The logo for Ohio City Pizzeria is more than a logo.
You can tell it’s a piece of pizza, with three stars on the slice. Someone might see the stars and think of pepperoni, or see the similarity in Ohio City street signs that dot the neighborhood.
John Litten sees goals.
“We don’t want to lose who we are in creating it,” said Litten, executive director of the West Side Catholic Center. “We don’t want to be so separate in creating it or why we’re here. It also embraces Ohio City.”
What the center is building, with help from restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski, is more than a pizza place. It’s a haven, employment opportunities for folks who need a job. Its target opening date is late spring/early summer at 3223 Lorain Ave. in Cleveland.
The center bought the pizzeria about a year ago and kept it open for a few months before shutting it down to renovate and figure its specific mission.
As Litten said, the center wanted to “hit the pause button and determine our best path forward.”
And, he said, “That path forward is really three goals.”
Through the pizzeria, he said, the center wants to “provide employment opportunities for the people we already serve.” Jobs aren’t guaranteed: “We want them to work toward whatever roles are available there.” The plus side for workers, Litten said, is that the center sits on a thoroughfare with bus routes.
“If they can get here, they can get to work,” he said.
The second goal revolves around “being able to tell the story of our center through a pizzeria,” Litten said.
“We want everything we say and do about the pizzeria to be about the center. We feel it’s a best-kept secret in Cleveland. We don’t want to put that under a bushel or basket.”
The third goal targets financial sustainability.
“Should the pizzeria be able to be profitable, that goes into supporting this place,” he said. “It’s an added revenue stream for the center. That’s why in our logo we have three stars – three goals.”
The West Side Catholic Center – a non-profit organization that is not affiliated with the Cleveland Diocese – has been around for more than 40 years. Founded with the simple but critical mission of providing food and clothing for the needy, it has remained a key part of its Ohio City neighborhood. It also expanded its footprint to include housing options and is creating a philanthropic compound in the neighborhood.
The main building houses administrative offices, donation center and dining room. And while food and clothing remains the center’s “bread and butter,” Litten said, the 7,500 people served annually also benefit from employment advocacy and housing options.
The stand-alone shelter is one of four places that provide a haven for families in Cuyahoga County, and works with female veterans and children. Economic opportunities include job preparation, pre-GED classes and some heath care, he said. It does all this through a solid volunteer corps; Litten said there are about three or four for every paid staff member. A third of its funding is government-based, a third comes from foundation grants, and a third is from individual donations and events.
“I like to think we help people find the highest hanging fruit,” he said. “People who didn’t think they could find work – the traumatized, the homeless.”
What the center has not had, he said, is an on-site program “to hire people into.”
That is, until it bought the nearby pizzeria.
The goal will be to “keep the old favorites and affordable favorites, and augment the menu” with Italian dishes – calzone, some good salads, pastas. At least 80 percent of the old business was carryout or delivery, Litten said.
To accomplish that, the center is working with Chrostowski to get the pizzeria up and running.
Chrostowski – who owns Edwins Leadership and Restaurant in Shaker Square and consulted on the opening of Serenite in Medina – knows about merging financially viable businesses with second-chance options. Edwins hires recently incarcerated individuals who have been released, and Serenite works with recovering addicts. He also opened Edwins Butcher Shop in Cleveland’s Buckeye neighborhood.
When completed, the pizzeria will be able to accommodate 25 to 30 seats. It will connect with online delivery services. The center expects to hire eight to 10 people, mostly kitchen help. And it is waiting on a liquor license so people can enjoy a glass of wine with their Italian meal.
“We’re just so excited about this opportunity to be able to open a business, yes, but do so much more,” Litten said.