Something old, something new

Brendan Meeker says he never did well in school until he decided to pursue his greatest passion by studying culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University.

After earning his bachelor’s degree at the Rhode Island school, Meeker worked as a chef in restaurants in Maine, Massachusetts, Florida and Chesapeake, Va., before returning home and working at the Akron City Club and Sheraton Suites in Cuyahoga Falls.

In June 1999, Meeker, 30, set out on his own and surprised many by buying the building that had housed Ed Niam’s Parkette, successfully turning it into a bustling upscale restaurant — in a very unsuspecting part of town.

Meeker’s Kitchen combines the crowded, open-kitchen atmosphere of the old diner with a fresh, eclectic menu which showcases Meeker’s breadth of experience. Entrée selections range from Western rib-eye steak to raspberry salmon, all prepared in full view behind a counter.

“I wanted to make a tribute to what they had done,” Meeker says, referring to the diner’s original owners.

He even hired Mrs. Niam to work part-time as a hostess.

Now that his restaurant has proven itself a viable business, Meeker, with the help of his father, local attorney Bob Meeker, is taking another chance on the 50-year-old Akron landmark.

Next month, Meeker will triple his seating capacity when he opens Brendan and Finn’s Irish Pub and a banquet room for 40 next to his original restaurant.

He has been overseeing the renovation of the building on Locust Street near Akron Children’s Hospital since last summer, preparing for the planned Dec. 1 opening.

While the additions will share the original restaurant’s kitchen, they will be housed in separate rooms. Part of the charm of Meeker’s Kitchen is its size, which enhances the diner atmosphere Meeker tried to preserve when he renovated the former Niam’s site.

“Our weakness is our positive,” Meeker says. “We’re small.”

Before the expansion, Meeker stretched the capacity of his small restaurant by catering local events. In October, he was asked to make 3,000 sandwiches for Aircraft Breaking Systems’ family day, and last summer, he cooked for Firestone’s 100th anniversary celebration at the Firestone Mansion.

He credits his loyal staff with making his growth possible. In an industry in which workers come and go, he says Meeker’s Kitchen has been able to retain most of the staff that was hired when the business opened a year and a half ago.

His secret? He’s one restaurateur who admits he does not put the customer first. But that’s not to say the customer doesn’t benefit from his strategy.

The most important person is the employee,” he says. “The employee comes first, because then, when I’m not here, they’ll take care of the customer.”

How to reach: Meeker’s Kitchen, (330) 253-6909