Sammy's takes a turn

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As simple and straight-forward as the restaurant business may seem, the fact is the failure rate of restaurants is one of the highest there is and everything from a bad review to an untimely street repairs can kill a place.

Denise Marie Fugo and her husband, Ralph DiOrio know this all to well. They owned and ran Sammy’s in the Flats, a restaurant that was considered one of downtown’s best in the ’80s.

Fugo estimates that in the beginning, 60 percent of Sammy’s customers were local business people and of that local clientele, 88 percent were male business executives, including many of the city’s movers and shakers.

“Dick Jacobs closed his deal on the Cleveland Indians there (at Sammy’s)…it was a place you took your customers to do business,” says Fugo.

But tax law changes in 1986 had a profound affect on the way business meals were looked at. According to Fugo, the fact that business-meal deductions decreased to allow only 50 percent sent Sammy’s revenue plummeting.

Changes in business meal deductions were then followed by a recession that closed many Cleveland businesses. It became increasingly clear that for Sammy’s to ride out the economic downturn Fugo was going to have to dive into some unfamiliar waters.

So in 1983, in response to the business environment and at the request of their customers, Fugo and DiOrio diversified the business and started doing event catering. Fugo says, “The best market research comes directly from your customers,” says Fugo. “If you listen to your customers, they will tell you where the opportunities are.”

The risk paid off so well that last year, Sammy’s fine dining restaurant officially closed. Fugo admits it was like cutting off an arm. “I had vendors I had used for many years that dropped me cold. They didn’t think we were going to survive the change.”

Now two floors are dedicated banquet facilities, the number of staff fluctuates between 35 and 300 on a weekly-basis and Sammy’s catering business is evenly split between the social market –- weddings, anniversaries -– and the corporate market –- company events, customer entertaining.

Fugo says, “Our corporate mission was to bring life back to the city through world class food service, ambiance and management. We wrote the mission statement in 1980 and we still use it today.”

How to reach: Sammy’s, (800) 837-5899

Sammy’s Web site