By Nina Polien Light | Photo by Jim Baron
“He was coming from New York to open food trucks, and I saw so much of myself in Chris,” Kuhn, who is 10 years older than Hodgson, says. “I didn’t want to see Chris become a statistic and get into the restaurant business and get out in roughly a year. So I started showing him the P & L’s of our restaurants and, along the way, we became friends. When he decided to transition from food trucks to brick-and-mortar restaurants, it made sense to do it together.”
Today the men are at the helm of a mini-empire that includes licensed facilities in First Energy Stadium and Quicken Loans Arena; a food truck; and restaurants Cibreo, Bin 86, Hodge’s, and Washington Place Bistro, to name a few.
The Driftwood Group also operates a catering division that — in addition to staging weddings and other celebrations — regularly serves some of Northeast Ohio’s best-known corporations and nonprofits. The Cleveland Clinic, Hyland Software, Calfee Halter & Griswold, Sherwin-Williams, Lubrizol, the Cleveland Foundation, and Playhouse Square regularly call on Kuhn and Hodgson to plan and execute meetings, holiday parties, employee appreciation events, and fundraisers.
Early on Hyland Software hired Driftwood to cater a Christmas party for 1,200 people. Kuhn and Hodgson convinced the hosts they could replicate six Driftwood restaurants in Hyland’s warehouse. They carried it off from the drywall to the furniture, fixtures, and paint colors.
“It was kind of that, ‘Wow’ moment when we knew we could do anything we put our minds to,” Kuhn says.
From that event, and others that followed, the catering division’s reputation and client list grew. Hodgson, who serves as the company’s partner and chef, says much of the company’s success is based on delivering quality service and “thinking on the fly to give (clients) what they want.” The rest he attributes to networking.
“About 90 percent of my job is networking,” Hodgson says. “It’s important to have a smile on my face. I never know who I’m going to meet or what position they’re going to be in in five years. Everyone I meet is a potential new client, new guest or new friend. I don’t look at them as just another dollar sign. We look for partnerships and relationships that will last a long time.”
Kuhn, a finalist in Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year program, says networking is essential.
“One of the advantages of being in the restaurant business is you’re not constantly in an office or behind a desk,” he says. “We’re in front of people every day, whether it’s the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a maintenance worker at the theater.”
Hodgson says staging a corporate event differs from a wedding because it often involves last-minute scheduling. While a bride may spend a year or longer planning every detail of her big day, a CEO may decide at the 11th hour to host a party. The CEO may have specific ideas for the event but relegate a secretary or other employee to oversee the details. It is not uncommon for Driftwood to receive the final guest count just one day before a corporate party.
Driftwood can cater at a client’s office, at a party center, in a warehouse or at other venues throughout the region.
Driftwood began as Scott Kuhn Hospitality Management after Kuhn opened a small restaurant in Pennsylvania, added several more over the course of 11 years, and decided to return to his native Northeast Ohio about four years ago. Shy by nature, he was uncomfortable with the eponymous company name. “I have OCD and love collecting driftwood,” he says. “I thought this was a keen way of saying it’s my company, but nobody would understand it — until now.”
About the time of the name change, Hodgson was gaining notoriety for his food truck, thanks, in part, to his second-place finish on Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race.” While in the process of opening a restaurant, Hodgson hired Kuhn as a consultant.
Today the men employ about 300 people, including 48 permanent and 95 temporary workers in the catering division. They run what Hodgson calls a “restaurant- and culinary-minded group.” In an era of Iron Chefs and diners posting meals on social media, they serve restaurant-quality food at catered events. Instead of cooking meals at a commissary kitchen and storing them in warming boxes, Driftwood prepares from-scratch meals onsite — even if that means setting up a makeshift kitchen in a yard.
Additionally, one person oversees every aspect of each event.
“If you start the party with one of us, that person will be working the party,” Hodgson says. “A lot of organizations don’t do that. They have event planners and coordinators and sellers. … We all plan, sell, and execute.”
For more information: thedriftwoodgroup.com