Local Italian grocery calls Willowick “home” for 46 years

Alfredo Guerrieri, owner of Alesci's

(Courtesy of Guest Blogger Paolo Guerreri, manager, Alesci’s of Shoregate)

Alesci’s of Willowick started back in 1972 when my father, Alfredo Guerrieri and my uncle, Antonio Guerrieri, bought the franchise rights off the Alesci’s of South Euclid guys. They both worked at other Alesci’s stores, and that’s where they got their experience and their drive to open their own store. I believe there were six other Alesci’s stores, and the idea of owning their own business was a lifetime dream of theirs.

They liked the idea of Shoregate in Willowick because the location was between former two big retail giants of Jotes (currently Marcs) and Pick-N-Pay (then Reider’s Stop-N-Shop and currently Giant Eagle) with plenty of parking and located on a main road.

Except for cigarettes, we sell almost everything that you would find in a regular grocery store or convenience store. What separates us from most stores is our deli and cheese section, as well as our hot food counter and our bakery. We make all of our bread, rolls and pizza dough from scratch every day in our bakery.

Alesci's deli Alesci's bakery

We haven’t changed much over the years. We’re old school. The original owners are still here and work part-time every day. We still use pen and paper to take all orders, and there is no laptop in the store. We have a Facebook page but no website.

We hire people who have experience, and we also hire folks with zero experience and train them. We hire people with criminal records because we believe that everyone deserves a second chance. Between part-time and full-time employees, we have around 25 people here.

We donate gift cards and gift baskets, cash and food to different members of the community and to benefits in the community several times per week.

The biggest challenge we currently face is the online world because the owners don’t know that world, and they don’t want to know that world; so, we can’t sell anything online. And our rent is almost $10,000.00 per month, which might prevent us from renewing our lease in seven years.

I’m not sure if we would just close up shop or move in seven years, but for sure we will not be at this location, which is a shame considering that we have paid rent on time for 46 plus years. I’m not sure what Shoregate’s future holds since there are empty stores and half of the land was sold to build an urgent care, liquor store, bank, and houses.

I’m inspired by tradition. I have worked here since I was eight years old. It’s all I’ve ever done; it’s all I know. I love the people, the hours, and the work. It’s very fulfilling and satisfying.

I don’t think people realize that the owners are almost 80 years old, that the managers put in 70 hours per week, and that someone is always here 24/7 cooking, baking or cleaning. And that the bread and pizza dough are made from scratch EVERY DAY!!! We have been in business for 46 years; so, we must be doing something right.

Even when I am not at the store, whether at home with family, out with friends or on vacation, I am always thinking about the store. I just can’t help it. I may not be the owner, but I treat the place like I am the owner.

Alesci's of Willowick at Shoregate

An HGR customer keeps The Stone Oven Bakery’s equipment running

Stone Oven Bakery bread

Have you ever gone to the Cedar Lee Theatre then headed to The Stone Oven afterward to have a bite to eat, coffee and discuss the movie? I belonged to an independent moviegoers group on Meetup.com that used to do just that. Little did I know that I would eventually work for a company (HGR Industrial Surplus) that supplied some of the parts to our customer Christopher Palda so that he could fix the bakery’s oven. You can read his story here where he explains this project. The oven was made in Italy, and they can’t get parts for it anymore. He had to manufacture the parts himself.

(Q&A with The Stone Oven’s Co-owner Tatyana Rehn)

When and why did you open Stone Oven Bakery?

In 1993, I had a craving for the crusty breads of my European homeland and could not find them in my new home of Cleveland, I began making my own bread then working all hours of the night to make loaves for family and friends. What started as a hobby turned into a business providing many Clevelanders with hearth-baked European bread.

In 1995, after several years of selling wholesale to restaurants and grocery stores, my husband and I decided to create a bread and pastry bakery with a European café. Our first location was in Cleveland Heights with two additional stores opening during the next 10 years in the Galleria at Erieview and in Eton-Chagrin Shopping Center. In addition to European breads and pastries, we offer soups, salads and sandwiches.

How many people work for The Stone Oven?

About 35 people in the restaurants, 11 in the bakery and three drivers

What is your favorite item on the menu?

Bread

What is your favorite style of bread?

Black bread, which is sourdough based

How did you meet Christopher Palda, HGR’s customer who has done your equipment repairs?

Through a mutual friend who worked with my ex-husband. We had a problem with our furnace at home and called the mutual friend to see if he could help. He said that he couldn’t fix it but he knew someone who could. That was 15 years ago. Since then he has repaired anything and everything at the bakery. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be in business. He has been my savior.

What happened to the oven and how was it fixed?

It wasn’t just the oven. It was the mixer and general repairs. He keeps it all running. There’s no permanent fix for the oven. It’s a constant maintenance.

What do you do when you are not baking and running the restaurant?

My partner runs the restaurant side. I run the bakery side and am in charge of bread production and the bread manufacturing business. In addition to supplying The Stone Oven, we sell wholesale to restaurants and stores. Outside of bakery time, I go to the gym, spend time with my Yorkie and travel. My next trip is to Ireland.

What inspires you?

Changing things up so that I don’t get bored, sometimes, something I’ve seen in a magazine or something that strikes my fancy. I’m not hands-on anymore and miss playing with the dough, but I turn to life and to customer feedback for inspiration.

After so many successful years in business, what advice do you have for other restaurant entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurs often don’t come for advice but they should do it more often. Do not risk more than you can afford to lose. I hate to see people destroy themselves. It’s hard to pick up the pieces when you are emotionally and financially devastated. Know your stuff! For me, baking was just a hobby, and I didn’t know how to organize and run a business. I learned on the fly and don’t recommend it to anyone. I actually, was very lucky. It was serendipity at the time because we filled a void in the community, and I had a passion.

What has been your greatest challenge?

The employees, but not in the way you might think. Like most businesses, it is hard to get and retain good employees because without them we are nothing. I don’t have that problem, though. I have a group of committed people, and many have been with me for 17-20 years. They are dedicated. My main issue is dealing with my own guilt about trying to compensate them enough but still make sense for the business. I want to be fair to them so they can have quality of life and a good standard of living. I can’t wait for the day when I am not responsible for anyone but myself.

What has been your best moment at or favorite thing about The Stone Oven?

It has to be when we were in our former location on the corner. We were there for 10-12 years in a leased space when the rent tripled. The landlord had an inquiry from a bank who wanted to buy the space; so, he thought he would increase the rent to equal the offer or else sell it. My partner printed flyers that he put on the windows and doors. This got the community out. The mayor wrote to the bank president, “Stone Oven is the fabric of our community and has to remain where it is. We have plenty of other properties that we can show you.” They cocooned us and protected us. That’s a testament to how much we mean to the community. We are a neighborhood joint and want to be people’s home away from home. Shortly after that, the opportunity to buy our current location arose; so, we moved down a block and have owned our building for 13 years. We’re a family business and people know us personally. The items on the menu are named after members of the family, including my two daughters who worked here for years.

What does the future look like?

We’ve signed a five-year lease in Eton, but we have no plans to expand with new locations.

Tatyana Rehn, owner Stone Oven Bakery