Shawn Brown, an education lobbyist and Cleveland Heights native, and his husband, Michael Miller, an OB/GYN with a specialty in surgery, were living and working in Sacramento, CA, seven years ago when they looked at each other and asked, “What do we want to do for the rest of our lives?”
They decided they wanted to pursue their dream of opening a gourmet market with high-end dine-in or carryout meals—a growing trend they were seeing.
Shawn Brown (left) and Michael Miller of Picnic Hill Market Cafe.“There were several markets that were doing basically this in our neighborhood in California, and we were both at a point where we didn’t want to do what we were doing anymore,” says Miller. “So, we started to seriously research this, and we discovered first that we just couldn’t afford to do it in California.”
While California was the inspiration for the couple’s business venture—gourmet food, wine and craft beer, imported foods, olive oils and balsamic vinegars, and a full-service bar—they decided to locate in Shaker Heights.
On Wednesday, Jan. 15, Brown and Miller will officially open Picnic Hill Market Cafe in Fairmount Circle in the 4,016-square-foot former Bikram Yoga space, 20621 Fairmount Blvd. It has been vacant since 2016.
Picnic Hill is one of three establishments taking over vacant space in the Fairmount Circle shopping and office complex. Boaz Café, a fast casual approach to Middle Eastern fare from Aladdin’s Eatery, plans to open its second location (the first opened two years ago in Ohio City at 2549 Lorain Ave.) by the first week of February at 20630 John Carroll Blvd. in the former Sweet Melissa space, which closed in 2018.
And East Lansing, MI-based national chain Biggby Coffee will open sometime this spring in the former Peter Danford space at 20609 Fairmount Blvd.
The three establishments not only fill the void in the bustling Fairmount Circle area, which straddles Shaker Heights and University Heights, they bring an eclectic mix of food and beverage options.
Picnic Hill Market Cafe
Brown and Miller are taking a playful approach to the upscale food they will offer at Picnic Hill (named after the area where Miller grew up in Breathitt County, KY), but they also offer a “down home homey” atmosphere,” says Miller.
Calling their takeout items, such as spiced almond crusted salmon, beef tenderloin, and chicken Marbella (from New York’s famed Silver Palate), “takeaway gourmet” as a play on the British term for takeout, Miller says the menu will change seasonally.
“We’ll have grab-and-go from a deli case full of things you can take home, or you can sit here in the café and eat if you want to do that,” Brown says. They will start serving full-service brunch on the weekends in March.
“Our common theme is we’re trying to resurrect old classics that people just don’t cook anymore at home,” says Miller. “Or [we] take American classic food and elevate it and try to put a European twist on it.”
Miller and Brown say they plan on offering delivery service to the immediate Fairmount Circle area.
Brown says the beer and wine for sale in the coolers will be unique and affordable. “We’re going to have a lot of champagnes, a lot of local craft beers, and we’re trying to have a unique wine selection that is still affordable but very interesting,” he says. “So, we’re shooting for the $15 to $40 bottle range.”
Then in the small bar area, Picnic Hill will have a daily happy hour, and the two will keep the “classics, reimagined” theme going with about eight small plates and creative classic cocktails. “We’ve renamed them to things that probably only make sense to me and Shawn,” Miller says of the cocktail list. “But it makes for great stories, and we can share that with people.”
For instance, the Ike’s Ginny—a gin and tonic—is named after Miller’s grandparents, who loved the cocktail. And Brown spent summers growing up on his family’s farms in Quitman, GA.
“My grandfather always had a set of apricot trees in the front yard,” Brown says. “And every time we’d go down to our set of family farms in Quitman, GA, every summer, I would get sick eating apricots. So [we’ll have] an apricot-based drink that’s going to have a very strong rum and apricot flavor. If you talk to any of my family members—who you will see because they’ll be here all the time because my family’s huge—everybody knows about Quitman and apricot trees.”
Russ Vernon, whose family owned the well-known gourmet grocery pioneer West Point Market in the Akron area, came out of retirement to serve as a consultant to Picnic Hill. They have also been working with former cooks and caterers, including Carol Moore, who put together the menus at West Point and served as culinary coordinator of Mustard Seed Market and Cafe, to help plan the Picnic Hill selections.
Picnic Hill will employ about 13 staff members, including a culinary team and Miller and Brown.
They had to build their café from scratch—doing everything from new floors, walls, supports, and lighting to building a kitchen and installing three HVAC systems. Jay Bannister of WSI Inc. is the general contractor of the project.
Picnic Hill will be open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and on Sundays for brunch.
Around the corner, Boaz Café is also getting ready to open the doors to the second location. Paul Chamoun, owner and part of the family-owned Aladdin’s Eatery chain, says they acquired the former Sweet Melissa space last July and plan to open Boaz by late January or early February.
With the success of the Ohio City location, Chamoun says they were ready to open an East Side location. “Boaz was kind of a test run and a new concept for us in trying to enter the fast casual, fast-line concept,” he says. “Boaz is our latest creation, and we’re trying to take our best shot at it.”
The location is perfect for Boaz, Chamoun says. “We thought that being on a college campus would be the model for quick fare without having to pay for parking,” he says. “We’re healthy and we’re quick. And I feel like we’ll get a little more of the families in the suburbs.”
The entire Boaz menu is vegan, Chamoun says, and he describes the café as a hybrid of Aladdin’s—with the option of table service for menu items like pita rolls or walking through a build-your-own rice bowl line.
Chamoun is keeping the design under wraps until opening day, but he says the atmosphere will be cheery with bright colors and ceramic tile. “It’s very modern, having a lot of the colors and patterns you’d find in downtown Beirut, Lebanon” he says.
Meanwhile, Biggby Coffee announced plans last year to open three stores in Northeast Ohio. One location in North Olmsted is already open, while stores at Fairmount Circle and Shaker Square are preparing to open. Biggby’s expansion is being led by Moe Charar, a Westlake resident and Biggby franchisee.