He puts the joy in design

Entrepreneur’s restaurant venues make a splash in Rochester

He puts the joy in design

Entrepreneur’s restaurant venues make a splash in Rochester

Charles Cerankowsky
Charles Cerankosky

If you look around Rochester, it is not hard to find signs of Chuck Cerankosky’s influence.

In the last decade he has helped to bring new dining experiences to the area, all filtered through a specific lens and his first love: experiential design.

“(Inspiration) is very hard to define,” he says. “It’s like asking someone to describe when they found out they were in love with someone. There’s a feeling or an emotion that I see in my head, and I look at these projects and I try to imagine how I think a person is going to be enjoying it.”

Today Cerankosky is a designer, co-owner of restaurants Good Luck and Cure and director of food and beverage for Radio Social.

He also runs the Rochester Cocktail Revival—a week-long festival that showcases the region’s cocktails and bars. The festival will start its fourth installment next May.

In May 2016, Good Luck was named to Esquire magazine’s list of the 18 Best Bars in America.

And Good Luck tied with four other restaurants for No. 13 on Rochester Business Journal’s 2016 list of Fine-Dining Restaurants in the region.

Today, taking all his roles into account, Cerankosky supervises some 100 employees.

Cerankosky is first and foremost a designer and has contributed designs for a variety of projects besides his own including the Meatball Shop chain and Seamore’s—both in New York City—and local projects including Boxcar Doughnuts, Frog Pond, Boomtown Table, and Java’s.

“Restaurants are life because they involve so many human beings,” Cerankosky says. “There is an employee that is a server that works there because he needs to earn extra money to help an ailing mother and there’s people that meet there, get married there and then maybe go through hard times through the course of the restaurant.

“There’s so many cool stories that restaurants provide for us just by their nature,” he adds.

Cerankosky, 36, is a native of Ohio. He attended Rochester Institute of Technology, graduating with a B.F.A. in industrial design and a minor in creative writing in 2003.

He did not automatically think he would run a business, most especially in the field of hospitality. Being an entrepreneur was not on his radar.

“I didn’t grow up with an understanding that owning a restaurant could be a career,” Cerankosky says. “Restaurants were something that was a treat for my family once in a while (and we) usually went to mediocre ones. I grew up wanting to be a creative person.”

His artistic impulses eventually led him to feel most at home in industrial design, a major he switched to from graphic design.

“I was attracted to industrial design because it’s rooted in the design of the three-dimensional,” he says. “Three-dimensional means that it lends itself better to a human experience beyond simply being visual.”

Cerankosky began to realize that everything is designed one way or another. Creating a design that would actually bring people together or create a positive experience became the goal.

“Industrial  design allowed me to think about presumably all of the things in the world that are designed,” he says. “When you start thinking about (being) a designer and applying it to other aspects of life, you understand design as being a method of problem-solving. It’s problem-solving in a beautiful way. It wasn’t so much about designing the thing, it was about the design of how a system might be experienced by a human being.”

By age 20 he became a father and wanted to remain in Rochester to be near his family after college.

“In the positive sense, I was a dad very young,” he says. “A career path for a designer might lead you to leave school and then spend the next six to eight years bumming around in your twenties and move into a crappy apartment in New York City and take a design internship—that was not an option available for me because I had a young daughter in Rochester.”

Cerankosky began working at Java’s on Gibbs Street, learning from owner Mike Calabrese, and, “because of my natural desire to go after things,” he soon was managing the company’s four locations.

“Working with Mike—we became friends—I started doing more and more, and it went from being just a coffee shop job to being something that I took very seriously, and really took a lot of pride and pleasure in helping him grow the business.”

At one point he did take a design job, but it involved staring at a screen and sitting at a desk—not the right fit for him, Cerankosky says.

“It had me sitting behind a desk for eight hours a day, five days a week, using a computer to design this interface, and I liked working at the cafe more,” he says. “I discovered that I really liked being entrepreneurial. I liked the hustle of it. I wasn’t the owner of (Java’s) but it gave me a great foundation for running a business. I designed everything—I went overboard and needlessly.”

