Following the openings of Kantina and Raving Med in 2016, restaurateur Seth Bromberg is solidifying his place in Cleveland’s dining scene
Story by Kristen Mott
Photography by Michael C. Butz
Seth Bromberg is a perceptive individual.
Sitting at a small table inside Raving Med, his most recent venture in the local restaurant scene, the 49-year-old restaurateur watches closely as guests enter and exit the restaurant. He keeps a watchful eye as plates of falafel and chicken shawarma are brought to the surrounding tables, making sure each item is prepared to his satisfaction.
He speaks slowly and deliberately, mulling each remark in his head before sharing his thoughts. Although Bromberg left Brooklyn, N.Y., decades ago, his accent still slips through as he speaks, especially when he speaks fondly of his family.
“My Jewish grandmother from Brooklyn used to call me the overpaid busboy,” Bromberg says with a smile.
Having a keen eye for detail and learning to carefully execute business plans have played key roles in Bromberg’s success.
Far from a busboy these days, Bromberg is the owner of two restaurants in Cleveland’s theater district – Raving Med, located in the Keith Building on Euclid Avenue, and District, across from the Hanna Theatre at East 14th Street and Euclid. He says he’s inspired by the downtown landscape every day.
“What we think makes Playhouse Square very special is how awe-inspiring it is to be able to work in the theater district, with the lights and the glamour. Even for Cleveland, it’s understated, but it really is a lot of fun,” says Bromberg, a member of B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike.
Bromberg’s restaurants can be found outside of downtown Cleveland, too. From Kantina in University Circle’s Uptown district to The Melting Pot at Legacy Village in Lyndhurst and at Westgate Shopping Center in Fairview Park, Bromberg has made his mark across Northeast Ohio.
Kantina and Raving Med both have Jewish themes and both opened this year, in January and June, respectively. Being able to share cuisine that holds a special place in his heart has been an important milestone for Bromberg this year, and it’s something that he’s excited to share with all of Greater Cleveland.
With a handful of thriving restaurants in the area, it may come as a surprise that Bromberg never had a desire to become a chef, nor did he have a mentor to help him navigate his way through the industry. Rather, Bromberg sees himself as a “student of the game.” He’s relied on his ability to quickly learn new concepts and skills to further his career.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t want to learn more,” he says, adding that keeping an open mind and staying humble serve as mentoring forces in his life.
Bromberg has always approached his business in a straightforward manner. It revolves around a philosophy of “if his staff is happy, his guests will be happy.” Combine that with a focus on fresh, healthy food and a spirit of hospitality, and one can sense Bromberg’s recipe for success.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Bromberg was interested in entrepreneurship and finding business opportunities. At 15, he and his friends scalped concert tickets, purchasing 20 or so at a time and selling them above face value to make a profit.
He left New York in the late ‘80s to study finance at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla. There, Bromberg worked as a waiter at various restaurants, country clubs and sports bars to cover tuition.
“When I first started, I was told, ‘People tell you what they want to eat, you give it to them and they give you money.’ And I said, ‘Wow, that’s perfect. How easy and fun is that?’”
Upon graduating in 1991, Bromberg got an entry-level position with The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and Morton’s The Steakhouse of Chicago. He spent the next nine years with Morton’s, and along the way was promoted to the executive level. Bromberg credits his experiences at The Ritz and Morton’s for instilling in him a strong work ethic.
“The Morton’s operation really trains general managers and executives in an entrepreneurial standard. You were responsible. The buck stopped with you. That training ground really solidified my approach to business – hospitality, integrity and creating culture,” he says.
Bromberg eventually left Morton’s and moved back to New York, where he opened a line of steakhouses in Long Island. However, Bromberg says he struggled over whether he wanted to go back to school or stay in the restaurant industry.
He soon met his wife, Jodie, in New York, and the two married in 2000. They decided to move to Tampa, so Bromberg sold all of his possessions and restaurants in New York.
Starting from scratch
Bromberg, however, couldn’t stay away from the restaurant industry for long. In 2002, he answered an online job posting for a business consultant position with The Melting Pot restaurant chain. He spent the next year-and-a-half traveling the country to visit various franchise locations and help owners identify areas in which they could improve business.
He quickly realized there was an opportunity to bring this restaurant concept to the Cleveland market. His partnership with Legacy Village, which is owned by Mitchell Schneider of First Interstate Properties, helped seal the deal.
“Their commitment to excellence and their commitment to service is very similar to my philosophy,” Bromberg says of Schneider and First Interstate.
