Chaps Pit Beef is the main operation left on East Baltimore's 'Pit Beef Row' on Pulaski Highway. The shop has been there 28 years and because of national TV exposure has become a tourist attraction. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun Video)

Bob Creager opened his tiny pit beef stand in the parking lot of a Southeast Baltimore nightclub in 1987. The stand had no electricity. Creager had never run a business.

And the former steelworker had no idea how to cook pit beef.

"I was struggling," Creager says.

These days, Creager's establishment — Chaps Pit Beef — is a Baltimore legend. His stand, in the parking lot of the Gentlemen's Gold Club on Pulaski Highway, has been featured on national television shows five times. People from across the country trek there. A South Korean family visiting New York once rented a car to drive down for lunch, ate and drove back.

"People come from all over the world," says Creager, 49. "When they come to Baltimore, they have a plan: They're going to stop by Chaps."

The stand's a consistent hit at home, as well.

Ravens players have been frequent patrons. Before his death, Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas was known to order his pit beef on rye. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says she comes up with excuses to eat lunch there.

"I love Chaps," she says. "I like the ribs a lot, but I like that they experiment with different menu items. The other day, they had bacon cheeseburger soup. ... It was so wrong, yet so right."

Pit beef is a long-standing Baltimore tradition, but making a business model work has been a challenge. For a while, the stretch of U.S. 40 in eastern Baltimore and Baltimore County was known as "pit beef row," with Chaps, Big Al's and Big Fat Daddy's calling the strip home. Many of the original shops have closed or moved.

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For Creager, who grew up in Essex, it took a lot of help from family and even a competitor to get his business off the ground.

In the 1980s, he met and eventually married Donna Glava, who worked in her father's club called Chaps on Pulaski Highway. Gus Glava and his wife, Marlene, owned several Baltimore-area bars and restaurants back then, including Gus' Manor Inn near Dundalk and G&M Cheers in White Marsh.

Gus Glava knew his son-in-law liked to cook and approached him about opening a pit beef stand in the club's parking lot.

"I said, 'I don't know anything about pit beef. But we'll give it a whirl,' " Creager recalls.

The family members invested $7,000 to build a 12-by-15-foot stand. Creager's father-in-law suggested naming it Chaps after the club. The name stuck even after Glava sold the property and the strip bar went through multiple name changes.

Creager had worked in restaurants since he was 13, but he learned to cook pit beef by trial and error. He also credits the owner of the nearby and successful Big Al's with helping him.

"Mike DeCarlo saw me struggling," Creager said. "He brought me a good employee. He gave me some pointers. He was my mentor in the pit beef world," he said of DeCarlo, who now runs a restaurant in Harford County.

The key to a good pit beef sandwich — Baltimore's version of a roast beef sandwich — is the charcoal, Creager said. In California, folks roast the beef over wood and call it tri-tip. In Chicago, they specialize in Italian beef. But the slow charcoal grilling gives Baltimore's version its unique flavor.

A key moment in Chaps history was when Creager's wife joined the operation full time. "I'm not a businessman. I'm a cook," Creager said. "My wife is the business person."

Sales started to pick up, then a 1992 feature article in The Baltimore Sun caused a "rush," Creager said. When HBO's "The Wire" filmed a scene at Chaps, sales went up again.