Stone Oven celebrates 20 years on Lee Road
On an icy January day in 1995, John Emerman and Tatyana Rehn sat nervously at one of the tables in their new restaurant and wondered if anyone would walk through the front door. “Minutes earlier, we had pulled the Kraft paper off the windows and given the café a final once over,” said Emerman. “After months of work, we now wondered if anyone would know we were there.”
Twenty years later, the Stone Oven Bakery Café has become a neighborhood landmark.
“I’m amazed,” said Emerman. “I’m not one to stay in one place for more than a couple of years. I could never hold down a job for more than two years because I’d get bored and I’d leave.”
“This has been really creative and fun,” said Emerman, who added that he enjoys owning the business, although being a local celebrity can sometimes be a bit overwhelming.
According to Emerman, the business evolved slowly. He and Rehn met as engineering students at Cleveland State University in the 1970s. They married and settled on Queenston Road in Cleveland Heights to raise two children who attended Heights schools.
“Tatyana would have been happy continuing in engineering,” said Emerman. “But she got laid off from her job and decided to start a bread business. She had a passion for bread. She had no formal training, but she was from Russia and knew good European bread. No one was doing that here then.”
“I was bored with engineering,” said Emerman, who was working in the marketing department of the Illuminating Company at the time. “I encouraged her because I really wanted to do something on my own.
“We had the bread business and I thought, ‘I’ll do my coffee thing. After we opened on Jan. 23, 1995, I stayed at my job for, I think, six months—I’d work at night and close the place down—until I saw that the business was picking up and that it would be enough to sustain us.”
Emerman said that he didn’t have a clear business concept when he started. “I really thought of myself as a café—obviously, bread had to be in the mix. The atmosphere of the place to me was more important than what we served. I wanted a place where people could relax for a while, and if I could make a living off of it, that was fine.”
“We grew very slowly and adjusted based on the demands of the business,” he added.
The store was originally located at the corner of Lee Road and Meadowbrook Boulevard, in a former Society Bank branch. “It had an institutional feel, which was kind of cool,” said Emerman. “I kept the check-writing counters, which became our tables. I would have stayed there forever if our landlady hadn’t forced us to leave.”
The restaurant moved to its current location, just a few doors down the street, in a building the couple—now divorced but still business partners—owns. “We could do what we wanted to with the building without thinking about how long we were going to be here,” said Emerman, who had worried that business would decline with the move; instead, business increased by about 20 percent almost immediately.
Emerman said that although there have been ups and downs, the business has continued to grow.
Stone Oven has two additional locations, one at the Galleria at Erieview in downtown Cleveland, the other at the Eton Chagrin Boulevard shops in Woodmere. In 2011, the couple partnered with local pastry chef Bridgette Thiebault to open Luna Bakery Café in the Cedar Fairmount neighborhood. Bread for all of the locations is produced at a warehouse in Midtown Cleveland.
Emerman believes it would be much harder to open a business today. “With social media, word travels very quickly if you fail. You don’t have time to react or you have to react superfast. If dinner is horrible, that can kill a business very quickly. You have to have everything in place from day one.”
Asked if he has considered retirement, Emerman admitted that he sometimes does think about doing something different. He has a woodworking hobby that he’d like to spend more time on, but said he wouldn’t feel comfortable handing the business over to someone else just yet. “I really feel that I want it to endure in a way that I envision it,” he said. He added that he feels a sense of obligation, and that it would be very hard to leave the Heights. “It’s my home. And I feel that the Stone Oven is so critical to the vitality of the area.”
Deanna Bremer Fisher
Deanna Bremer Fisher is executive director of FutureHeights and publisher of the Heights Observer.