Lopez: a Cleveland Heights staple
In the restaurant business, longevity is rare and a reputation for consistency is hard to maintain. After 32 years, Lopez on Lee Road, formerly Lopez y Gonzalez, has managed to achieved both and become a Cleveland Heights institution.
Craig Sumers and Brad Friedlander founded Lopez in 1979. The Southwestern-themed restaurant originally opened at the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Lee Road. After a rocky beginning, a review in the Plain Dealer’s Friday Magazine provided a boost of publicity that immediately led to lines out the door.
“As a young man I always worked in restaurants and had a penchant for entertaining,” said Sumers, now the sole owner of Lopez. “I had a strong desire to entertain and cook. But as soon as I opened the restaurant, I quit cooking.” He knew that working in the kitchen was not conducive to running a successful restaurant, and that finding a solid chef was imperative.
“We were fortunate to have Rick Bayless as our first chef," Sumers said. Bayless is now an internationally acclaimed celebrity chef, restauranteur and TV personality who specializes in Mexican cuisine. Yet, Lopez continued to thrive after his departure. "Ever since, we’ve been lucky to have a number of talented chefs," said Sumers, "Only five or six in 32 years."
After nearly a 20-year run in its original location, Lopez temporarily suspended operations due to lease disagreements. The restaurant reopened in its current location in 2001. Somers said, "With the help and assistance of the City of Cleveland Heights Planning and Development Department, we were able to purchase the former Yorkville Café and went from 70 to 150 seats, plus a patio.”
A major impetuous for selecting the current location was the desire to capitalize on the proposed condominium project at the corner of Lee and Tullamore roads, a project that eventually fell through. In spite of that, Lopez flourished behind its excellent food and stellar reputation.
“Our success is predicated on a lot more than the business we would have gotten from that building,” Sumers said. “The quality of the food and service goes far beyond Lee Road. We attract customers from the west side of Cleveland all the way to Akron.”
Michael Herschman has been executive chef for over a year, and brings experience and passion to the position. “I see Lopez through the eyes of the community and the customer base because I live right down the street," Herschman said. "I have a great crew of guys, some of whom I’ve worked with before, and we have a similar work ethic. We all try to out-cook one another.”
Sumers said his successful collaboration with Herschman has given Lopez a strong foundation—one that enables the pair to launch expansion plans. “The future is bright,” Sumers said. “We’re going to be opening another Lopez on the east bank of the Flats in the spring or summer of 2013, and there are other restaurant projects in the works.”
Sumers says he feels nostalgic when he reflects on the history of the restaurant. “I’ve seen families that had little babies when they first came in, now their kids are coming in with their kids,” said Sumers. “We’ve been really fortunate. Cleveland Heights has been very good to us. It’s hard to imagine that we could have had this type of longevity and loyalty in many other communities. I’m a resident of Cleveland Heights and I love it here.”
Richard Stewart is the owner of Digizoom Media and a member of the FutureHeights Board of Directors.