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Catonsville restaurant opened 10 years ago

It was not quite business as usual for Jim and Sharon Andrews at the Catonsville couple's Ships Cafe on Feb. 22.

The sign in front of the Catonsville couple's bar-restaurant at 828 Frederick Road advertised steak and ribs, the usual Wednesday special.

Regulars settled into their seats along the granite bar that had been installed in the fourth of a series of renovations about five years ago.

But Wednesday was a special day.

At the end of the bar, the couple greeted familiar faces and accepted congratulations from several on Ships Cafe's 10-year anniversary.

"It's been good, it really has," Jim Andrews said. "Sharon and I have met hundreds, thousands, of great people. People have really supported us."

He said there were only a few customers, regulars from when the bar was known as the 828, when he opened at 3 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 22, 2002.

He had one full-time bartender and three part-time employees. Now, Ships has 40 full- and part-time employees during the winter season and its payroll swells to 54 employees when the weather warms, with 90 percent from the area, he estimated.

When it opened, Catonsville residents had a limited number of options, such as Jennings Cafe, Dimitri's International Grill, the Candle Light Inn and G.L. Shacks Grill, to choose from for dining out.

Now, with the recent openings of the places such as the Catonsville Gourmet, Regions and Duesenberg's American Grill, Catonsville has become the hot spot for diners from the metro area and beyond.

"When I hear how people come here from Bel Air and (Washington) D.C., it's unbelievable," Sharon Andrews said.

Much like February of this year, February of 2002 had been unusually warm. It had also been the driest on record at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, according to a National Weather Service website.

"It was mild out," Jim Andrews said.

After that first Friday night, he came back the next day to find customers waiting for the bar to open on Saturday morning.

The bar was a popular destination for night-shift workers from the Washington Flour mill and the Simpkins Industries plant, both only a few miles away from downtown Catonsville on the outskirts of Ellicott City, he said.

"The 828 used to open at 6 a.m. and we had to follow the tradition," Andrews said.

Ending that early opening a year later was one of many changes the couple have made in the past 10 years.

"It took us well over a year to get established," Jim Andrews said. "The hardest thing was getting over the stigma from the 828 to Ships. The stigma was that the 828 was an old man's bar, dingy. That was the biggest hurdle to get over."

But as that hurdle was cleared, it became apparent he could not run the business by himself. Sharon left her job in the banking industry a few years after the opening to join her husband.

The couple divide the duties while offering input to each other. "She runs the front of the house. I run the back of the house," Jim Andrews said.

The old office and kitchen is now a dish room. A remodel of the bar and adjoining residential building in 2004 produced a new, open dining area and upstairs deck. A new kitchen was built a year later. The granite bar, bay window, tin ceiling, new paneling and flooring were added in 2007.

But perhaps the most important change, said the couple, was deciding to sell steamed crabs in 2003.

"They brought something to the area that had not been here before, crabs," said Craig Sigismondi of Carey Sales and Service, which sells food service equipment and supplies.

"I do a lot of facilitating for a lot of restaurants," said Sigismondi. "It's not typical to grow from something like what the 828 was to 200 seats in just 10 years. It's a testament to their hard work."

Andrews said the couple plans to continue to grow the business.

"We're getting ready to take another step, remodel the deck so we can use it all summer and in the winter," he said.

"This is something I've always wanted to do," said the retired Baltimore County police officer and detective. "This was a dream of mine. To be able to fulfill that dream, and have it succeed, it's quite an accomplishment."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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