What's behind the spate of Baltimore-area restaurant makeovers

Diners in Columbia will soon bid au revoir to Petit Louis Bistro and say benvenuto to its Roman replacement, a new trattoria called Lupa.

After four years* in Columbia, restaurant owner Tony Foreman said the time was right for a reset. The Foreman Wolf restaurant is the latest to embark on a transformation that Baltimore-area restaurateurs say is part of a cycle necessary to survive. As restaurants approach a decade in business, many have found reinvention to bring a vital boost to business and forestall the prospect of closure.

“Every hospitality culinary business has to refresh itself periodically,” said Chuck Nabit, owner of Waterfront Kitchen, a Fells Point restaurant that closed in mid-January to rebrand as Ampersea. “It’s usually a six-to-eight-year, sometimes 10-year time frame. By 10 years, it’s pretty old unless it’s an iconic Prime Rib restaurant.”

The latest reinventions — which include Liv2Eat’s transition to In Bloom and Pazo’s rebrand as Bar Vasquez — come amid a flurry of restaurant closures in the Baltimore area. And while closing is a choice for restaurateurs who see their sales flatline, Nabit said he wanted to stay in business to support the Living Classrooms Foundation, a local nonprofit he partners with to teach children about urban gardening.

To that end, Ampersea will make its debut Feb. 9 after a quick makeover that will add new decor and furniture. The refreshed restaurant will serve modern spins on traditional Maryland recipes.

Nabit first opened Waterfront Kitchen nearly seven years ago and had been considering an overhaul for about six months.

“As Waterfront Kitchen, we’ve had some ups and some downs,” Nabit said. “The business, in my judgment, was really kind of going sideways; it really felt a little stale.”

Fresh concepts are vital to attracting restaurant business, said Henry “Hank” Boyd III, a marketing professor in the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business.

“The newness is part of the wow factor,” Boyd said. “You need to do something to spruce it up and make it appealing and make people come back.”

As restaurants consider rebranding, he said, they should examine trends and data to develop new concepts that will meet customer demands in their neighborhoods. Creating a new concept on a whim is where restaurateurs can go wrong.

“You’ve got to have the numbers to back you up,” he said.

New concepts can generate buzz from new customers, but they can also alienate longtime clientele. Boyd said it’s important for restaurants to communicate to customers the reasons behind their changes.

Cecilia Benalcazar, who owns In Bloom with her husband, chef Kevin Perry, said there was some confusion around In Bloom when it rebranded from Liv2Eat after five years in business.

“I think that we lost our momentum,” she said. “The connection wasn’t quite there.”

The restaurant overhauled its entire menu — keeping only the risotto fritters from Liv2Eat — in addition to adding fresh paint and a new name. Six weeks into the rebrand, Benalcazar said, they sensed it wasn’t making the splash they had hoped for. Some customers were disappointed that their favorite menu items at Liv2Eat were no longer available, making it difficult for the restaurant to attract new customers and keep regulars coming back.

“In hindsight, we didn’t make a big enough change,” she said.

In Bloom has since brought back popular dishes like its crab cake and reinstated its weekly gnocchi night to meet customer demand.

“Once you do it, you’ve got to commit to it and you can’t do it again,” Benalcazar said. “It’s not just a paint job; it’s actually getting that feel for it.”

Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group understands making dramatic shifts in its restaurants — the Lupa rebrand is not its first. The group recently transformed Pazo, a Harbor East restaurant of 12 years, into the Argentine restaurant Bar Vasquez.

“One of the goals that we had for it was to be a different food experience than people have had and a different mood than they’ve seen in the market,” Foreman said. “You also want to remind people that you’re there and the space is amazing.”

As Foreman Wolf looks to Columbia, the group hopes the new restaurant is a better fit for its Howard County customers. Petit Louis became a special-occasion destination, but Foreman hopes Lupa will cater to casual guests every night of the week. The new space will have a more casual atmosphere and approachable menu.

“I just want people to live there,” Foreman said. “It’s really important that when it’s Tuesday or you’re hungry that you’re not scared to come in and do something casual.”

Another Foreman Wolf restaurant, Johnny’s, took a different route in reinventing itself. The restaurant kept its name and decor, but switched the menu to seafood last year.

But those subtle shifts can make it more difficult to communicate changes to diners.

“If you redo the interior and the concept, they expect that — that kind of drastic change,” Foreman said.

Boyd said it makes sense for restaurants to make smaller shifts before embarking on a major overhaul. But these days, they need to remake themselves more often.

“It had a shelf life that was longer in the past — maybe you could do something that would last 30-40 years. But now those life cycles are getting shorter and shorter,” Boyd said. “You’ve got to freshen up. You’ve got to try something new.”

Recently rebranded restaurants

Restaurateurs are rebranding to breathe fresh life into their spaces. Here’s a look at some of the spots that have been recently reinvented under the same owners:

  • Elmwood Social Club is replacing the Other Corner Charcuterie Bar in Hampden, where it will become a members-only martini and cigar bar. (850 W. 36th St.)
  • Ampersea, which will serve modern twists on classic Maryland cuisine, will open in Fells Point where Waterfront Kitchen previously offered seasonal American fare. (1417 Thames St.)
  • Lupa will open in Columbia, replacing Petit Louis. Unlike the upscale French bistro, the new Roman trattoria will aim to create a casual atmosphere for everyday meals. (10215 Wincopin Circle)
  • As Jack’s Bistro’s owner prepares to sell his Canton restaurant, he’s temporarily transforming the space into the Regal Beagle, a lighthearted lounge serving light fare. (3123 Elliott St.)
  • Pie in the Sky opened in Mare Nostrum’s old location offering pizza, pasta and paninis in place of the former restaurant’s Turkish cuisine. (716 S. Broadway)
  • The Horseshoe Casino Baltimore replaced Jack Binion’s Steak with Gordon Ramsay Steak, keeping the steak house theme but raising upping its star power. (1525 Russell St.)
  • One Star Country Club took over No Way Jose, doing away with the former Mexican motif and encouraging patrons of the Federal Hill bar to leave one-star reviews on its Yelp and social media pages. (38 E. Cross St.)
  • B Bistro, a restaurant serving locally sourced American fare in Bolton Hill, closed its doors in late September with plans to rebrand as a new concept. It’s unclear what’s next for the space. (1501 Bolton St.)
  • Liv2Eat in South Baltimore served seasonal American cuisine before it became In Bloom, with a refreshed menu and look. (1444 Light St.)
  • Mad River Bar & Grill closed in Federal Hill and was replaced by The Charles, shifting from a weekend party spot to a restaurant and bar serving shared plates and simple cocktails. (1110 S. Charles St.)

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the number of years Petit Louis was open in Columbia. The restaurant was in business for four years. The Sun regrets the error.

smeehan@baltsun.com

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