Tonya Griffith Bullard hopes Sweet Tee’s Kitchen will help bring back Buckeye

Tonya Griffith Bullard started selling food this year in a parking lot on Buckeye Road to raise money to help fix up her mother’s home, damaged by fire. Now she and her husband, Marvin Bullard, plan to open a takeout restaurant there.

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Tonya “Sweet Tee” Griffith Bullard started selling food this year in a parking lot on Buckeye Road to raise money to help fix up her mother’s home, damaged by fire. The food sold fast to passers-by and to the many friends of Bullard, a mother of 12, grandmother of 28, and lifelong resident of southeastern Cleveland.

Now she and her husband, Marvin Bullard, plan to sell similar food for a living from a building on that parking lot. Pending final city approval of renovations, they expect to open Sweet Tee’s Kitchen in March at 12716 Buckeye Rd. with multicultural food for takeout and for institutional meals. She hopes the business will help the historic Buckeye Road bounce back.

The corridor rises eastward Woodland Road to South Moreland Road. The neighborhood began developing in the late 19th century as Little Hungary.  By 1920, it was a hub for Cleveland’s more than 42,000 people of Hungarian descent, a bigger community than anywhere else outside of their homeland.

Benedictine High School moved here in 1929 and went on to produce football stars like Chuck Noll, who coached his town’s arch-rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, to multiple Super Bowl crowns. The neighborhood also became known for jazz clubs, training talents like saxophonist Ernie Krivda. “There were businesses all up and down Buckeye,” Bullard recalls.

In recent decades, middle-class flight and systemic racism have caused disinvestment and blight in this mostly Black neighborhood. Many buildings have gone vacant.

But the street has potential, with a great view of downtown and short drives to Shaker Square and University Circle. And it may be starting to pick up again.

Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute, which trains former felons, has opened a bustling complex at Buckeye’s eastern end, with a butcher shop, a bakery, residential units, a playground, a chicken coop called “Eggwins,” and more. The city has bought up many vacant properties. Now it is studying the corridor’s future at a cost of $100,000 in federal and nonprofit grants.  

“It’s definitely getting better,” says Bullard, “and once we get there it’s going to get even better. Hopefully, everyone will get on the bandwagon and bring the neighborhood back to life. I think people will take a chance once we show them we can do it.”

A people person

Bullard likes working with people. Her answering machine says just in part, “If anyone hasn’t told you that they love you today, I do. God bless.”

She says “Sweet Tee” stands for “Tremendously Talented.”  She plied many trades over the years, including security guard, hairdresser, pantry coordinator, a Cleveland Racquet Club chef, and phlebotomist. She drew people out while drawing their blood. “They have to trust you with their arms.”

She has also helped relatives with food businesses in Cleveland and Brook Park. “I look to cook. I’ve always wanted to own my own restaurant.”

She says Sweet Tee’s menu will be multicultural. She’ll offer ribs, oxtails, cabbage, sauerkraut, pork chops, meat loaf, lasagna, vegetarian dishes, vegan ones, quiches, omelets, French toast, and more.

She’ll have tables outside during the summer but none inside. “We’ll be carryout forever.” She expects takeout food to remain strong even after the pandemic. She has signed up with Uber Eats and DoorDash.  She also has won contracts with local day care centers to supply eals.

A once and future restaurant

She’ll reopen a vacant building raised in 1972 with a peaked roof and a little ball on top. It became one of Kenny King’s Kentucky Fried Chickens. In 1984, its zoning was changed to residential and office. But it was later allowed to serve as an adult day care center and a Head Start kitchen.

The current owner, Mazen “Sam” Ali, gave her a five-year lease and applied for a zoning variance. In October, Marka Fields of Cleveland’s planning department met with neighbors and heard that they’d welcome Sweet Tee’s. “I think it’s a nice use of the building and a resource for the community,” she told the Board of Zoning Appeals at a meeting in November. The board unanimously approved the variance.

On Dec. 16, the local design review committee gave conceptual approval to exterior work on the site. Final approval will be considered on Jan. 13. Meanwhile, Ali, is renovating the interior with guidance from architect Daryl Mapson.

The property is part of Councilman Kenneth Johnson’s Ward 4. Says Johnson, “It’s going to do very well. I expect it to be a catalyst.”

The Bullards plan to hire 10 people, mostly local youths and senior citizens. They’ll get supplies from several local vendors, including Kocian Meats, Hillcrest Foods, and Restaurant Depot. They’ll be open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sundays from 6 a.m, to 6 p.m.

Bullard is proud of being a minority female business owner. “I want to encourage young people to believe in your dreams and focus on them. Anything is possible. Don’t give up just because you’re a minority, and you feel no one is out there to help you. I’ve gotten so much help and support.”

She’s also proud of the neighborhood.  “I still stay in the hood. I love my hood. The hood has been nothing but great things for me.”

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