cleveland restaurants feed steady diet of web-design biz to local firm

In a perfect world, the relationship between an elite graphic designer and a culinary arts professional might start over a platter of charcuterie, some glasses of French wine. But in a town like Cleveland, the loftiest of collaborations often sprout from the grassiest of roots.

Case in point: John Okal, a partner at the venerable Epstein Design firm, first met nationally recognized chef Zach Bruell 15 years ago not at a restaurant, but atop an overgrown front lawn in Shaker Heights.

"I noticed he was struggling to cut his grass," Okal recalls. So he stepped in to offer his neighbor a helping hand. "You need a new bolt on top of that," he told Bruell while inspecting the mower. Better yet, he suggested the man hire a landscaper.

Soon the two were exchanging quips with the ease and frequency of Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders. A friendship blossomed.

Fast forward to 2004, when Bruell was embarking on his trendy new Tremont restaurant, Parallax, which needed to be built from the ground up, both in a physical and virtual sense. Bruell partnered with his old friend John Okal as well as Epstein's interactive design specialist Kyle Roth. Together, the team developed a comprehensive brand package for the chic new eatery, from menus to website.

Over the next five and a half years, the relationship grew bite by byte as Bruell opened one progressive Cleveland eatery after another, including Table 45, L'Albatros and, most recently, Chinato in the white-hot East Fourth Street neighborhood. In each case, Shaker Square-based Epstein Design provided the interactive design elements that have helped brand the thriving restaurant group.

While the foodie business was a new direction for Epstein, the firm's unmistakable signature has been affixed to the Cleveland landscape in ways subtle and obvious since 1962. Now retired, founder Mort Epstein designed brewery ads for the newspaper back when you still needed a "church key" to open a can of ale. It was Epstein who produced the iconic electrical outlet mural that graced Euclid Avenue's Union building in the 1970s. From annual reports for the Cleveland Clinic to glossy brochures for Arhaus Furniture, Epstein's eclectic client list has spanned both time and topic.

The move into the world of delicious food, however, was a novel but welcome direction.

"We're all foodies here," explains Epstein partner Marla Gutzwiller. "It's great when there's a new restaurant, to be part of that activity. Restaurants are a real part of our community."

The Bruell projects served to immerse Epstein's staff -- and Roth in particular -- deep into the world of Cleveland dining.

"The key is to support local business," says Roth, which means not only enjoying meals about town, but also joining social networking sites like Foursquare, Twitter and Facebook to stay linked into Cleveland's booming food scene. "It gets you connections and referrals. That's how we got Heidi."

Roth is referring to Heidi Robb, a Cleveland-based multi-disciplinary culinary media professional who has worked with the likes of Michael Symon, Michael Ruhlman and, most recently, domestic diva Martha Stewart. Epstein redesigned Robb's beautiful "Life in Recipes" website, which features recipes, photos and essays.

Epstein's enviable client list also includes Food & Wine "Best New Chef" Jonathon Sawyer, whose innovative Greenhouse Tavern offers seasonal French-inspired farmhouse fare in a sustainable building. The website acts as the chef's online presence, by pairing the usual menu and reservation functions with social media-style blog entries, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos of past chef appearances.

A full year before the Greenhouse Tavern served a single frite, Sawyer enlisted Epstein Partners to recount online the restaurant's story from inception to launch.

"It was super important to have buzz building along with the restaurant," explains Sawyer.

With more than 2,000 Twitter followers and 2,270 Facebook fans, the buzz most certainly has taken flight. But Sawyer keeps the buzz afloat by constantly updating his websites and feeds. "There's always a lot going on," the chef notes, citing happy hours, specials and fundraisers. "We literally change our menu every week."

Whether it's the hipster style of the Greenhouse Tavern or the sleek online presence of Table 45, Epstein strives to create diverse Internet spaces that complement their clients' diverse dining spaces. "We're creating the experiences that give the feeling of being at the restaurant -- that level of sophistication and attention," says Roth.

Continuing to deliver that singular experience, however, is becoming more complex as today's electronic gadgets reduce computers to pocket-size. Large desktop screens that comfortably displayed elaborate Flash-driven websites are being swapped for large portions of the day by smartphones. And let's face it, the relatively tiny display of an iPhone can only show so much.

"We have to accommodate mobile-friendly devices," says Roth. "People want information. They're trying to find menus and restaurants."

And sometimes they're trying to find quality ingredients. To that end, the firm is currently at work on a site redesign for Miles Farmers Market, a job they landed thanks to their ever-expanding "food connections." Roth expects that site to go live sometime over the next few months.

Whether or not Bruell took Okal's advice all those years ago and swapped the power tools for a lawn service is anybody's guess. But the marriage of high-tech design and high-end dining continues to be a win-win-win for diners, restaurateurs and Epstein Design.

"We consider ourselves to be the best in what we do," boasts Roth. "We want to collaborate with businesses that feel the same way about themselves."

Like what you see? Subscribe to receive Fresh Water, Cleveland's fresh new e-zine delivered weekly to your inbox.

Photography by Bob Perkoski
- Epstein Design Partners Inc
- Partners Anne Toomey, John Okal, and Marla Gutzwiller at Epstein Design
- Interactive Design Specialist Kyle Roth of Epstein Design
- Chef Jonathon Sawyer's innovative Greenhouse Tavern
- The Partners and Deisgn Team of Epstein Design

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.
Signup for Email Alerts