Brotherly Love for Business
Cleveland isn’t the only option for fancy food.
Burrowed in a dismal-looking plaza on Electric Boulevard in Avon Lake lies Fratello’s, a restaurant as titillating as its street’s name suggests. Walk through the glass door and you’ll immediately feel its life. Fratello’s has exquisite dishes, an impressive collection of wines from all over the world and lifetime employees and clientele. What else would you expect from two Obies?
“Fratello” means “brother” in Italian. Ron and Craig Heldorfer — joint-owners of the 15-year-old restaurant — are brothers and natives of Brooklyn, Ohio.
Ron Heldorfer graduated from Oberlin with a degree in government at a time of disillusionment for many Americans. In his graduation year of 1974, the United States was in its post-Watergate recession.
As a result, Ron went into the restaurant business at the urging of one of his friends instead of looking for jobs in politics. The two friends began a restaurant part-time with the intention of going to law school on the side.
“The irony is that [my friend] left after a month and I did not,” he said.
Ron worked in restaurants in Pennsylvania until the 1980s, when he moved to Boston to work in the investment business.
In 1990, he returned to Ohio with his wife and family and worked stints in both mortgage and financial planning.
Meanwhile, Craig Heldorfer, a self-taught chef, had opened a restaurant in Lakewood. When his partnership “imploded upon itself” in 1992, the brothers tossed around the idea of forming their own partnership.
“Given that we both [had] experience in the restaurant [business], we decided to combine forces to have the illusion...of being in [control of] our own destinies,” he said.
The brothers began looking for opportunities in the Cleveland area, and soon stumbled upon Avon Lake — a community that Ron said is both “affluent” and “in transition.” He and Craig bought the restaurant, which was a former convenience store, in the fall of 1992. It took one month to give it a makeover.
Ron Heldorfer said that the restaurant business is extremely competitive. As a result of the fact that so many fledgling restaurants go under, it is often difficult for aspiring entrepreneurs to acquire the necessary loans for ignition.
The brothers, however, had an impressive amount of restaurant experience, so they were approved for loans and began renovation of the space in early 1992. Fratello’s, which features a bar and seating for 70, opened at the end of the year.
From the beginning, the brothers purchased quality and expensive foods and wines, which established Fratello’s as high-end dining. Fratello’s is well known for its veal dishes, though Ron is quick to say that “if one is adverse to veal or chicken, we have many vegetarian options.” The staple pasta sauce is the restaurant’s namesake: a lemon butter mixture called “Fratello’s sauce.”
Ron is also a wine connoisseur. As a result of his interest, the restaurant serves over 150 wines, all of which have extensive descriptions written by Ron himself.
“In this country, the whole notion of wine is changing,” he said. “I think people are appreciating wine more.”
Oberlin, for example, now serves wine. When he was in school, it was a completely dry town.
It may come as a surprise or indignation to bleeding-heart Oberlin Student Cooperative Association members, but Ron says that European cuisine — not his days doing crew at Keep Co-op — inspired his lifelong appreciation of food.
The Heldorfer’s lived in Paris for a year and a half during the ‘60s when their father got a job as an engineer for a contracting business. Ron returned to Paris for one winter term, and again for half a year after graduation. The experience in France developed his appreciation for quality food.
“In France, there’s a different relationship with food than what we have here,” he said. “In this country we often eat as a byproduct of life.”
He admitted that this trend is changing, as people have more food options available and are consuming more wine.
Although Ron did not go into politics as he had intended, he says his Oberlin experience shaped his life in many other ways.
His ethics as a business owner are one example. One of his lifetime employees, Scott Jasko, who also works as a custodian for Oberlin College, said that Fratello’s pays for half of the premium for its employees’ health insurance, which he said is “unheard of for a private place.”
Jasko met the Heldorfers when he was washing dishes in Westlake as a teenager; they have been friends ever since.
Ron Heldorfer said this type of camaraderie among the Fratello’s staff is widespread.
“We have waiters that started with us in 1992,” he said. “That’s unheard of in this business.”
He also noted the strong relationship Fratello’s has with its clientele. When the owners’ mother died, many of the regulars reached out to offer sympathy and support.
“This community has been very good to us,” he said.
In addition to molding his business ethics and interpersonal skills, Oberlin has shaped him as a person.
“I believe in the liberal arts education,” he said. “I think it rounds people out.”
“Oberlin, as a diverse institution,” he added, “offers students unique opportunities. And the Java Zone still has great chicken curry sandwiches.”