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.
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.
Then in 2008, the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" called. Host Guy Fieri wanted to highlight Chaps on his show but warned Creager to get ready for a mad rush afterward.
"'Diners, Drive Ins and Dives' put us into crazy zone," Creager says. "When they got here, business was good. The next day, it turned into an insane asylum."
Other TV shows followed. Adam Richman of "Man v. Food" visited, as did celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
Creager said he sells about 300 pit beef sandwiches a day. He's expanded the building 10 times, maintaining the "dive" atmosphere each time. It's grown from one employee to 25. His stand, which used to have no sit-down dining, now seats about 50 people.
On a recent Friday, out-of-town baseball fans packed Chaps around lunchtime. The line stretching out the door included a group of friends from Brockport, N.Y., and a family from Kulpmont, Pa.
The tourists said they planned their weekends around visiting Camden Yards, the Inner Harbor — and Chaps.
"It's awesome," said Darrin Peck, 46, of Brockport, as he chowed down. "We're going to come back here again for lunch tomorrow."
Chaps isn't alone among area pit beef stands. U.S. 40 still has The Cookout in Rosedale, Kirkwood Pit Beef in Catonsville and The Canopy in Ellicott City, among a smattering of other spots. But Creager said the east side is the original home of the slow-cooked, thinly sliced meat.
"This is where it started," he said. "This side of town." Now, he said, he sees pit beef popping up on menus across the country from California to Florida.
Still, some say that Chaps' national reputation can make it harder for other area pit beef stands to catch on.
Shane Shumaker, who owns the Bull Pen in Dundalk and Cockeysville, has challenged Chaps to a blind taste test on radio station 98 Rock, arguing that his beef is the best around.
"Chaps is a Baltimore icon," Shumaker said. "People don't even stop at some of the other places because they're going to Chaps."
Creager said he would prefer to have a pit beef fair featuring all the stands in the Baltimore area instead — with the proceeds going to charity if Shumaker would host it.
Creager still has 17 years left on his lease at the property, where he has been set up with a "nice low rent" thanks to his father-in-law, but he doesn't know how many more years he has left working in the kitchen.
He and Donna have moved to Kingsville, where they live with their two dogs.
"I'm living a really good life. There's nothing I want for," he said. "I have a wonderful wife. I have a beautiful house. I have a successful business. ... It's gone from a little dive to a big dive. I'm proud of that."
If you go
Chaps Pit Beef is at 5801 Pulaski Highway. It is open daily 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Call 410-483-2379.
Chaps' Tiger Sauce
Mix two parts mayonnaise with one part horseradish.
About the series
Postcards from U.S. 40 is a series of occasional articles taking readers on a summer road trip along the historic highway that stretches 220 miles across Maryland. Have a suggestion for where we should go next? Tell us about it at baltimoresun.com/US40Share. Follow the series at baltimoresun.com/postcards.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun