Engineering good food at the Stone Oven

John Emerman and Tatyana Rehn, owners of Stone Oven.

Who would have thought that a couple of engineering majors attending Cleveland State University in the 1970s would eventually preside over a string of specialty restaurants that boast a storied history in the Heights—all based on a passion for bread. Certainly not John Emerman and Tatyana Rehn, the once-married couple who own Stone Oven Artisan Bakery and Restaurant, but that’s exactly what they’ve accomplished over the past couple decades.

“We were both mechanical engineers and didn’t particularly like working in that field. We wanted to do something a little more creative and fun,” said Emerman.

It was Rehn’s love affair with bread baking—spawned by attending the grand opening of Emerman’s brother’s restaurant in New York, where she sampled what she described as the best bread she’d eaten since emigrating from Russia—that laid the groundwork for what’s become a wildly successful concept.

You might say she became instantly hooked.

“With much encouragement from John and his family, I just went off making bread 24/7, as I was doing my engineering job and raising two kids. Then I was laid off from my job,” Rehn recalled.

Emerman had worked in restaurants and coffee shops during and after college and enjoyed the business. They figured that Rehn’s passion for breadmaking, initially just a hobby, made merging the bakery/café concept a business proposition too good not to pursue.

“John was very optimistic about opportunities,” said Rehn. “And with his great encouragement, I found myself in business a month after getting laid off—literally. ”

They initially ran the business out of their home, as a wholesale operation, selling to local restaurants and grocery stores. They swiftly outgrew that and began sharing space in someone else’s bakery until further growth necessitated a move to the corner of Lee and Meadowbrook roads in 1995.

“We had a strong wholesale business going that was enough, really, to pay the rent, so anything that came through the front door was sort of gravy. People loved the place and were excited about it,” said Emerman.

Now located a few doors up from its original location, in the former Wood and Company building, the store has a strong following anchored by countless regulars. Its proximity to residential housing and the appreciation, among local residents, for locally produced food, are significant factors in the success of the store.

It’s more profitable than any of the other Stone Oven locations. “Since we opened the doors to the new location, sales jumped up 20 percent,” said Rehn. ”Not only that, we were able to personalize the space. Aesthetically, it’s much more pleasing and it feels like a home, and a lot of people do feel like they’re a part of it.”

They now operate Stone Oven shops in the downtown Galleria at Erieview and at the Eton Chagrin Boulevard shops in Woodmere. A year and a half ago, they teamed up with a local cake and pastry maker and opened up Luna Bakery Café in Cleveland Heights’s Cedar Fairmount neighborhood. They also operate a warehouse at 36th and Carnegie, where the bread is produced for all the locations.

“Watching that [Cedar Fairmount] area and having associations with it, we wanted to do something there for a long time. When that space became available, I wanted to do something, but not another Stone Oven. It’s too close to this one. We wanted to reinvent so we partnered with Bridgette Thiebault,” said Emerman. So far, he said, the concept of serving baked goods and light fare, including crepes and paninis, has worked out well.

Speaking to the couple inside the Lee Road store, one feels a palpable sense of their deep appreciation for their customers and satisfaction about what they’ve accomplished.

“To me when I truly stop and think about it, it’s amazing. It’s absolutely amazing because neither of us came from an environment where we could have learned anything about running a business,” said Rehn. “We feel very fortunate. It’s a 24-hours-a-day operation, but when we stop and think about it, I’m very grateful.”

Richard Stewart

Richard Stewart is the owner of Digizoom Media and a FutureHeights board member.

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Volume 6, Issue 1, Posted 12:12 PM, 12.18.2012