes people want to be a part of things."
He also has the money to front these locations. "None of us like owing money, so we've always gone the cash route," Glazen explains. "The money is getting no return in the bank. I had the cash."
Perry's Family Restaurant was a shuttered, family-run greasy spoon in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood when the trio went to look at it. With its century-old brick façade and location in a revitalized, mid-20th century Irish neighborhood, it had all the fixings of a Glazen project. The partners also liked that the street had a strong anchor in Cleveland Public Theatre, and that young creative people had started moving to the area.
In February 2011, XYZ the Tavern opened as ABC's slightly more sophisticated cousin. The place featured upscale comfort food: jerk chicken, double patty burgers and more than a hundred varieties of whiskey. The revamped workingman's hangout caught on quickly with neighborhood regulars and arts patrons.
Eight months later, they opened Viaduct Lounge in the former Ponte Vecchio, a glass-paneled space on West 25th Street with a striking skyline view. "It was a very unique opportunity because it had failed to capitalize on its amazing location and views for almost a decade," says Glazen. "The landlord was generous with his terms, which gave us a chance to approach the project at very little risk."
In July, they secured their niche by adding the Ontario Street Cafe — a dark, decades-old bar across from the Horseshoe Casino that Glazen frequents, featuring 22-ounce draft beers and overstuffed corned beef sandwiches.
"They've found a sort of mix that works really well in Cleveland," says Justin Glanville, an urban planner at Cleveland State University. "They've found the neighborhoods with all the new energy. You sort of go down the list of neighborhoods where revitalization is occurring, and they're in all of them."
On a recent Saturday afternoon in June, Kelly, Syrek and Glazen stop by the site of their new ABC the Tavern location in University Circle.
Construction is still in its early stages, with orange cones and yellow-and-black caution signs everywhere. But you can still see the sketches of the new mixed-residential and retail alley, which will be modeled after East Fourth Street.
The building skeletons have gone up, with floor-to-ceiling reflective stainless-steel façades, and small, cone-shaped green trees lining the street. CWRU and University Circle Inc. have signed some big names to fill the spaces, including Greenhouse Tavern's Jonathon Sawyer, who will open an Italian restaurant next spring.
ABC the Tavern sits at the head of the alley. The space is not yet finished, but it will feature much the same retro stylings of the West 25th Street site. The walls will be decorated with framed black and white photos of burlesque performers, and the bar will feature a jukebox and a bowling machine. Though Glazen came up with the district's Uptown Alley name, he's "secretly hoping people will start referring to the district as ABC Alley," he says.
Glazen first heard of the University Circle project from his good friend Ari Maron, whose company MRN Ltd. is heading up the $300 million redevelopment that dovetails with the new Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland at the corner of Mayfield and Euclid.
He was immediately interested in being a part of the project, which is anchored by the museums and CWRU, with 50,000 people living and working within a mile of the corner.
Glazen prides himself on his ability to recognize talent. "They're geniuses," Glazen says of the Marons. "I think of them as the second founding family of Cleveland."
University Circle officials, in turn, saw ABC's potential. "We don't really have an establishment that does quite what ABC does — provide good food in a casual bar setting," says Debbie Berry, vice president of planning and real estate development for University Circle Inc. "Typically, Case students have gone up to the Cleveland Heights area for that experience."
The early decision to enter University Circle is yet another signifier of the group's foresight, says Glanville. "All the neighborhoods they look at have some sort of arts focus," he says. "A lot of developers today are putting a lot of energy, time and money into the concept of revitalizing a commercial core around an arts district. Places like museums and theaters are permanent attractions that aren't going to get up and leave any time soon. They are kind of magnets and anchors that draw people to the neighborhood."
Soon after the University Circle deal, Glazen's mind once again started wandering. He was passing through his parents' former Collinwood stomping grounds when he paused in the Waterloo Arts and Entertainment District, home to the Beachland Ballroom, Music Saves, Native Cleveland, a tattoo parlor and a few other shops.
He stopped his car. The empty storefronts and graffiti-coated apartment buildings called to him. This is a block just waiting to make money, Glazen thought. But unlike his other ventures, there were no restaurants or bars in the area that could feed off and support each other. Glazen feared that if they opened a restaurant by itself, it was destined to fail.
On the other hand, if he got, say, five restaurateurs to commit to the area and open at the same time, the place, Glazen decided, "was made to succeed." He called his plan Project Light Switch — for the moment when all the restaurants would flip on their lights — and started calling all his friends.
Waterloo is located on Cleveland's right hip, 15 minutes from downtown, a block off the freeway and down the street from the lake. The brick buildings that crowd the street are as squat and sturdy as the Eastern European immigrants that used to run the sausage and pierogi shops on the block. Located next to the railroads, Collinwood served as the home to the diverse collection of pail-swinging, overall-wearing industrial workers who earned a living on the rail.
Today, the area is populated by artists who have been helped by the community's commitment to affordable live/work spaces, low-income residents and urban pioneers hoping to get in before the deluge. In the next eight months, the neighborhood will embark on a $4 million streetscape renovation to improve the roads, sidewalks and curbs in an effort to make the street more pedestrian friendly.
What the area is missing, admits Ward 11 Councilman Mike Polensek, is "places people can go to enjoy a meal or beer." The one restaurant that did open failed, mostly, Polensek says, because "artists had tried to run it." Many of the storefronts are not set up for food service.
But when Kelly, Syrek and Glazen took a tour of the area, their eyes widened. "I thought Oh, my god, there's so much potential there," Syrek says. "There were like seven storefronts available within one or two blocks."
So they began calling their industry contacts: Sam McNulty, Jonathon Sawyer, Steve Schimoler, Michael Symon. All were intrigued.
"It's a cool, old community," says Schimoler. "I've had a hankering for it since the first time I went to the Beachland Ballroom six or seven years ago. The area has so much potential."
The all-star cast makes the deal more appealing. "Michael Symon and Jonathon Sawyer are some pretty influential people," Schimoler says. "I like the idea of all of us turning our lights on at the same time. How cool would it be if we all opened on the same day?"
The Crop owner has been out to visit the street and sees himself opening a "Crop Rocks-type cafe" — a fun, casual establishment that hosts nightly bands. "For me," he says, "it's not a question of if it happens, but rather when."
McNulty has also penciled himself in as a tenant, though opening a place on the East Side would require him to purchase a car (his current transportation consists of a bike and scooter).
"The real successful districts are the ones that cluster," he says. "On the East Side, there really aren't many places with a critical mass. I'm very much interested in being a part of this." McNulty added he wouldn't commit to a concept for his restaurant until he settled on a space.
But Project Light Switch is in its earliest stages. Glazen has asked the Northeast Shores Development Corp. to identify properties and help secure funding. Most of the stores in the neighborhood were not zoned or used as restaurants, so they would need to be reformatted and updated. Glazen puts the likelihood of Project Light Switch occurring at about 30 percent, with the number rising each day.
Glazen knows from his ad days that success depends on buy-in from both the potential guests and the other restaurateurs.
"Mass equals revenue," he says. "In marketing, you must create mass, or at least the sensation of mass." The more people talk about the project, the more likely others will be willing to join in, which is why he has been talking up Waterloo to reporters, bloggers and random patrons at his eateries.
He's convinced his friends.
"I think it will absolutely happen," says Courtney Bonning, who is in talks to open a shop in Collinwood. "When Glazen has a vision, he makes it happen. I've never seen him fail."
And though no blueprints have been drawn up, no architects chosen, no financing approved, Glazen has already figured out the marketing hook.
"Collinwood," he says confidently, "will be known as the center of the world's indie universe."