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Chaps hoping local flavor translates to bigger audience

A local Baltimore flavor reaches for a larger market.

More than a half-century after the first Gino's opened in Baltimore, its co-founder found himself singing the old fast-food outlet's jingle Monday as he reflected on what makes a successful restaurant chain.

Gino Marchetti, the Colts' 88-year-old Hall of Fame defensive end, had some advice for another local restaurant — roadside pit beef fixture Chaps — that's harboring ambitious expansion plans. He stressed the importance of being consistent from location to location and finding partners who share your vision.

And a catchy jingle helps — especially one that burrows into patrons' minds.

"Everybody goes to Gino's, 'cause Gino's is the place to go," Marchetti sang on key during a telephone interview from his suburban Philadelphia home. "Hey, I still remember all the words," Marchetti said. "It was just a nice, kitschy tune."

A number of Baltimore-area staples have grown to include multiple locations, to varying degrees of success. The last Gino's closed in 1991, though it's been resurrected under the name Gino's Burgers & Chicken. Bill Bateman's Bistro, Mission BBQ and Fractured Prune Doughnuts have spread to locations across the state and beyond.

Chaps owner Bob Creager, a former steelworker who started the restaurant 28 years ago in a small shack on Pulaski Highway, has announced plans to open a second location within six months and expand the business into 60 locations over the next five years.

Creager said his challenge is not to lose the restaurant's homespun ambience as it branches out. He's teamed up with MBB Management, a consulting firm based in Mickleton, N.J.

"We're that cookout that you have in your backyard, but we do it inside," said Creager, who grew up in Baltimore. He is a Ravens season-ticket holder, and the restaurant's dining room is painted Ravens purple.

"We want to mimic what we're doing in other locations. One thing I'm not willing to do is sacrifice my product," he said.

Businesses that franchise or add locations face a number of obstacles, including building sufficient capital, designing systems that can be replicated and finding the right partners and staff.

Bateman opened his first restaurant in Baltimore County in 1987. There are now 10 Bateman's in Maryland and Pennsylvania — four company-owned and six franchises.

Scouting the most promising locations is critical, said Bateman's area manager Lee Glowacki.

"Location is always key. And ample parking," Glowacki said. "Our North Plaza location has been a good store for about 10 years now. It is a stand-alone, but it is heavily populated because of the shopping center. Our Reisterstown location has been very successful mainly because of the nightlife out there."

Gino's, which started in the late 1950s, once had hundreds of company-owned locations. Tom Romano, a former Gino's executive, resurrected the restaurant concept five years ago.

Part of the former Gino's appeal was its longtime relationship to the city, according to Marchetti, who is out of the restaurant business.

"I lived in the city," Marchetti said. "They liked us and we liked them. Baltimore helped us get started."

Creager, who was a Colts fan before becoming a Ravens fan, remembers heading to Gino's after junior high school let out. He hopes the area can provide Chaps a lift as well.

He said he's considering locations in the Catonsville area or near Security Square Mall, but no decisions have been made.

He said he is exploring the possibility of some "owner-operator partnership deals where somebody comes in and invests money and they're going to be taking care of their customers."

He wants all the locations to have an open kitchen and emphasize customer attention.

"Customer service is pretty much dead," he said. At some restaurants, he said, "you walk up to the counter and people don't even really acknowledge your presence."

The restaurant opened in 1987 in a stand with no electricity or phone line in the parking lot of the Gentlemen's Gold Club. Chaps is known for its charcoal-cooked beef that is thinly sliced and eaten in a sandwich.

"Baltimore people can be a pretty loyal crowd," Creager said. "If you're somebody they grew up loving, they're going to back you 100 percent. Hopefully Baltimore helps me out a little bit."

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