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A Farewell to (Writing About) Arms. Part II
Robbed at Gunpoint; Best Thing That Could've Happened!
My apologies for the delay! If you haven’t heard, Aer Lingus (Ireland’s #1 Airline) has begun direct flights from Dublin to Cleveland and we just had to take advantage of the screaming deals they were offering! Ari and I flew roundtrip for less than $600 including our luggage and extra legroom! There has never been a better time to come to Ireland and I expect to see you all very soon! If you need any help planning, please feel free to message me!
It was naive of me to think I’d have some time to work on my newsletter during our short stay, I forgot how exciting and magical Cleveland can be! What started as a low-key trip, just to tie up some loose ends and clear out a storage unit that I can no longer afford, grew into a whirlwind tour with impromptu visits to friends, family, and favorite places. This trip left me with a deeper love for all of them, something I intend to write my next newsletter about, but for now, we must return to the second part of the story about being robbed at gunpoint at Tastebuds.
Continued From the Last Newsletter: Going Out with a Bang; The Story of Tastebuds' Armed Robbery.
Best Thing That Could’ve Happened?
Well, yes! I often joke that the robber got away with $160 and left me with thousands of dollars worth of free advertising, via word of mouth…Sergeant Timothy Leahy’s mouth! If you consider also, how many speeding tickets I got out of, with the mere mention of his name and the ‘TASTBDS’ personalized license plates, you could add another few thousand to that! Putting 2 and 2 together, most officers would begin a lively chat after pulling me over about Sgt. Leahy and his enthusiasm for my restaurant.
We’d end up talking about food and I’d describe our location and answer the usual question, why they’d driven past it a hundred times and never knew it was there and they’d forget all about the fact that ‘I can’t drive 55!’ There’s white privilege sure, but then there’s restaurateur privilege! Feeding people makes you a star, “and when you’re a star…they let you do it. You can do anything! Grab ‘em by the…” KIDDING! (Sorry, still reeling from Trump’s CNN town hall!) But seriously, there are endless perks to being a restaurant owner, which makes up for being a target for all kinds of schemes, scams, and robberies I guess!
Before the robbery, just about all of our customers that weren’t family, friends, or neighbors, could be traced back to my Aunt Theresa, who worked as a bailiff for the Honorable Judge Sikora, Cuyahoga County’s most veteran juvenile court judge at that time. She told EVERYONE working in the Juvenile Court System that they just HAD to try my new restaurant, and soon our small dining room was full of attorneys, judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. Really, she is the person most responsible for getting us going in those very critical early days and I am eternally grateful! Remember, this was before people carried the internet, GPS, and everyone’s opinions around in their back pocket or purse!
After the robbery, we had the ENTIRE City of Cleveland Criminal Justice System eating at Tastebuds, because not only did Sergeant Leahy return for a sandwich later that day (the day of the robbery), but he returned again and again and became our number-one fan and our most outspoken spokesman! He told EVERYONE about our restaurant and it was lucky for us that we were expanding into our new much larger location because EVERYONE listened to him!
One of our earliest best customers, a woman who placed very large catering orders before we even had a catering menu, told me a funny story about how she finally found us at our original location, after making several unsuccessful attempts. (Both our old and new locations were virtually impossible to find!)
She said she had been driving up and down East 30th Street looking for the restaurant, which was then located on Superior Avenue between East 30th and 31st Street, inside a small Asian Plaza. After a series of U-turns, a police car pulled her over. When she explained her frustration in trying to find a restaurant she had heard great things about, he asked excitedly, “Is it Tastebuds? I’m on my way there now! Common, I’ll take you! We can just leave the cars here!”
She said he proceeded to walk her down the back alley leading to Golden Plaza's rear entrance while rattling off everything on our menu that she should try. When they arrived at Tastebuds at the front of the long and narrow plaza, she said he showed her how the restaurant worked, told her our names, and pointed to and described every item we sold! I love that story, and I know there are a hundred more just like it!
Sgt. Leahy soon began bringing lunch to his daughter and her co-workers at the nearby Firefighters Community Credit Union, and in no time at all, we started seeing firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics lining up at Tastebuds. Having a former paramedic for a father, as well as a grandfather, and a great-grandfather that were both Lakewood firemen, it was truly an honor to serve them and just incredible to learn the history of a small group of female firefighters (some of Cleveland’s first!) who met regularly at Tastebuds as well. Conveniently, when I suffered what I thought was a heart attack in 2016, there was no shortage of emergency responders in our dining room to attend to me and calm my staff and reassure my mother, who was the one who found me despondent and struggling to breathe, that I was going to be alright.
Also, the timing of the robbery couldn’t have been any better, as I had just begun designing the new restaurant and it informed every decision I made, from the layout of the service area to the location of the cash register. Thwarting any future robberies at our new and permanent home on East 30th Street became my priority. After learning from Sgt. Leahy that thieves like a sure thing, I allowed for a bit of confusion when you walked through the front door, if you were even able to find it, that is!
