Roughly Speaking Dan Rodricks: Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Restaurant Week: A way to reconnect to Baltimore's pleasures, and to change stubborn attitudes

Another Baltimore Restaurant Week is here and Steven Rivelis, co-owner of The Elephant (once upon a time the Brass Elephant) could not be happier about that. In the two years since he opened The Elephant, these promotional weeks of prix-fixe menus have been great for business.

But Rivelis was far less than happy when he got off the phone with a loan officer a week and a half ago. Rivelis immediately wrote a letter to Mayor Catherine Pugh to express his disappointment and bewilderment at what the banker told him.

“As a long-time Baltimore city champion and stakeholder, my blood is boiling, and it's not because of the heat wave,” Rivelis wrote. “Having invested over $3 million of our own money, along with that of friends and family, to do a 22-month complete renovation of our historic Mount Vernon mansion (because no bank would support our effort due to the state of the building), and with the renovation complete, having re-opened this iconic location just two years ago, which was just recently recognized as Maryland's ‘favorite new restaurant’ by the Restaurant Association of Maryland, we started to seek a traditional loan/mortgage to be used to repay the friends and family who helped us fund the rebuilding.

“However, we are discovering a very discouraging and disheartening situation: Banks are unwilling to invest in us … Without even looking at our financials, banks have told us they will not do a loan for a restaurant, especially in Baltimore city. And just minutes ago, we got off the phone with a bank who turned us down, saying straight out: ‘And then there is the matter of downtown ... people just aren't going there ... it's a downward trend.’ What a sad, sad statement and situation this is for us as a small business having invested in our city and struggling to stay open, and for all other small businesses who, too, want to make Baltimore a better place to live, play and work.

“It seems we are on our own. A real shame!”

I stopped by The Elephant to go over this with Rivelis and his partner in the business and the restaurant’s general manager, Mallory Staley.

Steven Rivelis and his wife, Linda Brown Rivelis, have had a successful business and marketing firm for years. They also own a web and graphic design company. They live in Charles Village — in a house they fixed without bank financing — and they renovated a beautiful building at N. Calvert and Eager streets. So they’re committed Baltimoreans, true believers in the city’s future despite its lingering problems, and they have real assets to show for it, the most recent a restaurant in a thriving part of town.

But they’re stunned by the reaction of bankers.

When I first read Rivelis’ letter to the mayor and spoke to him about his experiences with four different banks, I thought his frustrations had to do with the nobody-goes-downtown narrative about Baltimore in the three years since the Freddie Gray unrest and the surge of violence that followed.

I had looked into assertions that the crime problem had hurt the city’s restaurant business for a column earlier this year, and I found what Sun reporters subsequently found in an examination of dining trends: There are a lot of factors in the closure of restaurants. Yes, some people have stopped going downtown to dine. Yes, the violent crime has further damaged the city’s reputation. But people also have more choices about where and how they eat, from new restaurants outside the city to food-delivery services and complete-recipe kits for cooking at home. And while this newspaper does a pretty good job of informing readers about restaurants that go out of business, it does an equally good job of reporting on new ones that open.

Steven Rivelis, an expert in marketing, has enjoyed pretty good media coverage for The Elephant. But he’s run smack into the reality of restaurant financing: It’s a tough joint. A commercial developer, a banker and a long-time restaurateur confirmed that last week. I culled from these conversations, a few factors: People who get into the restaurant business often have to do it exactly as the Rivelises did — with their own money or loans from relatives and friends. Bankers are aware of the high failure rate of new restaurants and generally won’t make loans unless there is a strong track record and a building housing the restaurant available for collateral. (The Rivelises have the latter, not so much the former.) Loan decisions are based on risk assessment based on data.

What bugged Steven Rivelis the most was the loan officer’s comment about Baltimore’s “downward trend.” It was not based on any data, but on an impression of one guy sitting in an office. After three rough years, getting that guy and a million other people past that stubborn impression, reconnected to the pleasures of the city and invested in its huge potential remains a challenge.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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