Cerankosky was a different kind of manager. With design always at the forefront of his mind he took every component of the operation and tried to design a way of doing things that would not only be systematic but engaging for employees.

“That really taught me that there’s a lot of worth in applying design to what can be very boring,” he says. “How all of those little elements contribute to the overall experience. Something that is well-designed is something for the user.”

Now with two children, he began looking at his career in a new way. Around 2003 he was ready to work on his own project and create a stronger financial foundation for his family.

“Being a young father I had to think a lot about my goals financially or my goals for taking care of my family or my kids,” Cerankosky says. “I didn’t want to have an ownership stake in a business to take out a fancy line of credit and buy a fancy car—I wanted to do it because I knew that it had a financial benefit for my family.”

With any career decision, Cerankosky’s children have come first. Living in Rochester he has found a lot of support for that way of thinking, he says.

“I think Rochester is so rich with voices and people with good intentions,” he says. “I think the center for me has always been my kids. I obviously was an adult when I had kids but I grew up with my kids a lot, too. From 20 years old on, everything has been informed by what is best for them—really thinking about what’s going to make them proud or what they’re going to think is cool.”

Knowing he was ready for a new challenge, Cerankosky and Calabrese teamed up with local chef Dan Martello to create their own concept in Rochester.

Calabrese knew he wanted to create something with Cerankosky, he says.

“We’ve been working together so long, we pretty much know what the other is thinking,” he says. “Working with him is great. There’s nobody better for setting up systems and procedures.”

Cerankosky was inspired by what he saw in cities across the country and was ready to bring his own spin on dining to Rochester.

The trio created Good Luck, a gastropub housed in an industrial space on Anderson Avenue. It opened in 2008.

“At this time in my life,” Cerankosky says, “I really started awakening to all of the fantastic examples of hospitality and design that existed in major markets and seeing these great examples of restaurants: how they made people feel, how they celebrated ingredients, how they celebrated cocktails and conviviality and hospitality.”

Good Luck, with its emphasis on local ingredients and design, was a new concept for Rochester in 2008. Cerankosky was just following his instincts, he says.

He saw a chance to do something new with Good Luck. He wanted to evoke a feeling for people dining out of not being there just to eat but for the social experience.

“Our aim was to be as good as a restaurant you would find in Manhattan, and I think the three of us really just clicked,” he says.

Good Luck “definitely had its trials and tribulations,” Cerankosky says. “It was not a sure shot right out the gate, but once we got over the hump of that first slow summer, people returned and the restaurant showed those patrons who were visiting for the second and third time that they had a great meal every time.”

When issues arise, Cerankosky confronts them. That has helped to see him through any obstacle, he says.

“Without challenges, without obstacles, you don’t have a quality product at the end,” he says. Seeking advice from others is also part of his method. “You have to embrace those different points of view, those different perspectives, and I think that’s what can help you realize success.”

In 2012, Cerankosky and Martello opened Cure—an intimate French charcuterie—at the Public Market. In many ways Cure and Good Luck are opposites in terms of size, menus and experiences, Cerankosky says.

“It was a decision that we made—we wanted to keep the ball rolling,” he says. “The thrill of opening Good Luck did not quench my desire for opening more concepts.” Cure has “been its own roller coaster, but has done very well and continues to do so. People thought we were nuts.”

Leah Stacy began working with Cerankosky in 2014.  She has seen his work ethic firsthand and the way his vision can help move a project forward.

“Chuck is one of my favorite people to collaborate with because he goes all in and he’s just so smart,” she says. “He’s one of the busiest people I know, yet he’s incredibly reliable. I’ve never known him to miss a deadline or fail to deliver on a project. He always gives his best, and he’s learned about the restaurant industry on the ground while he’s doing the thing. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.”

