The Kleban Effect
Al Kleban and Ken Kleban a Generation of Moving Fairfield Forward
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Another thing the Klebans are known for is “targeted tenanting,” essentially identifying the type of tenant that would make for a perfect fit for a property, and then going out and finding that tenant. This was the strategy behind the Brick Walk to begin with, which the Klebans envisioned as a collection of high-quality, connected properties. It started with a property swap—the Klebans traded part of their empty property behind the old Lesko Funeral Home with the Lesko family in return for the Leskos’ Post Road frontage. The Leskos would build a new funeral home in the back and the Klebans would link a collection of Post Road properties into one project. They would build an underground garage with free parking to serve tenants. All they needed was a cornerstone to lure in customers.
“I was in New York walking along Madison Avenue on the corner of 56th Street and I saw a sign that said ‘Coming Soon, Obikà Mozzarella and Wine Bar,’ and I thought what a great combination! That’s what we need here,” says Al, who lives in Fairfield with his wife of sixty years, Alida. “So I flew over to Rome, and I thought their operation was great.”
The Klebans courted Obikà’s owners but one stumbling block turned into the next and it became clear that no deal was imminent. Still, the Klebans believed the concept was perfect for their promenade. So they convinced the Racanelli family, restaurateurs from Westchester County, to create their own mozzarella and wine bar. The result, Pizzeria Molto, has been drawing hipsters, foodies and plain old pizza lovers to the Post Road establishment since it opened in 2009. Its outdoor dining has enlivened that stretch of street and sparked new eating venues downtown. Shortly after it opened, Pizzeria Molto was credited with bringing to town “a cosmopolitan atmosphere that is unusual for Fairfield,” according to the New York Times. Not anymore, though. “The restaurant scene has flourished,” says town planner Barnhart, adding, “the more the merrier, frankly. Competition can be a very healthy thing, and having more restaurants tends to create the image that downtown Fairfield is a destination.”
That is good news to Al Kleban. He is eating lunch—Caesar salad with grilled chicken (dressing on the side, as the waitress knows, since he’s a regular)—and catching up on details of the business incubator with its director, Diane Salerno. “This town is still suffering from a very deep recession and a lot of the mom-and-pop shops are still struggling to survive,” he says. “The affluent are comfortable in their own environment and don’t understand the plight of those who are not as affluent, who don’t have the opportunity or the wherewithal or the connections to help.”
He knows from experience that many folks need help on the way up. Al Kleban started working when he was thirteen years old. He was a soda clerk and a Good Humor man. He was a truck driver, a pot washer, a waiter. He worked his way through the University of Connecticut then earned a law degree there and joined a law firm in Fairfield. One of his classmates was Tom Meskill, who later became the governor of Connecticut. “He said to me, ‘You’re the one guy who’s never asked me for anything,’ ” Al remembers, then Meskill appointed him to the Public Utilities Commission. When Ella Grasso was voted in as governor, she vowed to clean house—beginning with the Public Utilities Commission—and appointed Al to take the commission’s reins. He later was appointed to the Federal Energy Administration. Al left public service in 1978 and returned to his law practice. He didn’t lose a case in ten years, he says. All the while, Al was increasing his real estate portfolio. He had inherited some of the property from his father, and many tenants felt like family, he says; he makes a point of patronizing his tenants’ businesses. There was a story around town about the time Al was preparing for bypass surgery about twenty years ago. Lying on a gurney, his sister to one side, his wife to the other. Al turned to his sister and said, “Whatever happens, promise me you’ll take your clothes to Superior Cleaners.” She would try, she said but could not promise; she was loyal to her own dry cleaner.
“Yes, that’s true,” Al says, chuckling. A man in work clothes stands off to the side holding a string of blue holiday lights. When Al is done talking, he approaches. The lights will illuminate trees throughout the Brick Walk. Are they an acceptable shade of blue? He plugs in the string and Al gives his approval. Nearly $74 million worth of property in town and Al Kleban is particular about bulb color?
“Absolutely. I have a pride of ownership, frankly, and I don’t want to own anything that I don’t like,” Kleban says, heading off to his spotless 2012 magnolia-colored Bentley.