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Restaurateur juggles competing interests with hummus business and Desert Cafe

By all accounts, including Blake Wollman's, the Mount Washington Village retail and restaurant district is doing well.

Wollman, former president of the Mount Washington Village Merchants Association and longtime owner of the Desert Cafe, has watched as the nearby Ethel and Ramone's restaurant has spent $500,000 on renovations and is set to reopen soon as Ethel's Creole Kitchen.

Wollman has watched as Mount Washington Tavern, which burned in a fire, was rebuilt and reclaimed its stake as an anchor of the Village. He knows the new Nickel Taphouse restaurant is off to a good start, enjoying waiting lists, and drawing foot traffic to other businesses.

Yet Wollman said his own 13-year-old, Mediterranean-style restaurant isn't benefitting from the overall health of the Village.

On the bright side, Wollman also has a separate hummus business, Randallstown-based Wild Pea Hummous, which he said is thriving, with customers like Wegmans, MOM's Organic Markets, Whole Foods and the Graul's and Eddie's of Roland Park markets, as well as area farmers' markets, including the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Waverly.

But in Mount Washington, business at the Desert Cafe has slumped 24 percent since 2007, Wollman said.

"It's not like we're going out of business tomorrow. It's my baby," he said, sitting at a table in the cafe on Sulgrave Avenue on a day when there was hardly any lunch crowd.

He said he still loves being located in Mount Washington Village, a small but vibrant shopping district that is known for its destination boutique stores and varied restaurants. He describes it as "very hip and New Yorky" and he agrees it is thriving.

He just wishes he could put his finger on what the problem is at his cafe.

"I really don't know," he said, although he suspects it may have something to do with his focus on his hummus business.

Even Mustapha Snoussi, owner of Crepe du Jour, who has complained in the past of slow business and parking problems in the Village, now says he is doing well, too.

Snoussi, a contemporary of Wollman who has owned Crepe du Jour for 14 years, said he has advised Wollman to focus on the Desert Cafe more and to invest in upgrading it, as other local businesses are doing.

But Wollman shook his head when asked about the renovations at Ethel's Creole Kitchen.

"I wouldn't do it," he said.

'Wild' ride

It's an unsettling time for a restaurateur who once had settled into a groove as president of the merchants' association and owner of The Desert Cafe, a BYOB eatery that he opened at age 23.

He met his wife, Laurie, at a block party that he organized in Mount Washington Village. He got a 3 1/2-star review in The Sun in 2007. He felt good about the restaurant and his leadership role in the business community.

"I was Mr. Mount Washington. It was my village," said Wollman, now 36, a father of two, who lives in the nearby Greenspring East neighborhood.

When the recession hit in 2007, "everyone took a fall" in the Village, Wollman said. He branched out into the hummus business and started selling his homemade Wild Pea Hummous at area farmers' markets, adding an 'o' to the word hummus because, "I wanted it to be a little wild and different."

As Mount Washington Village bounced back from bad economic times, Wollman, who had run the cafe by himself for its first 10 years, decided in 2011 to focus more on Wild Pea and hired a general manager, Rajesh Raut, to run the cafe, on the theory that "it can run itself, with me overseeing it."

But now, Wollman, who is no longer active in the merchants' association, is feeling left out of the commercial district's success as other restaurants and shops appear to be flourishing or holding their own.

"I'm doing great," said Ethel's co-owner and chef Ed Bloom, who is well known locally for his gumbo. "I had a facility that was not conducive for the amount of customers I had. I can't keep up."

And, with Nickel Taphouse and Mount Washington Tavern doing well, "I don't think we're an exception to the rule," Bloom said.

He did fault the district for its perennial lack of parking, and said he thinks the Village could do even better with "some serious parking," not just a valet parking service on Sulgrave for several participating businesses, which he called "at best a Band-Aid."

Drawing foot traffic

"Parking is always an issue," said Koula Savvakis, president of the Mount Washington Village Merchants Association. But she said the district appears to be doing well as a whole, especially its hair and nail salons, and most of its restaurants.

At the four-year-old La Chic Boutique, a consignment shop on Newbury Street, owner Mary Anne Barker, who until recently ran it with one full-time employee, recently hired a part-time employee, too.

"I'm doing really well, knock wood," said Barker, secretary to the merchants' association and a former longtime general manager of malls, including the Shops at Kenilworth.

She said business "was dead down here," when Mount Washington Tavern, which she calls "the gorilla of the Village," was closed for a year.

But she said the tavern and Nickel Taphouse now are drawing a lot of foot traffic to the Village, including her shop, which sells "very gently" used clothing, shoes and handbags.

And she said a second valet parking stand has been added on her side of the business district.

"Our businesses are steady," Savvakis said. "There are times when it's slow, but that's seasonal. There's a heckuva lot of traffic coming through (the district) right now. Someone's gotta be doing well."

It's not Wollman, at least not at the Desert Cafe. He thinks that maybe focusing on Wild Pea "pulled me away" from the restaurant.

"People were upset that they weren't seeing me as much," he said. "People say, 'We stopped coming because you're not here.' "

A reason to come

"That's the nature of Mount Washington Village as a destination," said Snoussi, the Crepe du Jour proprieter, stressing that he thinks Wollman's complaint has no bearing on the Village.

"If you want to come, especially with the parking, there has to be a reason to come," he said.

And, for many customers, the owner is the draw, Snoussi said.

"Even though I have a great chef, I don't leave my place for more than two days," he said. "It's not just sitting home. I have people call me before they come to make sure I'm there."

Snoussi also said financial investment is important.

"You have to upgrade your place," he said.

Wollman said the Desert Cafe hasn't changed and that he still makes all the desserts.

For now, he is trying new menu specials and promoting his cafe as a viable alternative to a $100 dinner for two at a fancy restaurant, though without as high a level of service.

"It's the same place it ever was," he said. "There's no business plan. This is my 13th year. I'm not going to reinvent the wheel. It's a small, corner BYOB serving good, healthy fresh food."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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