We had no highly visible sign and the one we did have was neon, quite small for the space, and was only turned on when we were open and it did not say that Tastebuds was a restaurant! I built the tall to-go counter near the entrance/exit like a fortress to protect my employees. To get to the main cash register, you had to come fully into the restaurant and you’d likely have to pass a lot of customers on the way in or out. Also, no one would ever be left alone at the cash register again, and I would have a clear view of the checkout counters even if I was cooking.
We had a clever system in place as well. If we suspected someone was there to rob us, one of us would ask loudly, “Where is Sergeant Leahy? He was supposed to pick up this order 10 minutes ago. He’s never this late!” This would alert all employees to the situation and it would hopefully convince the suspicious person, if indeed he or she was there to rob us, that police were already on the way. And then, (my favorite part!) we would kill this person with kindness! I’d pretend to know them and I’d greet them with over-the-top warmth and affection, asking how they’ve been and telling them how much we’ve missed them. Then I’d lean toward them and ask in a whisper if we did something wrong the last time they were in because it had been way too long since we’d seen them.
The robbery taught us to look for the signs. It is a dead giveaway when someone walks into a restaurant and immediately scans the place to see where the register is and who is around, or when they don’t look at the food or the menu, keeping their eyes on the door instead, as they keep moving up in line towards the register.
The guy who robbed us had his hands in his pockets when he entered the restaurant and kept them there as he let other customers cut in front of him. He stared at the menu hanging high on the wall behind the register but never looked at the food in the display cases closer to him. When I told Sgt. Leahy how nervous it made me to see anyone approaching the register with their hands in their pockets, he said to call them out and make a joke about it. “Thieves don’t like having any attention brought on to them,” he said. So when I’d see people’s hands in their pockets, I’d say in a joking way, “Hahaha! Geez! You seriously look like you’re gonna rob the place!” Then, looking sincerely concerned, I’d ask why they looked so serious and if there was anything I could do to cheer them up, even offering to buy them lunch! I’d quickly apologize and explain to them that a past robbery has scarred me for life, adding “I say this to everyone I see with their hands in their pockets!”
Funny enough, we had a guy wearing dark glasses, who continued to keep his hands in his pockets after I joked about it, so I took over at the register and whispered to my cashier to get ready to call 911. He paid for his lunch and I bagged it nervously. Just when he was about to walk away he turned back, and I ducked down. He asked, “Hey, do you guys cater?”
I burst out laughing with such delight and relief, and when I crawled back up the counter and told him what had been going through all of our minds, he felt awful and said he just couldn’t hear what I had said to him. Needless to say, he placed a very large catering order and became a regular customer! Every time he came into the restaurant, he’d hold up his hands to us in surrender and we’d all have a good laugh.
I found that kindness can be even more disarming than honesty. If a customer stood inside the doorway looking confused because they had never been to our restaurant before, we would go to great lengths to explain everything, often giving them a taste of our Greek Pasta to earn their trust! One afternoon, while locking up after a busy lunch, I found a large army knife hidden in the stack of St. Clair Superior Newsletters that I was straightening on the to-go counter. I imagine that for whatever reason, its owner changed their mind about using that weapon on me or my staff to rob us. I like to think of course, that it was our kindness and generosity that saved us. Perhaps, it is those two simple tools that can save us all! I truly believe that!
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After a long and hard-fought battle with cancer, Joe Crea, Cleveland’s most respected and loved food critic died in February 2019, and Ari and I went to pay our respects. Obviously, that’s not the funny part. I know it wasn’t Ari’s first time at a wake, but it might have been the first one that he attended with the understanding that a person I cared deeply about had died. He had just turned five and as we waited in the receiving line, I explained who Joe Crea was and why we were there and I told him the story of what it felt like to get our first review in the Plain Dealer and how my proud and excited mom sounded when she read it to me on my answering machine after the neighbors had rung to let her know that we were in the morning newspaper!
Joe reviewed us once again when I was pregnant with Ari and it still remains the loveliest thing that has ever been written about me! My favorite, because he wrote so beautifully about motherhood at a time when I was still scared to death! I mentioned this to his widow when we introduced ourselves, and she flung her arms wide and squeezed me tight, saying, “I know who you are!” She was slow to let go, and together we mourned this lovely man.
As we hugged repeatedly, tightly, and tearfully, sharing stories of our beloved Joe, Ari slipped away and wandered straight over to the coffin, unaccompanied, which was about 10 feet away. My heart sank, but I could not leave Gretchen’s side.
Just as she began introducing me to her son, Ari started to call loudly, “Mom! Maaaahm!” I waved my hand behind me for him to stop. Then, sounding confused and a little disappointed Ari whispered, in tone rather than volume, “I can’t see ’em! Maaaaaahm! C’mere! I can’t see the holes!” When I shot him a quick and stern look, he said, “But mom…I can’t see the bullet holes where he was killed!”
