“I want to be known as someone who brought jobs to the community and built a family legacy.”
By Joe Miller
Busy doesn’t even begin to describe Shaker restaurateur and Cleveland radio personality Sam Sylk.
Along with his day job as a deejay on WZAK FM 93.1, the Chicago native co-hosts a Sunday gospel music show on another station with his wife and business partner, Zenobia Sylk. He also has authored two books, with a third on its way.
And then there’s the not-so-small matter of running the growing Sam Sylk’s Chicken and Fish restaurant chain, including the Sylk family’s original eatery in Shaker Heights. It’s a job that demands a hands-on approach.
“I was cooking this Saturday. And I cooked Thursday,” Sam says during an early morning tour of the Shaker location, just before he has to go on the air. He proudly wears his signature orange and green baseball cap featuring the restaurant’s logo.
“When running a business, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” he says. “I’ve always had a dream, a passion to do this.”
When the Sylks launched their “home-style” soul food restaurant in 2015 at 3761 Lee Road (near Scottsdale Boulevard), Sam took charge of the chicken and seafood breading. Every other day would find him in the kitchen mixing up his secret blend of spices and cornmeal – white cornmeal for the perch and shrimp, and yellow cornmeal for the catfish steaks and roughy. For chicken he uses a flour base.
Zenobia focused on the sides, such as string beans and collard greens flavored with smoked turkey tails. She also contributed her 90-year-old grandmother’s mac and cheese recipe. It features nine different cheeses including – a slight departure from the family formula – smoked gouda. “With the gouda, it really pops,” she says.
The popularity of those dishes, along with hard work, has spawned three more restaurants – in South Euclid, Euclid, and Garfield Heights. Altogether, Sam Sylk’s Chicken and Fish has 43 employees, including several family members. Their daughter, Latifah, runs the Shaker store, and a cousin recently came on board as district manager. Even their 10-year-old son, Jeremiah, will pitch in on weekends when he doesn’t have baseball.
“I want to be known as someone who brought jobs to the community and built a family legacy,” Sam says.
The Sylks know from experience that the restaurant business isn’t easy. Before their move to Cleveland in 2013, they gambled on a seafood restaurant in the tough Chicago market. It didn’t last two years. When the husband-and-wife team decided to take another shot, this time in Shaker Heights, the naysayers initially wrote them off, pointing out that the location didn’t even have its own parking.
“I can’t believe how fast it’s grown in five years,” Zenobia says. “Everyone told us we wouldn’t last.”
Sam can still be found cooking fish on Lee Road, but he doesn’t mix spices and cornmeal anymore. Sam goes to the kitchen and comes back with a hefty 25-pound bag of breading. With the addition of each new restaurant, the Sylks realized they needed consistency across the chain. Now their original recipe is mixed and packaged by a supplier in Cincinnati. Another lesson learned.
“It has to taste the same at every store,” Sam says. Now, plans are in the works to sell five-pound versions of those same bags in local grocery stores. Sensing another opportunity, Sam is following up his recent book about relationships – entitled Is It Them Or Is It Me? – with a book about entrepreneurship, based on his restaurant experiences. “It will include the things I’ve learned and the mistakes I’ve made. I have a vision,” he says. “I just want to see it come to life.”