Shannon Ritzhaupt, who owns and manages the popular downtown restaurant Café Roma, is the 19th recipient of the honor and the 14th winner of the Mel Bedwell Small Business Person of the Year Award.
Popularly referred to as “Chef,” Ritzhaupt was recognized for his excellence in business and community involvement at the Cleveland/Bradley County Chamber of Commerce Business Development Month kickoff Monday at Cleveland’s Museum Center at Five Points.
The award was named in Bedwell’s honor 14 years ago. He was a local businessman and a strong supporter of the Chamber’s Small Business Committee. The committee sponsors this special month each year. This annual award is based on a varied criteria, including growth in number of employees, increased sales or unit volume, innovativeness of product or services offered, response to adversity and contributions to the community.
Ritzhaupt wears many titles — husband, father, son, grandson. But if he’s in the kitchen, he’s the chef.
Opening Café Roma nine years ago this month was the realization of a dream for Ritzhaupt.
“At the time there was a real push to improve the business climate in downtown Cleveland,” explained nominator Jerry Bird of The Bird Group Inc./FranNet. “There were no fine-dining restaurants downtown then, and people questioned whether Cleveland could support one. Shannon felt certain it could.”
Following the restaurant’s opening, Ritzhaupt offered cooking classes early on to teach potential customers about Italian food. He also held wine-tasting dinners to teach food and wine pairings in the tradition of his teacher, Antonio Race. Antonio is a well-respected chef, restaurant owner and wine consultant in Colorado.
After Ritzhaupt earned degrees in biology and chemistry from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, he moved to Fort Collins, Colo., to pursue a graduate degree in environmental toxicology at Colorado State University. There he started working for Antonio as a server at Antonio’s Pulcinella Ristorante.
“Antonio took Shannon under his wing and taught him what he knew about Italian food and wine and piqued his interest in preparing food,” Bird said.
Ritzhaupt took a six-week course in Italy about the cuisine and requested to work in the kitchen when he returned. Antonio, true to form, put the aspiring chef on dishwashing duty first and had him work his way up. Over the next five years, Ritzhaupt learned to appreciate the flavors of Italian food and how to prepare simple yet unique meals “cooked from the heart.”
According to Ritzhaupt, he learned that “meals are celebrations — good food and good wine make events memorable.”
The beginnings of Café Roma were not without struggle. As a new business, Ritzhaupt operated with a skeleton crew. Today his employee base has grown from nine to 19.
“Shannon makes it a priority to build good, professional relationships with his staff,” Bird said. By doing so, Café Roma has retained several employees who care about the restaurant and have worked there since it opened in May 2003.
“The biggest challenge Shannon had to overcome was teaching people they could dine in Cleveland and not have to go to Chattanooga for a fine meal,” Bird noted.
The restaurant still faces some challenges. The owner/chef has had to keep a close eye on the rising cost of food and product delivery over the last several years.
“Raising menu pricing is the last thing we would want to do in the middle of a recession,” Ritzhaupt explained. “We have just had to cook smarter. We look for ingredients that are in season, hence less expensive but better quality and local. We research different proteins to use in a unique way. It has been and still is challenging to find the best ingredients at reasonable prices.”
Nevertheless, he has built a following so good that the economic downturn has not affected the restaurant as badly as he anticipated. Café Roma serves about 700 meals a week, and the daily specials Ritzhaupt creates are always a favorite among regular customers.
The restaurant now features live music on Thursday nights, a Happy Hour and a Sunday brunch. Ritzhaupt continues to offer wine-tasting dinners. Due to demand, he has added a catering business for weddings, rehearsal dinners, college formals and parties of all types.
“Shannon represents the ideal of a young businessperson — the kind we don’t often see today,” Bird pointed out. “Rather than working only for himself, he also works tirelessly for our community in all areas — education, the arts and the religious community.”
He is especially interested in downtown development. He has served on the MainStreet Cleveland board of directors five years. He is in his second term as chairman of the board for The Greenway Table, a community outreach program that works with teachers to educate children in the science of eating healthy foods from seed to table. Part of this program is Community Supported Agriculture, which sells boxed vegetables to support the garden.
Ritzhaupt chairs the Convention and Visitors Bureau for the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce. He is an ongoing participant in the Chamber’s job shadowing program, allowing students interested in the culinary arts to shadow the chef and sous chef in Café Roma’s kitchen, prepping menu items, learning knife skills and sanitary kitchen practices, and baking. He participates in the annual Chair-ries Jubilee fundraiser for the arts by donating and serving Italian antipasto.
Ritzhaupt also caters the Grape Escape, a four-course wine dinner that benefits the Museum Center at Five Points.
“In 2006 a 4-year-old Make-A-Wish recipient prepared and served a meal to his family with Shannon from Café Roma’s kitchen,” Bird shared.
Any food that is unopened, usable and not needed at Café Roma he donates to The Caring Place.
“Shannon gives back in all areas to help make a better Cleveland,” Bird reiterated. “He is the kind of businessperson we can point to with pride and say, ‘He’s the kind of guy who makes Cleveland a better place.’”
Ritzhaupt and his wife, Christy, have two sons, Jackson and Anderson.
Previous winners include last year’s honoree, Ed Jacobs, of Ed Jacobs and Associates Inc. and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network. Jacobs presented the award this year. Other previous winners include Hal Roe, Bradley Rentals; Jim Workman, Bender Realty LLC; Don Geren, Cleveland/Bradley Business Incubator; Steve Robinson, Cleveland Plywood; Lynn Jones, Lynn Jones Enterprises; Ross Tarver, Tarver Distributing Company Inc.; Loye Hamilton, Coldwell Banker, Hamilton and Associates; Kenneth Higgins, Santek Environmental Inc.; Kay Jenkins Cowan, Jenkins Restaurant and Deli; Dan Cooke, Cooke’s Food Store and Panera Bread; Catherine Boettner, Cleveland Tubing; Jim Duggan, Robinson Building Center; Reba Garrison, State Farm Insurance; Ron Braam, Manufacturers Chemicals LLC; Susan Shelton, Bradley News Weekly; Larry McDaniel, Town Squire; and Mel Bedwell, Cleveland Business Machines.
The Small Business Committee of the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce sponsors Business Development Month as part of the Chamber’s commitment to the business development of its members, the economic growth of the region, and the highest quality of life in the community.