Heat rose from the back of my craned neck. I froze and watched in horror as Ari stepped up onto the kneeler and peered into the coffin for a better look. I turned and looked apologetically at everyone who heard him and was just as confused and red in the face as me. When I suddenly realized what he meant, I said, “Oh God! He must think being shot is the only way you die!” I cringed at the thought, and then I offered, with a shrug and a sigh, “Well, we do live in the inner city!” which added a bit of levity and humor to the excruciatingly embarrassing situation!
Of course… it’s only funny because it’s partially true, sadly.
We were lucky, but it is impossible for me to write those words and not think about three other Cleveland restaurateurs who were not as fortunate to walk away from an armed robbery unscathed, physically anyway. Most recently, in August of 2021, 33-year-old Thomas McDonald died after being chased down and shot multiple times by a woman who entered his downtown Cleveland bar and restaurant, the Blog Spot, before he ever had the chance to open.
In 2014, 61-year-old Jim Brennan, the beloved owner of the popular Brennan’s Colony pub and restaurant in Cleveland Heights was murdered, shot three times during an altercation with three thieves who planned the robbery with a man Brennan hired as a dishwasher.
Three years later, in 2017 a friend and mentor, Akin Affrica was shot twice leaving his Shaker Square restaurant, Zanzibar, as a former employee attempted to rob him. Akin was left with life-altering injuries in more ways than one. The bullets struck his right hip and ankle, damaging his sciatic nerve, leaving him with a lifetime of pain that will need to be managed, also leaving him paralyzed from the knee down, and unable to walk for over a year.
Recently, prompted by curiosity and provoked by my writing, I reached out to him, having no idea what to say, ask or expect. I had not seen or spoken to him since before the shooting and I felt incredibly guilty for not doing more for him during his long road to recovery. I would simply pass along well wishes through mutual acquaintances because we had never really seen each other outside of our restaurants and I wasn’t sure he’d consider me a close enough friend to let me do anything for him.
Akin harbored no ill feelings toward me at all, in fact, he harbors no ill feelings at all for anyone or anything! He shared much of his incredible story with me and I found it to be both astonishing and inspiring! His story begins as the son of a pioneer restauranteur mother, who brought her South Carolina cooking to Cleveland and veers off into a life of crime and time spent in prison, where his “journey of knowledge,” as he calls it, really began. He spent his years of confinement elevating his business acumen and refining his hustle, reading books, and further educating himself about business, investments, and restaurants.
We talked for hours and it was the most upbeat and positive conversation that I had with any American, since leaving the country 3 years ago! Amazingly he said being shot and confined to a wheelchair for over a year was one of the best things to ever happen to him. He said it gave him no choice but to pivot into the real estate business more fully, which was where he really wanted to go before he got so deep into the restaurant business, at one point owning and operating several concepts and locations at the same time.
While still recovering from his injuries one of his other restaurants, Angie’s Soul Cafe, his mother’s flagship restaurant, was robbed in the middle of the day by a group of juveniles, all waving guns throughout the crowded dining room, before holding one to an employee’s head as they demanded she open the safe. The group went on to rob and terrorize four other restaurants before finally being caught. Akin made headlines once again. This time he would announce he was no longer accepting cash, it would be credit cards only, in an effort to ensure the safety and well-being of his employees.
The publicity he got after the shooting along with the publicity he got when he announced that he was going cashless at his restaurants, helped to establish Akin as a pillar in the community as well as a well-informed and forward-thinking entrepreneur, a fearless leader and generous teacher. Business leaders, politicians and property owners were eager to meet with him and it didn’t take him long to take the real estate business by storm.
I have written so much about guns and senseless killing, but it wasn’t until I spoke with Akin that I thought about a greater loss than life. Gun violence strips our country and our communities of the impact that its victims won’t get to make, and their contributions to society that we will never know. Had those bullets claimed Akin’s life, the city of Cleveland would look quite different. Not just in the development of real estate and the beautiful renovations he has performed, but in the countless lives he has touched and the extensive mentoring he has done that has helped so many others to start or grow their own businesses.
So I guess the moral of the story is, that if you survive an altercation with a gun, it just might end up being the best thing that could’ve happened. However, it seems more and more unlikely that you’d survive an altercation with today’s weapons of choice and methods of attack.
Currently, one out of every four guns sold in the US is a semi-automatic assault rifle. There were over 20 million guns sold in the US last year alone and that number continues to rise and with it, the bloody carnage. No one should have to live like this! You should not have to give up safety and security to live or open a business or restaurant in the inner city. It really is just bonkers. So in the words of Hill Street Blues’ Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, “Hey! Let’s be careful out there!”
I will say farewell to writing about arms. I have said all I wish to say here on Substack about America’s obsession with guns (half of America anyway), and the freedom to carry the dangerous, deadly, and powerful weapons without so much as a permit or any training at all, amidst a mental health crisis and rise in random shootings and school shootings. Thank you for listening and offering me support when I needed it the most. I will return to writing uplifting newsletters centered more around food, travel, and life in Ireland and less on politics! I do hope you’ll join me!
Thank You For Being Here With Me My Friends!