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Can beloved Baltimore pizza place Joe Squared be a model for the flagging restaurant industry?

Owner Joe Edwardsen and his six-year-old daughter Mina Rae Edwardsen and Joe Squared's North Avenue location staff.
Owner Joe Edwardsen and his six-year-old daughter Mina Rae Edwardsen and Joe Squared's North Avenue location staff. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

During a recent visit, the inside of Joe Squared looked like a time capsule. Flyers in the window advertised concerts that never happened. Tables at the North Avenue restaurant were set with forks and plates for diners who never arrived. A rank smell emanated from the basement.

Nine months ago, when the pandemic hit Maryland, the restaurant’s staff cleaned out the walk-in fridge, taking whatever perishable food they wanted and donating the rest to a food bank. No one knew whether they’d be back.

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Elsewhere in Baltimore, many restaurants have shut down for good. Others are scrambling to pivot operations to carryout to comply with the latest ban on on-premise dining. The holiday season, typically a busy one for the industry, seems a harbinger of more bad news, with experts predicting additional closures. Recent weeks saw the permanent shuttering of the James Joyce Irish Pub and Restaurant in Harbor East and Houlihan’s in Columbia. Several eateries, including La Cuchara in Hampden, Aldo’s in Little Italy and Gunther in Canton have suspended operations.

A flyer displaying a date for musicians to play last March 24 is one of many being removed by Adam Smith at Joe Squared's North Avenue as the restaurant re-opens as a worker's cooperative.
A flyer displaying a date for musicians to play last March 24 is one of many being removed by Adam Smith at Joe Squared's North Avenue as the restaurant re-opens as a worker's cooperative. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Yet in late November, in defiance of the odds and to the relief of longtime fans, Joe Squared’s owners announced that they would be reopening. The surprise news came after much gentle prodding and guidance from local organizations, federal loans and local grants, months of negotiations over rent and a radical restructuring in how the restaurant operates. The restaurant began taking orders this week, and operations will be limited to takeout and delivery for the foreseeable future. Staff will manage orders in-house, to avoid paying the hefty commissions and fees charged by third-party apps like Uber Eats and Grubhub.

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Soon, the restaurant will become a worker-owned cooperative, an increasingly popular model that some compare to the family-owned restaurant.

“It’s investment in people,” said Jack Danna, director of commercial revitalization for the Central Baltimore Partnership, an organization that helped engineer the restaurant’s return. “That’s what a co-op model does.”

The restaurant’s journey reveals some of the hardships business owners and workers have encountered since before the pandemic — and the long road they now face to approach anything like normalcy. Supporters hope that it could be a model for other local restaurants hoping to survive and even thrive amid catastrophe.

Restaurants that shut down even temporarily face a steep climb back if they do reopen, says Marshall Weston, CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

“It’s not as if it’s an office building where you just go in and you turn on the lights and you’re up and running. There’s a lot of money that’s going to be needed in order to go from not being open to opening up again.”

Owners will somehow need to find the capital to buy food and liquor and to hire and train staff, as well as other expenses — all in a calamitous environment. The Restaurant Association of Maryland predicted earlier this year that 40% of restaurants could close permanently by 2021. In the months since, conditions have only worsened, Weston said.

The interior remains the same as when Joe Squared's North Avenue location was shuttered because of the pandemic early this year.
The interior remains the same as when Joe Squared's North Avenue location was shuttered because of the pandemic early this year. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Joe Squared’s owner, Joe Edwardsen, gives significant credit to one local nonprofit: “We probably wouldn’t have gotten back open without the persistence of the Central Baltimore Partnership,” he said. “When we closed, we didn’t see a way to get it back open.”

In Joe Squared’s case, Danna mediated discussions with the building’s owner, who, after months of negotiations, eventually agreed to a shortened, 2.5-year lease and a reduced rent. Danna also steered Edwardsen toward grants to help cover the restaurant’s opening costs and a planned outdoor seating area. He helped them procure a $150,000 disaster relief loan from the federal government.

The pizza place has one key ingredient for success, says Danna: its customer base. During the restaurant’s 15 years in business, it cultivated a loyal following for its mushroom risotto and signature coal-fired square pies.

“Everyone likes pizza,” Danna said.

Joe Squared has been shuttered for months because of the pandemic. It is in the process of re-opening.
Joe Squared has been shuttered for months because of the pandemic. It is in the process of re-opening. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

In many ways, the pandemic has laid bare the shortcomings and vulnerabilities that already existed within the hospitality industry. Long before the virus hit, Edwardsen says he knew he needed a fundamental shift in the way the restaurant had been operating. He’d been searching for a partner to help shoulder some of the burden of running the restaurant.

