Charlie Denk is on a mission to fill a void in Cleveland. He wants you to learn a thing or two in the kitchen, but more importantly he wants you to get lost in the experience of having fun with friends and family. stir studio kitchen is set to open in June in Ohio City, and Charlie is excited to be a part of the renaissance of the neighborhood. We chat about what Cleveland is missing, besides a cooking studio of course, the path to starting stir, and more in this week's Small Business Sunday feature!
Haley Mills: Are you originally from Cleveland?
Charlie Denk: I grew up on the west side in Fairview Park, my wife grew up in Shaker Heights. So yes, born and raised.
HM: Tell me about the ideas behind stir?
CD: So my wife and I have been dating since 2008. We went to a retail store cooking class on one of our first dates, we were 15 at the time, and I vividly remember googling “Cooking Classes Cleveland” just thinking that there's gotta be a cool place. I went to Ignatius, so there had to be a cool studio somewhere downtown and there was nothing. So we went to Sur La Table, and it was okay, but even 15 year old me was like, ‘I could do this better, this is kind of lame, someone has to be doing this cooler,’ but sure enough there was nothing. The seed sort of planted in me back then. Life happened, we stayed together, but we both made a series of practical decisions; went to college. I’m an engineer, and all the while, this cooking class idea always came back to me. We went to some other cooking classes and it always blew my mind. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bug, but 10 years go by and that's the idea I decided to go after. There’s the whole metaphysical, you cast away the fear and you try to find your purpose and stuff, but I guess the point is I knew I was going to be an entrepreneur at some point and this is the idea that I came back to because there was nobody doing it and Cleveland is the perfect city. I feel like I can do it better.
HM: What would you say is the one thing that put you over the edge to actually start making plans and finding a space?
CD: I became extremely unfulfilled in my career and it carried over into my personal life and the only thing holding me back from doing it was fear, risk, and what there was to lose. The fear of staying in my career and staying in that life started to overweigh the fear of starting my own business. Once that happens, it's a very obvious phenomenon and it’s like, ‘this is it, I’m doing it.’ Two Memorial Days ago, I guess this is how depression and anxiety work, I just woke up one morning and snap, the lights just went off. I didn’t sleep for two and a half weeks, and I ended up in the emergency room. I still don’t have the words to describe it, I think it was anxiety that moved to depression, and I was like, ‘I can’t keep doing this fake life.’ Once you decide to do it, you just do it, and we’ve been full steam ahead.
HM: How did you end up with the space in Ohio City?
CD: I originally had the idea to do it in a house. We live in Ohio City, we own a home, and I was going to buy a second home and run the studio out of that in Ohio City. I went to the city, fought every battle you could fight, that fell through, so then I started searching for commercial real estate. I did go to the Detroit Shoreway, the Community Development Corporations, and Ohio City Incorporated - they helped me look at spaces. I was just feeling out my options... I probably looked at 20 different spaces in the Detroit Shoreway, Gordon Square, Ohio City neighborhoods, because I knew that's where I wanted to be. The space I picked was just ideal, the landlord is great.
The philosophical answer, not only is Ohio City experiencing its own renaissance and we want to be a part of it, we are particularly in a certain spot of Ohio City that's about to really come up. It’s Forest City Shuffleboard, Arsenal Cider House coming from Pittsburgh, it's like a cider bar, they are opening across the street from me, and you have the Urban Community School with the Metrohealth development coming up right there. Wherever we were going to do this, we wanted to be in a spot where we can make an impact and really be a part of the renaissance. So we went to a spot that had yet to really get its feet under it, and only in the past two months has it already started to dramatically come together.
HM: When did you actually get the space and start renovating it?
CD: I’m going to say it was mid-February. The minute the house idea got shot down, which was mid-February, it only took me a week to see 20 spaces and to pick one, I just move fast.
HM: Tell me what it is going to be like once it’s open.
CD: The studio itself is going to be chic, sort of like an industrial clean vibe but chic and elegant, with a little bit of a nod to the historical elements. The building is beautiful, it was built in 1880. We are primarily cooking classes, so it's good for date nights, if you want to come with a significant other. It’s BYOB and it’s a 3-course meal, and it's fun - we turn the music up, it's a really relaxed vibe and yeah, you learn a thing or two, but it's primarily entertainment and theater and novelty. We also do kids classes, you can bring your kids, either drop them off and stick around or hit up the surrounding businesses. We bake cookies, and make pizzas, again, a learning opportunity but more so just a really fun opportunity for the kids. We’ll do corporate events and private events, all centered around the notion of creating a meal together, but it's much more fun than actually education. Our whole philosophy for the business and our inspiration in general is there just wasn't a great guest experience at these other places where you can take cooking classes. We just want it to be the most insanely fun and easy and comfortable guest experience you can have. Everything from the website registration, a completely mindless online transaction to coming with a bottle of wine -nothing else- and being guided through the class. We’re just trying to completely nail that guest experience.
HM: Is there anything else you’d want readers to know about stir?
CD: I think where we are unique is that we have a story and that's what we really want to portray to our guests. I like to think that everyone walks around with ideas like this but not everyone acts on them, and we are the only stupid enough people that actually try to do it. It goes to show that if we end up nailing it, it's a fun way for people to relate to us.
The other thing I would say is, it's such a dynamic experience in that if you're sick of traditional restaurants, but you don’t want to mess up a dinner party at your house, you can come to us. You can bring your co-workers, your significant other, your kids - we have so many different offerings. We’re not there to promote ovens, or sell you anything, we have no ulterior motives. We’re just there to have fun and we can completely design an experience around what you want and I think that's such an important detail.
I would be remiss to not mention Teresa Scrimenti, the primary instructor. She is killer, she's been doing this for years. She's a native Clevelander and you talk about someone who is simultaneously incredibly fun and down to earth but at the same time she is a hell of a cook. If you go to one of her classes, you will leave with so many fun little tidbits of your food; it’ll just blow you away. She's the best and we are really lucky to have her. I think once guests start to realize how great she is, that’ll be awesome.
HM: Where is your favorite place to take visitors to Cleveland?
CD: I love taking my buddies to the national park, I think having the national park so close is such an underrated part of Cleveland. We like to hike and do outdoors stuff. W 25th, the bars and restaurants, I would say that's what I identify most with. Also, Edgewater Beach.
HM: Where is your favorite place to eat?
CD: Damn! I was hoping you wouldn't ask that. The Plum in Ohio City, followed by Momocho and Heck’s Cafe or Parallax… but The Plum is my answer.
HM: What is something that you think that Cleveland is still missing?
CD: Besides a cooking class?! Haha! An indirect answer is that I think Cleveland is unique in that it has everything but it doesn't have necessarily the right thing in every instance or enough of it. Cleveland needs more shopping options for downtown and urban residents.
My whole philosophy of Cleveland, why I came back, why my wife came back, is that you can graduate college and go to New York, or LA, and be amongst a sea of really like minded, really cool people with a million fun things to do. Or you can come to Cleveland, where you have a lot of like minded people, tons of cool things to do, but if you set your mind to it, this is a city where you can make a difference. For instance, living in Ohio City, I genuinely feel like buying a house and living in the neighborhood is seriously making an impact. Being a young professional living in Cleveland and spending your money on these small businesses, you are having a tangible impact. That's the value that Cleveland can provide, it will give you what you give it and I think that's very unique about it.