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Ohio City Pizzeria Employs the Needy and Homeless

Cleveland, OH nonprofit buys pizzeria to help expand employment opportunities.

This Friday, July 19, a social enterprise pizzeria will open its doors to feed and assist the needy and unfortunate in Cleveland.

Ohio City Pizzeria stands out not just for its 1,700 square-foot building redesigned in an old-school Italian setting but for its owner: The West Side Catholic Center (WSCC). The nonprofit organization began as Catholic nuns feeding peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the poor and homeless in the historic Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland.

Now WSCC will offer pizza, wings, calzones, and anything that can be found in an Italian bistro. The entrees are affordable, no more than a $32 high-end steak. Salads are $6 to $8, appetizers for $8 to $12, and pasta between $14 to $18. The pizzeria also offers delivery from a third-party service as well as take-out.

The pizzeria is one of WSCC’s 50-plus services in four buildings along Lorain Avenue where the nonprofit strives to help the disenfranchised by providing food, shelter, employment, and educational opportunities through five main programs.

“Our campus stretches over three buildings along Lorain Avenue, and Ohio City Pizzeria has been our neighbor for decades,” said Michael Bernot, director of the advancement at WSCC. “The original owner opened the pizzeria in 1982 and our leadership and Board of Directors have had discussions with her regarding the sale of the building and business upon her retirement going back nearly 10 years. In March of 2018, she was finally ready to retire and close Ohio City Pizzeria and gave WSCC the opportunity to purchase the building with the business attached.”

Bernot said that the organization then made a decision to run the pizzeria as a social enterprise with three goals:

  • To afford employment opportunities to their clients
  • To spread awareness of the work and mission of WSCC
  • To provide a new, unique, revenue stream to support the operations of WSCC

“We also really like the idea of sustaining an affordable family meal option in the Ohio City neighborhood,” he said.

WSCC partnered with Brandon Chrostowski, founder of EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute, where he helps former prisoners get a new start at life through hospitality management.

Executive director John Litten describes the partnership as a “wonderful marriage.”

“We were discerning what to do with the space when we bought it last year,” Litten said, “so I asked Chrostowski of EDWINS’ fame to come over and offer some advice. He left saying that instead of giving advice, he wanted to be a part of it. This spawned a great working relationship that has gotten us to this point. Our managers that we hired are some excellent EDWINS graduates who have excelled elsewhere, combined with our own clients.”

The pizzeria employs 12, half of which are graduates of WSCC’s own workforce development program.

“They haven’t necessarily been incarcerated,” Litten said. “We serve anyone who comes in need, which often means they are threatened with homelessness, and sometimes they have also served time. As a second chance employer, OCP looks for potential, rather than dwelling so much on past discretions. We strive to be as forward-looking as possible.”

Chrostowski revamped the pizzeria to feature Tiffany-style chandeliers over the bar and vintage pictures on homely walls. “You want to say, ‘Grandma, you haven’t changed these photos in 30 years,'” he said. “You come in and say, ‘Haven’t I been here before?’ Yeah, you have.”

Litten said that while the dining area has had cosmetic changes, the original floor and ceiling remain intact.

“We feel that we’ve augmented an existing space well, rather than replacing it,” said Litten.

Another example of this is that while the establishment has new kitchen equipment, the oven has remained the same since the 1980s.  The pizza recipe hasn’t changed either.

“We’ve retained the ‘OCP Classics’ like the pizza, wings, calzones and the like,” Litten said. “But we’ve also added what you might find in an Italian Bistro. So you’ll find Osso Buco, veal parmesan, caprese salads, and more on the menu. You might come for the pizza, but you’ll stay for the Italian fine dining, done in an unpretentious way.”

The pizzeria will host its grand opening on Friday, July 19, to Saturday, July 27.  On Monday, July 29, the pizzeria will begin regular hours from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays.