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Restaurants on the edge: Will Baltimore’s iconic The Helmand outlive the coronavirus pandemic?

Qayam Karzai, owner of Helmand restaurant, seated, with his wife Pat, son Helmand Karzai, and at right, Alfredo Rosas, the lead server who has been with the Karzais since the Afghani restaurant opened in 1989. Helmand, a mainstay on N. Charles Street in Mount Vernon, is facing its biggest challenge for survival due to the pandemic.
Qayam Karzai, owner of Helmand restaurant, seated, with his wife Pat, son Helmand Karzai, and at right, Alfredo Rosas, the lead server who has been with the Karzais since the Afghani restaurant opened in 1989. Helmand, a mainstay on N. Charles Street in Mount Vernon, is facing its biggest challenge for survival due to the pandemic. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

It was the lowest point in The Helmand’s more than 30-year tenure. Facing a surge of coronavirus cases around the holidays, the city had temporarily banned on-premises dining, eliminating a key source of revenue. Fees from third-party delivery apps gobbled up much of the rest. The restaurant, which a critic for The Baltimore Sun critic called “recession-proof” in 2008, seemed in doubt.

Owner Qayum Karzai, the onetime Afghan presidential candidate and brother of the country’s former leader, got choked up on calls with his landlord. He felt like he was watching a tree he’d grown from a sapling wither and die. Already during the pandemic, he and his family had shut down another restaurant they own in Baltimore, Pen & Quill of Station North. After decades in the city, could The Helmand be next?

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Across the U.S., the pandemic has sounded the death knell for decades-old restaurants — places embedded in the fabric of the cities they call home. Washington said goodbye to Johnny’s Half Shell after more than 20 years. Philadelphia saw the closing of City Tavern, once a hangout for Benjamin Franklin. According to a recent report from the National Restaurant Association, restaurants that closed in 2020 had been open an average 16 years. Sixteen percent had been open for at least 30 years.

The Baltimore area has lost the Milton Inn and City Cafe. The Helmand may have lasted through the war in Afghanistan and a run at Afghan national office, but could it survive the COVID-19 business climate?

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“A restaurant that has appealed to people because of its atmosphere can’t easily charge anything like a break-even point for delivery or takeout,” said Yale historian Paul Freedman, author of 10 Restaurants That Changed America. “The more legendary the place, the more its legend depends on atmosphere.”

Qayum Karzai, 73, owner of the Afghani restaurant Helmand that has been a mainstay on N. Charles Street in Mount Vernon since 1989, is facing his biggest challenge for his restaurant's survival due to the pandemic.
Qayum Karzai, 73, owner of the Afghani restaurant Helmand that has been a mainstay on N. Charles Street in Mount Vernon since 1989, is facing his biggest challenge for his restaurant's survival due to the pandemic. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

One rainy December afternoon, 73-year-old Qayum Karzai sat with his wife, Pat, 70, at a table in Kabobi, a restaurant they own near Johns Hopkins Hospital. Soft-spoken and gentlemanly, Karzai dished out a serving of aromatic eggplant for his wife and a visitor before serving himself.

Born to an Afghan tribal leader who later in life made a fortune in real estate, Karzai has a regal presence. It’s therefore only a little surprising when he mentions that on Sept. 11, 2001, he happened to be in Rome trying to persuade the former Afghan king to return from exile. Much of his life has been a coexistence of restaurants and politics.

He moved to the U.S. in the late ‘60s with plans to become a pilot. When that career didn’t work out — he got vertigo whenever he flew — his career in hospitality began. One of his first jobs was at the trendy Devil’s Fork in Washington, where he served senators and visiting dignitaries. They reminded Karzai of the village elders back home. The industry came naturally to Karzai. Where he grew up, near Kandahar, offering meals is a way of life. One doesn’t turn down an invitation for food.

Marrying Karzai meant a new world of flavors for Pat, who grew up in a tight-knit community in Pittsburgh and says that her mother “cooked with salt, pepper and cinnamon.” In her new husband’s kitchen, foods she’d never liked before, okra and eggplant, layered with mint and yogurt sauce, became delicious. He cooked feasts for family and friends, meals they would soon share with paying customers.

The first Helmand restaurant was in Chicago. Karzai opened it with his brother Mahmood in December 1985. The place was named for the fertile region west of Kandahar. The business wove together traditions of Afghan hospitality with the white table cloths and attentive service of a fine dining restaurant. It was a hit.

Four years later, Karzai opened another Helmand in Baltimore. While searching for the right location, he and Pat toured a building on North Charles Street, nearby what was then the popular Brass Elephant. Pat, who then worked in insurance, weighed the risks carefully. The city’s cosmopolitan Mount Vernon neighborhood, they decided as they walked the streets, would be the most receptive to a new cuisine. “Thirty-one years ago a lot of people didn’t know where Afghanistan was,” said Pat.

