A “Top-down” View
Most Clevelanders associate Stouffer’s with frozen food and (for those with long memories) restaurant icons like Top of the Town and Stouffer’s on Shaker Square. But these are just part of a story with more parts, more players, more breadth and more history than most of us know.
The Stouffer tale starts at the old Sheriff Street Market on land adjoining what is now the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. In 1898, seven years after the Market came into being, James B. Stouffer and his son Abraham E. Stouffer opened a Sheriff Street stand called the Cottage Creamery Co. In 1905 they incorporated as the Medina County Creamery Company. James Stouffer died in 1908 and in 1916 the family and the business moved from Medina to Lakewood. By this time Cottage Creamery Co. was Northeast Ohio’s largest manufacturer and wholesaler of dairy products, and it grew exponentially in 1920 when the company merged with Fairmont Creamery Co. of Omaha, Nebraska.
Two years later Stouffer and his wife Lena took over a milk stand owned by the creamery and turned it into Stouffer Lunch, a buttermilk and sandwich store on the lower level of the Cleveland Arcade. Lena’s Dutch apple pie is often credited for the restaurant’s near-instant success. By the close of the 1920s the company (whose leadership now included Abraham’s sons Vernon and Gordon) had become the publicly owned Stouffer Corp., with restaurants in Cleveland's Citizen's Building (840 Euclid Avenue) as well as in Detroit and Pittsburgh. A Philadelphia location opened in 1931 and in 1936 a Playhouse Square and two New York establishments made their debut. Abraham Stouffer passed away the same year.
For the next two decades the Stouffers kept manically busy, diversifying as well as opening and managing more foodservice establishments. In 1946 the company launched its still-renowned frozen food business. This burgeoned into a nationwide operation selling partially cooked take-home meals created largely at a frozen foods plant that the company built on Woodland Avenue in 1953. So successful was the prepared foods operation that a retail business known as the 227 Club was launched, with stores often situated next to Stouffer’s restaurants, including the one at Cleveland’s Shaker Square. Additional manufacturing operations opened in Gaffney, South Carolina, and Springville, Utah. In 1966 Stouffer’s christened a new manufactory in Solon and the Woodland Avenue facility closed.
By this time, Stouffer’s also was in the hotel business, having purchased the Anacapri Inn of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1960. Other hotel purchases followed, including the 1977 opening of Cleveland’s own Stouffer’s Inn on the Square (formerly the Hotel Cleveland and Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel and now the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel). In 1962 Stouffer’s reached Anaheim, California, with three restaurants in Disneyland. Stouffer Corp. was purchased by Litton Industries in 1967 and six years later Litton sold Stouffer’s to Nestlé. For a time (1966-1972), Vernon Stouffer (1901-1974) owned the Cleveland Indians—hardly a great business proposition during the Tribe’s “Sad 60s.” By 1990 the Stouffer’s name was attached to 68 restaurants and 40 resorts and hotels. However, plans already were underway to tighten the company’s focus and, by 1996, Stouffer’s had completely exited the hotel business (sold to the New World Development Co., owner of the Renaissance/Ramada chains for ~ $1.5 billion). Stouffer’s also walked away from foodservice, although a few establishments live on as Select Restaurants. The company now was free to concentrate solely on food products manufactured and sold through Nestlé, which it still does to this day.
Mid-Century was a golden era for Stouffer restaurants in Cleveland. Complementing its flagship Playhouse Square restaurant, the company’s first suburban restaurant opened on toney Shaker Square in 1946. Festooned with chandeliers and busied by black & white-clad waitresses known as “Stouffer Girls” (possibly a nod to the celebrated Harvey Girls) the space, previously The Shaker Tavern, exuded charm and sophistication. Stouffer restaurants rarely were lauded for five-star food but Shaker Square eatery still became so popular that people began asking staff to freeze menu items to take home. Thus arose Cleveland’s 227 Club, immediately west of the restaurant and a companion pub called The Tack Room.
Stouffer’s at Shaker Square remained popular through the 1970s. In 1981, however, the restaurant and adjoining Tack Room were repurposed and rebranded as New Orleans-themed Vernon’s at Shaker Square and a Pacific Rim restaurant called Pier East (the east-side counterpart to Stouffer’s Pier W. on Lake Road. which had opened in 1965). For a time Pier East was a venue for regular jazz performances and broadcasts staged in collaboration with public radio station WCPN. Both restaurants survived until the early 1990s when Stouffer’s began its staged departure from the restaurant business. The site is now a CVS.
By the mid-1950s Stouffer’s reached the sky with a vertigo-inducing collection of “Top of” restaurants. Each of these 16 swanky establishments capped a skyscraper: Top of the Rock in Chicago’s Prudential Building, Top of the Flame in Detroit’s Michigan Consolidated Gas Building, Top of the Hub in Boston’s Prudential Center, Top of the Mart in the Atlanta Merchandise Mart, and so forth. The most famous of the “Tops” was Top of the Sixes at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York, which claimed to have served 10 million meals between its opening in 1957 and 1973. In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” infamous stockbroker Jordan Belfort refers to it as a place “where Masters of the Universe could get blitzed on martinis and exchange war stories.” Top of the Sixes closed in 1996 and became the Grand Havana Room, a cigar lounge populated by heavy wood, copious leather, ostentatious humidors and financial moguls. Located on the site of the former William K. Vanderbilt House, an 1882 chateau, 666 has for decades confronted beastly debt-management problems involving the Kushner and Trump families.
But in Cleveland the top story was Top of the Town, which opened in 1964 on the 38th floor of the recently completed Erieview Tower. Like the other “Tops” the view from its multiple dining rooms was amazing, the food decent and the atmosphere convivial. Glass and silverware clinked. Stouffer Girls and tuxedoed waiters hovered. A series of “mirror murals” depicting iconic Cleveland structures graced the walls. Musicians played to the dine-in crowd and to all of Northeast Ohio via WJW radio.
For a time, Top of the Town occupied an odd niche in Cleveland’s downtown dining scene. The Theatrical had more panache. Swingos Keg & Quarter had better food and more star power. Higbee’s Silver Grille was glitzier and, like its neighbor Kon Tiki, was closer to the heart of downtown. But Top of the Town—despite its lonely presence in a sea of parking lots and snails-pace urban-renewal projects—had the views! For decades magnificent lake and city vistas kept people coming.
By the 1990s, however, Top of the Town was losing its edge. Downtown dining—except for the Flats—was less popular and the restaurant and its food were getting a bit rough around the edges. Top of Town, like all Stouffer’s foodservice operations, was getting tired. In January 1995 Top of the Town closed and within a year the company was out of the foodservice business. For three quarters of a century, Stouffer’s had been a go-to priority in Northeast Ohio. At one time or another, in addition to its Erieview and Shaker Square eateries, the company purchased, operated and eventually closed John Q’s, the Roxy Bar & Grill and The Rusty Scupper in Cleveland; Pier W and a Stouffer’s restaurant at Westgate; and The Cheese Cellar and James Tavern in Woodmere. Most of these—on a clear day—could be seen from Top of the Town.