As Baltimore restaurants mark 20 years, owners share what gives them staying power

What keeps a restaurant open for 20 years? Consistency in the face of change, Baltimore restaurateurs say.

Twenty years ago Kurt Schmoke was the mayor of Baltimore; the Ravens had just wrapped up their inaugural season; "Homicide: Life on the Street" was in its prime. And the Brewer's Art had just opened its doors in Mount Vernon.

Much has changed over the past two decades, but the Brewer's Art and fellow stalwarts of Baltimore dining are still going strong. Charleston in Harbor East is entering its 20th year in business, while Sotto Sopra and Blue Moon Cafe just capped off their 20th year as 2016 came to a close.

Longevity is rare in an industry where research shows the vast majority of restaurants don't make it past their first five years. Market changes, evolving consumer trends and growing competition drive many to close their doors.

Only 21.3 percent of all businesses that launched in 1996 have survived, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. But 20 years later, veteran restaurateurs say consistency, staying true to their identity and customer loyalty have kept them thriving.

When the Brewer's Art opened in 1996, servers spent a lot of time educating guests on the farm-to-table food and experimental beer the restaurant was making. Some turned their noses up at the footed glassware in which the restaurant served its beer, said co-owner Tom Creegan.

"I think we were a little ahead of the curve with beer and food pairing and kind of elevating beer to the status of wine and food," he said.

Down Charles Street at Sotto Sopra, chef and owner Riccardo Bosio said the availability of ingredients in Baltimore was scant.

"In '96 I couldn't find a head of radicchio; I couldn't find arugula," he said. "People didn't know what gnocci was, ravioli, nothing."

Though Baltimore's dining scene has evolved — ingredients diversified and beer snobs proliferated — these mainstay restaurants, at their core, remain largely the same.

Blue Moon Cafe owner Sarah Simington said she's stuck in the '90s, and it works for her. She opened the Fells Point cafe with her mother, Sherri Simington, in 1996. She has since opened a second restaurant in Federal Hill, but the original cafe stays true to form.

"Our decor and the vibe is one of the things that I think keeps us so steady," she said. "People that came in here 20 years ago know that they're gonna come in 10 years later, have the same quality of food, the same atmosphere, the same feeling."

Stability in the kitchen is what has made Charleston successful, Tony Foreman, a partner in Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group, said. Executive chef Cindy Wolf is still at the helm with a longtime staff, some of whom have been there since the restaurant opened.

"Cindy's name is on the door, she's in the kitchen — we've never messed around with that," he said.

Consistency is important — to a point — if a restaurant has aspirations to become an institution, restaurant consultant Aaron Allen, of Orlando, Fla.-based Aaron Allen & Associates, said. Restaurants must strike a balance by "evolving, but in a way that maintains the original DNA."

Creegan, who served as general manager of the Brewer's Art from 1998 to 2000 before becoming a partner in 2001, said that was a lesson he learned early on. The restaurant has gone through different chefs who have put their own thumbprint on the menu, but Brewer's Art has always been a place that prizes local food and seeks to elevate beer.

"You really need to create an identity and stick as closely to that as possible, but make adaptations as you go," Creegan said. "You open a place and you have this idea of how it's going to be, and immediately when you open the door you need to make adjustments because your vision might be one way but the reality is slightly different."

At Charleston, what started as a restaurant with la carte dining transitioned to a tasting menu experience, coinciding with a sweeping renovation in 2005. Foreman said the change was prompted by feedback from guests, and that the restaurant's evolution reflects the broader changes in the market.

"Part of our evolution has to do with the permission of the people in the seats to show them more, to make it more exciting, to make it more interesting, to do more adventurous food, to do more serious wine," Foreman said. "That's all come from dancing with the market."

Relationships with customers have allowed Wolf to do her best work, she said. She has guests at Charleston that have been dining with her since she and Foreman operated Savannah at the Admiral Fell Inn, and they trust her.

"For me, that's been the greatest thing about being in Baltimore: whatever I've been excited about working with, I've been able to put it on the menu and people will buy it," Wolf said.

Creegan said changing palates have benefited the Mount Vernon restaurant, where it's easier now to connect with guests as craft beer has gone mainstream.

Recent years have been good to Sotto Sopra, too.

"The first year in this city was brutal, brutal. Well because we didn't have anything — no social media; nobody knew us," Bosio said.

The rise of social media has helped spread the word and created an accurate review system that allows the restaurant to respond to criticisms more quickly, he said.

"If you listen to the people in this town, you can really be in business because if you don't adapt, I mean, people vote with their money," Bosio said. "But this is not a town that is silent."

Pikesville resident Abbey Goldman, 62, is among the customers who have been dining at Sotto Sopra since it opened.

"It was like family," she said. "We walked in and we became friends with everybody that worked there. It was a very close-knit group and it stayed that way for a very long time."

She eats there at least a couple times a month, she said, and usually orders the fettuccine al fuoco.

"In this world and our economy and the number of restaurants, it stands out," she said. "It's hard to make it in any business in these times, and he's just consistent. You always know it's going to be there and you always know it's going to be good."

Customer loyalty is part of what kept him afloat during the recession as others failed.

"If you understand the Baltimore market, it's very easy to thrive just because you've got to respect the customers and then they will respect you back," Bosio said.

Simington said she kept prices steady during the recession, despite fluctuating food costs.

"It could hurt me personally, but I won't let it hurt my customers, I'll take the hit," she said.

Looking ahead, Allen said he expects a major shake-up within the industry during the next three to five years. He suggests institutional restaurants adapt to new technology and trends, such as offering third-party delivery services, to stay relevant.

For now, Baltimore's longtime restaurateurs say they'll continue to innovate and evolve, but only as much as the market demands.

"I just expect to do the same thing that we've done for the last 20 years, which is continue to be the best we can possibly be," Wolf said. "I want to constantly grow."

Twenty years ago, Bosio wouldn't have thought it possible to still be in business.

"I would have said there's ... no way because it was so tough," he said. "But you know, you go with the flow. I'm not scared about the future."

smeehan@baltsun.com

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