At their landlord’s suggestion, the Karzais invited the city’s “who’s who” to the grand opening. By the week after The Helmand opened, reservations booked up: Walk-in customers waited hours for a table. Most ordered plates of bright orange kaddo borwani, a pumpkin appetizer that became one of their most popular menu items.

One of their earliest customers was J. Stanley “Stan” Heuisler, the former editor of Baltimore Magazine, who had lived in Afghanistan in the early 1970s as a Fulbright professor. With its unpretentious décor and Afghan artifacts on the wall, the very air seemed suffused with the essence of the region’s proud culture, says Heuisler. “Afghan food is more than a meal,” he said. “You’re taking a bite of their civilization, in reality.” Heuisler is still a regular at the restaurant; his grandchildren complain if there’s no kaddo borwani at Thanksgiving.

He credits the Karzais’ hard work and consistency with maintaining the restaurant through the decades. “The Karzais really know how to run restaurants, and they understand the hard work that it takes,” Heuisler said. He’s seen Pat scrubbing toilets at Tapas Teatro, a Spanish-themed restaurant they run in Station North.

In 1999, Karzai’s father was assassinated in Pakistan by a gunman his family believes was sent by the Taliban, the fundamentalist group that was taking control of Afghanistan. Pat was still working in insurance and was sitting in her office when she got the call. Instantly she knew, “My entire family’s life is going to change.”

In ensuing years, her husband established a foot in Afghan politics, hoping to steer it away from the Taliban. He created a group, Afghans for Civil Society, as a force for peace-building. Board meetings, says Heuisler, who was a member, happened at The Helmand over leek-filled dumplings called aushak.

After the initial ouster of the Taliban in 2001, the Karzais installed a new mural in the restaurant representing a hopeful future for the Afghan people. Some customers who came were curious to see the business owned by the brother of the glamorous new Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who for a time seemed to symbolize a proud new era for the country.

In 2014, the year Hamid left office, Qayum briefly ran to fill the post vacated by his brother, a decision he came to regret. “I think I’m a little bit too idealistic for running for president,” he says.

No matter the political situation abroad, The Helmand continued to serve. Customers came in droves the night of Sept. 11, 2001, to show their support. They still came after the 2008 financial crisis, and 2015 unrest.

Recent troubles have hit hardest. “It’s a restaurant-killer disease,” Qayum said of the coronavirus. “All restaurants are in trouble.” His family’s three in Baltimore are all struggling.

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Karzai’s son Helmand, who works with his parents, says the family’s flagship that shares his name has a few aspects working in its favor. Afghan food lends itself well to carryout, in contrast with the Spanish tapas served at Tapas Teatro. That restaurant is also suffering from a lack of traffic into the neighboring Charles Theatre. Kabobi, in contrast, has always been more carryout focused.

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Another source of aid has come from the restaurant’s landlord, which has drastically reduced the amount the Karzais need to pay each month.

“We’re all going to suffer a little bit,” said Michael B. Klein, president of commercial management and construction services at WPM Real Estate Management, which owns the Charles Street buildings where The Helmand is located. The alternative, Klein says, is for commercial properties to face a huge number of vacancies as businesses go broke, taking with them lost livelihoods. “In the long of it, it’s going to cost us more than if we really invest in long-term tenants that have really been great to us.”

Still, amid the uncertainty and the “grueling” schedule of a restaurateur, Helmand says he constantly wrestles with whether to leave the industry altogether. The pandemic has made him realize how much time he’s missed with his family. Coming into work is a struggle for his mom, too. Gone are the days where Pat would walk into the restaurant and greet friends at tables. In their place is a mountain of paperwork. “It’s not fun. It used to be fun,” says Pat.

Klein sees a light at the end of the tunnel. By spring, he hopes, vaccinations will be more widespread, and warmer weather will make dining outdoors a possibility. “Our plan is to get them through February and March … and then they’re now starting to make money again,” he said. “It’s not going to be roses in April, but they’ll start to make money again.”

Pat and Karzai, too, are determined to see The Helmand survive. They took out a small business loan to help get through the winter. “Whatever it takes, we will stay open,” Karzai said. With coronavirus cases dropping and vaccines going up, “I finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

There are more grants to apply for. And there are customers depending on them. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott recently announced that restaurants could resume indoor dining at 25% capacity so long as diners come and go in an hour. The city issued temporary limit on the amount of money that third-party delivery apps like Grubhub can charge, a move meant to help struggling restaurants like The Helmand during the pandemic.

Karzai thinks of an old Afghan saying. “Even the tallest mountain has a path on its top.”

They just need the strength to get there.

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