MEDINA — When the Serenite Restaurant and Culinary Institute opened its doors in March 2018, it did so with one mission: To serve as a culinary institute that teaches members in the recovery community about working in a fine-dining establishment.
Despite some community opposition about the plan to serve alcohol at the restaurant — the decision later led to some of the leadership leaving the Recovery Center of Medina County — restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski was steadfast in his convictions that fine dining includes alcohol, and those working at the restaurant who are in recovery would need to learn skills that can take them beyond working at a typical chain restaurant.
Now, just two weeks shy of its one-year anniversary and judging by customer reviews, Jessica Hazeltine said the venture has been a raging success, and in her “totally biased opinion,” there’s not a restaurant of Serenite’s caliber in Medina County.
She said Serenite has gone much better in the first year than anyone expected.
“Every time we were met with a challenge from the community, we stepped right up and shined,” Hazeltine said.
“We proved to every doubter that we could do it.”
This was the case even when Medina City Council condemned the plan to serve alcohol when voting on the restaurant getting its liquor permits.
“The reason they were upset with alcohol being served here, they didn’t have the faith in us to be around it responsibly,” Hazeltine said. “There was a lack of faith.”
Growing from early success
Fast forward one year, Serenite is not just getting by on faith. And even with some changes in leadership, its success story still rings true.
“It was a giant success,” Chrostowski said Wednesday. “(I left things) in excellent shape with strong leadership in place.”
Chrostowski is no longer affiliated with the restaurant. His one-year contract as consultant ended in December. He modeled Serenite after his highly successful Edwins Leadership and Restaurant in Cleveland, which also offers classic French cuisine.
The difference is that Edwins employs people in re-entry who were previously incarcerated.
“They don’t have a recovery specific program like we do,” said Hazeltine, administrative manager for the Recovery Center of Medina County. “The program is the same. They learn the same exact skills. Ours is two months longer (than Edwins).”
She said she is grateful to Chrostowski for his guidance.
“He was gracious enough to hold Serenite’s hand and to guide us to the excellence where Edwins is today,” Hazeltine said.
When Chrostowski’s contract ended, the Recovery Center’s board of directors voted unanimously to promote general manager Michael Flaherty to executive director and CEO.
Flaherty now oversees the entire production at 538 W. Liberty St., which once housed the Medina Steak House.
Flaherty said he’s grooming assistant general manager Brad Toth on the restaurant side, and assistant manager Kip Erwin will be working on the recovery side to help Hazeltine. Erwin, certified as a peer support specialist, graduated last week from the culinary program.
The CEO/executive director said taking over the leadership role was seamless.
“Brandon came in as a consultant and set everything up,” Flaherty said.
“I was at Edwins myself. That was his baby. He’s a busy guy. He just opened a butcher shop. He teamed up with Catholic Charities to open a pizza shop in Ohio City.
“He still volunteers his time and consults where need be (at Serenite). But all the groundwork was laid.”
Flaherty said the first year went by very quickly.
“So far, so good,” the Medina High School graduate said. “The success of the students, that’s the main thing.
“Word is spreading (about the restaurant).”
‘Do something unique and powerful in the community’
Hazeltine said to her knowledge, Serenite is the only restaurant in the country that trains and hires those in recovery to run its establishment. There are many restaurants that hire felons or those in recovery, but she said not one that trains and hires.
Students who drop out of the culinary program still get access to the Recovery Center’s case management program, which include peer support, help with housing and transportation, and connecting clients with services.
“That is available to all of our students,” said Hazeltine, a licensed peer supporter.
With a framework of wraparound services in place, Hazeltine said they have not had one incident where any of the students were caught drinking.
Flaherty said his main objective in 2019 is to do more on the recovery side with programming, education and family support.
“There is a lot of opportunity to do something unique and powerful in the community,” he said.
He said the recovery community is unified in Medina County trying to curtail the drug epidemic. He said he wants to do some fundraising for the nonprofit recovery center.
He said Serenite is “dba” (doing business as) for the nonprofit.
Different beliefs lead to new program
While Flaherty trumpets Serenite as a success and commends the recovery community for unifying behind ending the drug epidemic, the approach of how that should happen is up for the debate.
A new drug recovery center is in the planning stages in Medina as a direct result of the opening of Serenite.
In October, Dave Caperton announced that the Hope Recovery Community is expected to move into the Children’s Center of Medina County, 200 Highland Drive. This new program will be a very dry program with a clear complete abstinence approach.
“I was the original executive director at the Recovery Center (of Medina County),” Caperton said then.
“When I found out they were going to serve alcohol, I resigned. It didn’t fit with my beliefs. It’s a big issue serving of alcohol in an establishment like that. We do everything we can to keep (those in recovery) away from it.
“They need to stay chemical- free — in liquid form or powder form.”
Caperton was not the only person affiliated with the Recovery Center to leave.
This new program has the support of the Heartland Community Church, 3400 Weymouth Road, Medina Township, which earlier this year raised $70,000 for recovery efforts in Medina County.
It has also partnered with Cornerstone Chapel, 3939 Granger Road, Medina Township, to host a recovery dinner on Saturdays that has grown in popularity.
Out of the kitchen, into employment
Serenite’s soft opening was March 28, 2018, the same day as the premiere of the documentary “Knife Skills,” which was nominated for an Academy Award and documented the opening of Edwins.
Students started in Serenite on March 6, 2018.
They’ve had two classes graduate from the culinary program, comprised of five and two students, respectively. The third and fourth classes are currently running with four and seven students.
Hazeltine said the classes usually start with 12 to 15 students and pare down for various reasons.
“We don’t want to be overloaded,” she said. “We focus on each student. We like to keep the classes smaller.”
Management is proud that several of their graduates are working in area restaurants, including Rosewood Grill, Amuse, 17 Public Square and Twiisted Burgers and Sushi, as well as two at Serenite.
“With the recovery process, part of the goal is to teach them life skills,” Hazeltine said.
This includes how to write a resume and filling out a job application.
Flaherty said the students are really full-time employees working 40 to 50 hours a week. They are paid regular wages while training in the eight-month program. There are about 20 employees at the restaurant.
Serenite is open for dinner 5-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. It is open for brunch at 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
In about a month, it will start serving lunch.
Hazeltine is amazed at the progress the students make, from having no restaurant experience at the beginning of the program to serving bananas Foster tableside (The dessert is lit on fire).
“People love us,” she said. “We’re good at what we do. We strive to be the best at what we do. No question we’ve been a success.”
The menu is not for the casual chef. With popular items like coq au vin, a hearty chicken and beef stew; duck confit and Angus beef burgers, students are learning how to make the kind of dishes served in top eateries around the country.
Hazeltine said her favorite mean is the New Zealand venison.
She said Serenite wants to break away from the notion that it’s a “special occasion restaurant.”
Hazeltine said reviews have been off the charts.
“Our steaks are quality USDA steaks,” she said. “I’m a red meat eater. We also have burgers, chicken and pasta. When we bring in lunch, the price points will be more approachable. Medina doesn’t have white tablecloth dining.
“Something new takes getting used to.”
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