The impact Cerankosky has had on dining and design in Rochester has been monumental, Stacy says. He believes in the area and has never shied away from trying something new.

“When you look at his projects—Good Luck, Cure, Rochester Cocktail Revival, Boomtown Table, Radio Social—these have all been new concepts for Rochester in some way,” she says. “Chuck is an integral part of the identity behind these brands. So much of it comes from his imagination and, ultimately, his belief that people will connect with the concepts. He brings a big city mentality to everything he does, and that’s so needed here if our food and drink scene is going to continue to grow.”

In 2015, Cerankosky was asked to help Radio Social—a restaurant, bar and recreational space—come together. He currently serves as director of food and beverage for the facility at 20 Carlson Road.

“In 2015 at a certain point … I decided that I wanted to do more than own restaurants,” Cerankosky says. “I wanted to do more to push my vision and satisfy what I was interested in in both design and operations.”

Josh Owen has known Cerankosky since 2010. He is chairman of the Industrial Design Program at Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Imaging Arts and Sciences and president of Josh Owen LLC.

The friends began working together for RIT’s METAproject—an industry collaborative in which students help design a restaurant for a client.

“Wise designers see through the artifice of categorization and know that design can be widely employed to improve experiences across many areas of human endeavor,” Owen says. “Chuck’s sensibilities are sophisticated and worldly and he has a passion for crafting his personal vision into something uniquely consumable by many. In some ways, the food is simply a byproduct of this elegant thinking.”

Cerankosky also has a sense of humor, Owen says. Work is a creative process with him.

“Chuck is deadly serious about having fun,” he says. “We share this in common and it may be why working with him is so easy for me. When one’s job is synonymous with one’s passion, there seems never enough time to work on all the projects that await attention.”

The thing with Cerankosky is his perspective. There is a sense of thinking big while embracing the city of Rochester and its quirks, Owen says.

“Chuck is a vital component of a generation of entrepreneurial Rochesterians who are dialed into a sophisticated, global agenda,” he says. “Having adopted Rochester as the center of his universe, he is fiercely loyal to the city and deeply committed to enriching this community with his brand of action. Chuck is a collaborator, a curator, an evangelist of good taste, a steward of excellence and an adversary of mediocrity. His presence lays a foundation for the future of a bright new Rochester.”

A goal for Cerankosky today is keeping his life in balance, but it’s a challenge he and many business owners face, he says. At work, the object is not to become stagnant.

“Professionally, challenges include growing my businesses, growing the range of projects that I participate in without losing the core of quality that I want the customers to feel,”  he says.

Today, much of Cerankosky’s own good luck is something he actively recognizes. He remains grounded in gratitude for the place that has helped him grow.

Others have helped him reach his goals.

“I work with a very good group of collaborators and partners,” he says. “I’ve learned that partners are not necessarily defined as being those people that you know. It’s not necessarily the people that you laugh the best with, the people that you argue the best with. You partner with someone because you can completely disagree but for the sake of the business still come to terms and come to a decision.”

Cerankosky sees the support of Rochester as a reason for his professional growth. He continues to get excited about where the city is headed.

“(I am) proud to be part of the Rochester community,” he says. “Proud that I live here and work here and very much look forward to continue to do so.” He is “thankful to all those who have found an opportunity to enjoy any of the concepts that I’m involved in.”

Title: Co-owner of restaurants Good Luck and Cure, director of food and beverage for Radio Social, designer

Age: 36

Education: B.F.A. in industrial design and a minor in creative writing, Rochester Institute of Technology, 2003

Family: Fiancée, Allie Greco; daughter, Sofie, 16; son, Raine, 12

Residence: Brighton

Hobbies: Skiing, basketball, sailing and being a DJ

Quote: “(Inspiration) is very hard to define. It’s like asking someone to describe when they found out they were in love with someone. There’s a feeling or an emotion that I see in my head and I look at these projects and I try to imagine how I think a person is going to be enjoying it.”

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email [email protected].