“How you’d make it if you had time.”
By Diana Simeon
On a morning last summer, Clark Pope was busy making several batches of Belgian-style French fries at Cleveland Culinary Launch & Kitchen in Cleveland’s Midtown neighborhood. The fries, along with two hand-made dipping sauces, were destined for a bridal shower Pope was catering over the weekend.
“The bride wants the experience of walking up to a food truck and ordering a meal, but the party is not big enough for a food truck,” says Pope, who is the owner of Clark Pope Catering and Pope’s Kitchen. “The guests will come up and we’ll make them a meal on the spot.”
Also on the menu: Black Angus beef burgers, chips, and burritos with all the trimmings, including a variety of salsas and guacamoles, two types of beans, and several different meats. The approach is quintessential Pope, who specializes in creating personalized dining experiences for his clients.
“I take catering very literally. It’s your party,” says the longtime Shaker resident, who’s been catering for 17 years. Four years ago, Pope also launched Pope’s Kitchen, a spin-off that sells artisan sauces, cocktail mixes — his Bloody Mary mix has a devoted following — and other bar ingredients.
“What is your particular passion? We make it work,” he explains. “It’s what sets us apart as a catering company.”
While Pope is equally comfortable catering everything from an intimate dinner party to much grander affairs, among his favorite gigs is what he calls “tour catering.” Tour catering menus are built around a theme, which can be a type of cuisine or something else entirely. “One of the more interesting ones we’ve done lately is an east-to-west tour of Cleveland,” says Pope.
The “tour” started in Little Italy with bruschetta and a hand-fried ravioli, then moved to the old Slovenian neighborhood along St. Clair Avenue with a potato and leek soup. Then a pot sticker to celebrate the City’s growing Asian community, followed by a Flats-inspired main course: “A flat iron steak with a cassoulet of fingerling potatoes cooked in butter and cream with goat cheese and some early spring asparagus.” Hungry yet?
The evening ended with a nod to the Near West Side, a Latin-inspired dark-chocolate brownie flavored with almonds, cinnamon, and vanilla, and topped with locally made vanilla ice cream. Pope sources many of his ingredients locally, including at farmer’s markets. Another favorite recent tour featured a menu in which all the food was grown or raised in Northeast and Central Ohio.
“I met with the farmers on Saturday and then picked everything up the following Saturday,” says Pope. “So the mushrooms were wild foraged on Thursday for Saturday’s dinner. The strawberries were picked Saturday morning. It was so early in the spring that they were the first strawberries of the season. They were tiny and so full of flavor.”
Every caterer has an origins story about how they started cooking; for Pope it was all about what happened after the meal. “The family rules at my parents’ house were if you cooked, you didn’t have to clean and I despised cleaning, so I cooked,” says Pope, who grew up in Shaker. His mother taught at Shaker High.
He fell in love with it and by the time he headed off to Miami University of Ohio, Pope knew he wanted to open a restaurant. “I got a business degree and worked in a lot of restaurants, but that business is difficult,” he says. Pope also worked as a special-events planner; he was with Cleveland’s National Concession Company, which does food concessions for large outdoor events across the U.S.
By the early 2000s, Pope was ready for a change. He decided to follow in his mother’s footsteps and enrolled at nearby Notre Dame College to earn his master’s in education. It was then that he started catering.
“I was taking classes at night and substitute teaching during the day and was newly married and needed to earn a living,” he says. His first job: a bridal shower for a friend.
“I did the entire thing for the cost of the food,” he recalls. “But it was delightful and from there, those guests and that hostess hired me to do actual events.”
Pope taught for several years while catering on the side — and then he got an offer he just couldn’t refuse.
“I was holding a breast cancer fundraiser at my house,” says Pope, who lives in Shaker’s Sussex neighborhood with his wife, Dr. Sarah Planchon Pope, and daughter, Meredith. “It was come, eat, and donate what you want. We had 150 people show up and raised $7,000.”
On that day’s menu: barbeque featuring one of Pope’s homemade sauces. Among the guests was Trevor Clatterbuck, the founder of Fresh Fork Market, one of the first and biggest community-supported agriculture programs in Northeast Ohio. “He said, ‘Hey this is really good. Make it with Ohio-grown tomatoes and I’ll buy 1,000 bottles,’” says Pope.
That was Pope’s Original BBQ Sauce, which was the first product bottled under the Pope’s Kitchen brand. Today, Pope’s Kitchen offers 25 products, from sauces, spreads, and glazes to cocktail mixes, salts, and syrups. His products are now sold in six states (locally at Juma and J. Pistone, Th e Wine Spot in Cleveland Heights, and the Merchants Market at Legacy Village).
The success has enabled Pope to devote himself full time to his business. He still makes most everything for Pope’s Kitchen himself, using only fresh, all-natural ingredients. New products aren’t released until they meet Pope’s strict standards (a soon-to-be-released piña colada mix took seven months of development).
“It’s how you would make it if you had time,” explains Pope. “We do it for our catering and we do it for our products. It’s what people expect from us.”