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Greg's Bagels, other namesake restaurants work to preserve identities under new owners

Tommy is the new Greg at Greg's Bagels. But that doesn't mean he's renaming the restaurant.

Made with the same secret recipe, a chocolate chip bagel at Greg's Bagels would still taste as sweet at any other shop. But as the bagel eatery changes hands for the first time in nearly 30 years, there's something to be said for keeping the name that's become as much a staple at Belvedere Square as the bagels it serves.

Greg's is one of a few longtime restaurants in Baltimore being sold away from their eponymous owners. Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point, named for founder Jimmy Filipidis, was sold out of the Filipidis family for the first time in 70 years. And Greg's Bagels has reopened under the ownership of former employee Tommy Hearn as founder Greg Novik steps away from the shop to battle pancreatic cancer.

At a restaurant built as much around its owner's personality as its food, the transition can be worrisome for longtime patrons who fear their cherished spot will change. And for new owners, it becomes a balancing act of preserving the founder's vision while evolving for the better.

At Greg's, customers have been stopping by the shop and peering in the windows since it closed in August. Novik, 70, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and the shop's fate was uncertain until Hearn, 22, expressed interest in taking over.

He's the first person Novik has entrusted with his bagel recipe since he opened the shop in 1989.

"Hopefully I don't crash and burn," Hearn jokes. "We have this saying, you know: 'You live by the bagel, you die by the bagel.'"

And the bagels are what will keep patrons coming back.

Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst with the New York-based NPD Group, said a restaurant's name is less about the person behind it and more about the experiences that surround that person — the quality of their food and the interactions with them. Maintaining a consistent menu and atmosphere will keep a restaurant thriving as a new face becomes associated with an old name.

"They're not necessarily going to that restaurant just because of that person. It's the experience; it's what that restaurant has delivered," she said. "There's an association there with the name, but it's about the restaurant, really."

Local and national restaurants, like Bo Brooks Restaurant and Catering or Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, have navigated this path before. Although the namesake restaurants are no longer operated by their founders the names still carry weight in the communities they serve.

If the restaurant was thriving before it changed hands, Riggs said it doesn't make sense to rename it. It can be a red flag to customers.

"Why take away the brand equity that has been built up in that name? If you can lend the same experience, same quality, there's really no reason to change the name," Riggs said.

That's a big part of why Rustem "Rudy" Keskin didn't change the name of Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point when he took over in December. Keskin, who also owns Rudy's Mediterranean Grill in Columbia, bought the storied diner from Nick Filipidis, the son of its eponymous founder.

"I want to show to them, hey, we appreciate it because you trusted me with the business, handed it to me, why's it need to change?" Keskin said. "I could open another Rudy's Mediterranean Grill. It's not that."

Jimmy's has some customers who have been coming for 50 or more years, Keskin said. Although he has some menu changes and interior updates planned for the restaurant, he's joking when he calls it "Rudy's Jimmy's."

The restaurant stayed open during the transition, but Keskin said he still gets daily calls from customers asking if it's closed.

"You really have to let them know that it may be under new management but it's still your favorite restaurant, nothing has changed about it," Riggs said.

At Greg's, Novik said he will be working to keep quality control of the bagels as Hearn learns the business.

"My job is to make sure the food stays good. That's what I'm teaching him," Novik said. "His job is to keep the keep the spiritual and thematic essence... But he has to remake it in his image."

The food was always the priority, Novik said; it was never about making a name for himself.

"The keys are uncompromising quality ingredients, staff that loves their jobs and therefore loves the customers, and an all-pervasive sense of humor in every sense of the business," he said. "And the ability to speak a little Yiddish."

Novik's sense of humor was as much of a draw to the shop as the food. And he built a loyal following. Hearn said every day leading up to the shop's reopening, people stopped in to ask about Novik's health and inquire about the shop's future.

Ed Madden, 67, said he's been coming to Greg's just about every Sunday since he moved to Towson in the late 1990s. There are a lot of factors that keep him coming back.

"First of all, the bagels and the salmon. That's No. 1," he said.

But the atmosphere was a draw, too.

"You could tell that they were into good service and good product just from the way everybody talked," Madden said. "So it was a good combination."

Last Tuesday afternoon, before the shop reopened, several curious customers peered through the window, and a few let themselves in. Sandra Nicht, a regular, was among them.

"Been waiting for you guys to open back up," she said as she walked through the unlocked door.

Nicht, a 59-year-old yoga therapist from Arbutus, said she can't remember how long she's been a regular at Greg's. She started going when she taught yoga classes at the Lynne Brick's gym above, and goes out of her way to stop into the stop.

Like other customers, she said it's the food that has brought her back time and again. The pumpkin chocolate chip specialty bagels were one of her favorites.

"I started going by and would smell the bagels and I stopped into get one, and they were the best bagels I ever tasted," she said.

She stopped buying bagels altogether when the shop closed last year. "I can't eat a sub-par bagel," she said.

"You could tell that he cared about his product, and Greg was just the nicest guy," Nicht said. "That's one thing that makes for some loyal customers if they see you're a good person."

She said that will help Hearn as he takes the reins.

Hearn doesn't plan to change much. The shop has fresh paint, and he might add a credit card machine. And Novik's humorous touches will remain.

"We still will have a tip jar that says, 'We accept Rolexes.' So if anybody feels like dropping one off, feel free," Hearn said. "We never got one."

A handwrtten sign on a chalkboard in a life-sized baker statue's hands reads: "Please forgive our startup mistakes. If we knew what we were doing, we'd be making smartphones, not bagels."

Greg's currently has limited hours — 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday — and is starting out with a very limited menu.

As the restaurant stabilizes, Hearn said he'll expand its hours and phase in more bagel varieties.

"Maybe he'll start making his own secret specialty bagels, too," Nicht said. "I think he's got it covered. He's going to have a great start. People will support him because we support Greg." 

smeehan@baltsun.com

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