“With ever-decreasing margins in the restaurant industry, the owner-operator thing doesn’t make sense anymore,” he said.

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He frequently worked 70-hour weeks with little or no pay. It bothered him, too, that dishwashers and other so-called “back-of-house” employees made far less than tipped servers; federal laws forbade them to share in pools until recently. Then there was the issue of childcare: His 6 year-old-daughter just started kindergarten. With schools closed, Edwardsen became in charge of supervising her education.

Owner Joe Edwardsen and his six-year-old daughter Mina Rae Edwardsen look at photos shown by an employee at Joe Squared's North Avenue in early December.
Owner Joe Edwardsen and his six-year-old daughter Mina Rae Edwardsen look at photos shown by an employee at Joe Squared's North Avenue in early December. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

In late spring, with the restaurant’s fate still in the balance, Edwardsen attended a workshop for business owners hoping to transition to a cooperative model. It’s a style of operation that gives workers a say in how the business is run, says Kate Khatib, co-founder of Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse and executive director of the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy, which sponsored the workshop. Red Emma’s pioneered the model in the city, one now used by local enterprises like Baltimore Bicycle Works and Thread Coffee Roasters. Ice cream maker Taharka Brothers recently announced that it had become fully worker-owned.

“It’s really very much about taking something that was owned by one person and distributing that ownership over a much larger group,” Khatib said. When it comes to major decisions, the so-called “worker-owners” each get a single vote, regardless of seniority. Already, the restaurant has added a $3 service fee to each order to increase the pay for front of the house employees from $3.63 an hour to $12. Tips are now split among all staff, including those who work in the kitchen. While workers don’t need to put money down to become worker-owners, they will share in whatever profits they may earn moving forward.

Khatib’s group will continue to provide guidance to Joe Squared as it restructures, and Edwardsen will continue to be a part-owner at least through the remainder of the new lease.

Khatib hopes that Joe Squared’s conversion will inspire other business owners to make the pivot to a cooperative model, which she thinks are better poised to brave the tumult of the times. “There are very few worker-owned cooperatives that have closed” during the pandemic, she said.

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To Weston, with the Restaurant Association of Maryland, the idea seems to hearken back to the family-run restaurant, a business model he says was more common 40 years ago than it is today. In those cases, he said. “Everybody does what it takes to make it a success, because your livelihood depends on it.”

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Weston estimates that about 25% of area restaurants that have closed permanently have been family-run. Some surveys suggest that family-run businesses could be more likely to survive due in part to the way they’re structured.

One of the restaurant’s 14 or so new worker-owners will be manager Okan Arabacioglu. The prospect fills the 37-year-old father of two with a mix of excitement and anxiety. In well over a decade working there, he said, “I always took pride in being part of the Joe Squared family.” It’s an environment where everyone chips in, running trash, busing tables, doing dishes. “But I’m nervous because of the circumstances that’s happening right now basically.”

Owner Joe Edwardsen talks with general manager Okan Arabacioglu as six-year-old Mina Rae Edwardsen plays at the bar at Joe Squared's North Avenue.
Owner Joe Edwardsen talks with general manager Okan Arabacioglu as six-year-old Mina Rae Edwardsen plays at the bar at Joe Squared's North Avenue. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Returning to the restaurant for the first time, he was hit by a stink that seemed to be coming from the stream below ground. It lingered even after two workers deep-cleaned the kitchen and prep area, and Arabacioglu left the doors open to ventilate.

His new role gives him a financial stake in the company, as well as a say in how its run. The team has decided already, for example, to invest one-third of the restaurant’s yearly earnings back into the company, paying to repair equipment and make renovations. Someday, they hope there will be alfresco dining, a store, maybe even a second location.

There’s a lot to do in the meantime. While the restaurant was shut down, someone threw a rock through one of the windows. By the entrance, the wood slats of the floor had warped. “This wasn’t like this when we left,” Arabicioglu said, jumping up and down on it.

Despite everything, he felt hope: “A little bit of normalcy coming back to life.” After a week and a half, he sat working at a table in the back of the restaurant and realized: the smell was gone.

Owner Joe Edwardsen (back left) , stands behind six-year-old daughter Mina Rae Edwardsen, who places the entrance mat down at Joe Squared's North Avenue location.
Owner Joe Edwardsen (back left) , stands behind six-year-old daughter Mina Rae Edwardsen, who places the entrance mat down at Joe Squared's North Avenue location. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

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