Bromberg moved to Cleveland in January 2004 and opened The Melting Pot at Legacy Village that June. His second franchise opened four years later in Fairview Park.
While opening The Melting Pot at Legacy Village had been mostly a smooth process, opening the second location brought a set of challenges.
“I unfortunately lost my crystal ball and couldn’t predict one month after we opened that the stock market would crash and the subprime mortgage disaster would happen. Needless to say, it’s been an interesting 8-year run at that location,” Bromberg says.
That experience taught Bromberg to be much more conservative in his approach to opening District, a contemporary American restaurant featuring from-scratch dishes. District opened in Playhouse Square in April 2013, at a time when the theater district was still finding its place in the downtown Cleveland landscape. Bromberg faced the challenge head on.
“We loved the vision that Art Falco and his team at Playhouse Square had for the area, and although we opened a year-and-a-half prior to the re-grand opening, if you will, of Playhouse Square, we bought the vision, we understood the vision, and we really were excited to be part of that downtown landscape,” he says.
While The Melting Pot is a vibrant, upscale casual atmosphere, Bromberg wanted to take a more understated approach to District, allowing the surrounding metropolitan landscape to take the spotlight.
“We really wanted the city to be the décor, and we wanted that to complement the food,” he explained. “When you can look outside and see the bright lights of the city and the hustle and bustle of people passing your window, you can’t draw that on any kind of canvas. That yourself is your canvas.”
Serving Jewish dishes
Bromberg decided to open his first kosher restaurant, Kantina, in January of this year. Although Bromberg grew up in a kosher household and attended a Jewish day school until fourth grade, he says it took some time for him to find his place in Cleveland’s Jewish community.
“While I understood the kashrut from top to bottom and left to right, you have to be able to prove through doing and executing and not just by saying,” he says. “We’re very fortunate that the community has embraced us.”
Kantina, which serves a variety of soups and salads, sandwiches, burgers and platter meals, operates as the main food service for Hillel at Case Western Reserve University. The restaurant provides Shabbat meals for more than 100 students every Friday night, which Bromberg considers a mitzvah.
“The warmth that we feel to provide that from-scratch, kosher meal to these students is amazing,” he says.
Taking things one step further, Bromberg opened Raving Med in June after being approached by his Israeli chef with the concept for the restaurant.
“The food at Raving Med is the true, authentic, real-deal Israeli food that you would have in Israel right this second,” Bromberg says. “It’s not Americanized, it’s not modernized, it’s not gentrified. The menu is ripped from the streets of Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and Tzfat.”
Bromberg recalls taking his first trip to Israel in 2013. While other tourists took photos of historical and religious sites, he snapped pictures of food.
“There’s something about when a fresh falafel comes out of the oil, it hits your pita and it’s stuffed with tahini and hummus and pickled beets and carrots and peppers and eggplant, and you have this sandwich, there is nothing better,” he says.
The feedback from customers at Raving Med has been overwhelmingly positive, Bromberg says, with many guests telling him how excited they are to finally have “real Mediterranean food” available in Cleveland. He hopes to one day bring both Raving Med and Kantina to the East Side suburbs.
Being in the restaurant industry never comes without challenges. For Bromberg, the biggest learning curve has been understanding the planning and budgeting process of building new restaurants. He’s learned to ask more questions along the way, he says.
“I don’t come from a construction background. I’m a Jew from Brooklyn that played stickball in the streets and was fed by my grandmother,” Bromberg says with a laugh.
Bromberg’s career goes beyond new business ventures. The part he enjoys most, he says, is being able to employ nearly 100 people and helping his workers provide for their families.
“Growing up Jewishly in Brooklyn and learning about tzedakah and giving to others who were less fortunate, not that I grew up so fortunate, but you always gave,” he explains. “I think that, coupled with learning about hospitality and learning good service from two of the greatest hospitality companies, I bought into it and I understood it. It was very simple.”
Bromberg balances running his restaurants with being a father of three children: Evin, 14, Noah, 12, and Jules, 11. He credits his wife, Jodie, for keeping him sane and taking care of their family at home in Pepper Pike.
Bromberg says he’s enjoying being able to share his passion for food with his children. He hopes that as they grow older, they’ll think back and cherish the memories, just as Bromberg does when he thinks of his grandmother.
“I can think back and remember watching my grandmother prepare Shabbos dinner and the smell, as you would open the door, would overcome you,” he says. “That smell has been recreated in my home when I make my grandmother’s matzah ball soup with my kids. There’s something about food that brings you back to a time in your life, brings you back to a special occasion or a remembrance, and it’s the most powerful experience.” js