Lunch or dinner at the Breakwall BBQ in Conneaut is a reminder of why we adore summer in Northeast Ohio.
The smoky sweetness of barbecue swirling about on a summer breeze; cute girls in tight shorts, smiling and treating you like you’re the only person in the world; happy music performed live by regional favorites; the shadow of a passing seagull; the lighthouse; the sunset. And restaurant owners who are as authentic as the food they purvey and atmosphere in which they serve it.
Alas, this place, like Eddie’s Grill and the White Turkey, also reminds us that summer in Northeast Ohio is finite. In the Breakwall’s case, May 1 to Sept. 30.
That’s long enough for co-owner Gabe Cellini, a Beaver Falls, Pa., native who found a wife, business and home in Conneaut. He also found a career there, as a special education teacher in Conneaut. As a result of concurrently teaching and owning a seasonal eatery, the months of May and September are killers for Cellini, the “creative force of the business.”
“He is the creativity behind the Breakwall BBQ,” says Mike Morgan, Gabe’s business partner.
The partners lease the dockside restaurant building from the Conneaut Port Authority, which went looking for a tenant in 2012. Because the authority felt a barbecue would be a good fit for the location, they approached Briquettes Smokehouse owner Nate Rockwell, who referred them to Morgan, a pizza shop owner. He pitched the idea to Gabe, who was teaching in Erie, Pa., but living in Conneaut at the time. Tired of the commute and a recent change in administration, he resigned and changed careers.
“I said, ‘Yes, let’s do it!'” Gabe says. “It was a tough decision … but sometimes you got to just jump in. You don’t get anywhere in life without taking your chances. And everything has worked out, but it was a tough (first) year.”
Gabe had worked in the corporate restaurant business—his undergraduate degree is in business management and he worked for chain pizza restaurants—but owning a restaurant was new territory. Having labored for corporate America, he knew that was not the atmosphere he wanted for his business.
“It is an anti-corporate culture,” Gabe says of their workplace. “You are allowed to be yourself.”
While Rockwell and others from Briquettes assisted the men in setting up their barbecue restaurant, Gabe and Mike were determined to make Breakwall its own experience with signature sauces, menu and atmosphere.
“These sauces are ours. We wouldn’t consider our restaurant a genuine BBQ if we didn’t have our own sauces,” Gabe says. “We have more of a molasses flavor. You don’t get that tomato-based taste that you get with some other BBQ sauces.”
Breakwall offers three sauce options: Traditional, hot and honey mustard.
“And they are not married to one another,” Gabe says. “It is not a honey-mustard version of the base sauce, for example.”
Meat options are pulled pork, fried or barbecued chicken or beef brisket. Being on the waterfront, Breakwall’s menu smiles at the surf with Lake Erie Perch.
The restaurant’s sandwiches are where Gabe’s creativity shines. Bridizzle features a brisket, roasted red peppers, caramelized onion, jalapeno, hot barbecue sauce and hot pepper cheese on an 8-inch steak roll. There are chicken and pulled-pork sandwich options, as well. Even two vegetarian sandwiches are on the menu, the Veggie Jackson and Baby Daisy, which gets a thumbs up from carnivores, as well.
Burger Night features a different burger creation every Saturday night. Only 40 artisan burgers are made. In a similar vein, on Fridays and Saturdays, the bar serves but two types of cocktails, which change every week.
Gabe says because his bartenders make these drinks repeatedly, they gain experience for next year, when an outdoor bar will be offered. That bar is part of an expansion plan that will utilize the lot to the northeast of the building. As Gabe and Mike survey they lot, they see much more than concrete and dust; they visualize a fence, a stage for live music, more seating for guests and space for artists to exhibit and sell their work. They plan to make this vision a reality by the time Breakwall BBQ opens for the 2018 season.
Sunday, Aug. 6, is Strummerjam 2017 at Breakwall BBQ. The music begins at 1 p.m. and goes until 10 p.m. Acts scheduled to play are The Boom Shakalakas, JC Nickles, Mala Sangre, Matthew Crays, Paolello & Gone, Jay Baumgardner, McKenzie Lee Sprague, Zach Scott and Jeffrey Glover. Additionally, the Rock School of Erie’s Knock and Who’s There will perform, and there will be closing bonfire and jam. Proceeds will go toward establishing an endowment for at-need youth to attend the Rock School in Erie, Pa.
The expansion stems from both demand for their food—their restaurant maxes out at about 100 diners at one time—and the owners’ desire to set each table with music and art.
“Music has become part of the whole package that is Breakwall,” Gabe says.
The restaurant features live music acts several times a week. Their Summerjam event provides a Sunday afternoon and evening of regional bands, and a showcase for players from the Rock School in Erie. Gabe and Mike plan to give back to the community by donating this year’s Summerjam proceeds to an endowment so at-risk youngsters can attend Rock School.
“The reason we decided to (first) do this last year is that we had some of the school’s performers come here and we were just blown away by them,” Gabe says. The school is similar to what youth would do in a school band program, but the focus is on rock music. Because it is not under public education funding, there are expenses to the students and their families, expenses low-income parents can’t afford. So Breakwall BBQ wants to create an endowment.
Giving back is one of the restaurant’s core values, explains Gabe.
“Mike and I are so thankful for the support we’ve gotten from this community, all of Ashtabula County and our customers. We are very grateful,” Gabe says. “We are trying to build the community of Conneaut, not just to be involved with organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Bureau, but also people who are in artistic endeavors. If we can give back to the community in any way, we definitely will.”
That giving back attitude extends to the 30-some people who work at the restaurant. With a culture that emphasizes individuality, giving people a chance and making customers feel special and comfortable, Breakwall gets high marks at online review sites and from the workers themselves.
“We are encouraged to just be ourselves and wear what we want to wear,” says Ashley Conrad, a server who has been with the business from its first year. She says the setting is another bonus of working at the Breakwall.
“Guests are happy to be here, it is a nice view and we have nice music,” she says. “I literally cry when the season is over.”
And that begs the question, why not go year-around? Mike has a very practical answer—when the ambient temperature drops below 50 degrees or so, the smokers can’t do their job. Gabe puts it in human terms.
“As beautiful as this is in August, in February it is brutal down here. There is nothing to knock down the wind for 30 miles.”
That says, Mike and Gabe stress the fact that their food is available year around through their catering service. They have mobile smokers and will provide food for a range of events.
Breakwall is open seven days a week through Sept. 30. Hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; on Friday and Saturday, they are open until 10 p.m. Check them out on Facebook.