Billy Hughes sprayed down the plants in front of his shuttered restaurant with a garden hose. He was working hard at staying grounded in the midst of crisis.
“Our immediate future is today,” he said. “We’ll talk about tomorrow’s immediate future tomorrow.”
On Sunday, things had been looking up for Hughes and the employees at his Locust Point bar and restaurant, Barracudas. After more than a year of on-again-off-again pandemic restrictions, the place was fully open and fully staffed. Later that day, customers would be filling their patio for free hot dogs and beers to celebrate the Fourth of July. Hughes, 49, and his girlfriend drove to Harris Teeter to pick up some watermelons to make watermelon crushes.
By the time they began walking back up the alley, guests and staff were running out of the two-story brick building on the 1200 block of Fort Ave. Smoke was coming out of the windows and filled the upstairs. Hughes ran inside to make sure the kitchen staff exited safely. Back on the sidewalk, he used a neighbor’s garden hose to squirt water at the flames darting out from a window.
His girlfriend, the restaurant’s general manager Sam Stinchcomb, 24, ran three blocks to the fire station while a bar manager dialed 911. Some of the firefighters were regulars at the bar, she said.
“They handled it unbelievably. They hit this place like ants,” Hughes said of their work. “I gave them all watermelons.”
The Baltimore Fire Department put out the electrical fire, but the building was wrecked. Two days later, plywood covered the second floor window. The place would be uninhabitable, its roof sagging from the weight of the water from firefighters’ hoses. Inside, the smell of smoke made Hughes gag. A yellow note from the health department said “CLOSED.”
“This sucks,” Hughes said, cracking open a beer outside while Stinchcomb and colleague Jean Reed, 26, stopped would-be lunchtime guests from going in the building.
Hughes perked up when two middle-aged men stopped by, hoping they were appraisers from the insurance company he’d been trying to reach for the past 48 hours. They weren’t. Soon will come the full accounting of everything that’s been lost, from decor to the piles of plastic to-go containers purchased during the pandemic. Hughes said he renovated the restaurant during the past year, replacing floors and pipes. “I kept making the place better and better and better,” he said. “It kept our spirits going to stay working.” They kept their eyes on the prize: the day when the pandemic would be over.
Hughes opened Barracudas 12 years ago, a love letter to Baltimore and his first restaurant as both chef and owner. The company slogan is “Jeet?” a question worn on T-shirts that Hughes said harkens back to his Highlandtown childhood. His grandfather used to ask him whether he had eaten as a greeting: “Babe, jeet yet?” The eatery attracts an eclectic crowd: professionals who work nearby, soccer fans and neighbors young and old.
“Normally if someone comes once, they continue to come,” said Stinchcomb.
The restaurant turned strangers into friends, said David Kidd, a friend and former business partner of Hughes who grew up with him in Highlandtown. Years ago, Hughes helped him launch his own restaurant, the Manhattan Grille in Perry Hall, and Kidd came to rely on his keen understanding of the hospitality industry. “He’s just phenomenal at what he does, and continues to reinvent himself,” Kidd said.
Already, customers have rallied to show their support. One regular set up a GoFundMe page that raised nearly $7,000 as of Tuesday. During the pandemic, Lauren Mason and her husband ordered carryout from the restaurant they think of as the “Cheers” bar of Baltimore, requesting gift cards for Christmas.
“You want to see businesses succeed, and that is definitely one that we don’t want to go away,” she said.
They’d been walking there on Sunday to celebrate the Fourth of July with visiting family members when they realized it had caught fire.
On Tuesday afternoon, a white convertible slowed as it passed by the restaurant. “You look like you’re in good spirits,” the driver called out to Hughes.
“What are we going to do, cry?” Hughes shouted out from across the street.
Staff have done plenty of crying in the past year and a half, said Stinchcomb. They often wondered how the business — and they — would survive. Like so many Baltimore restaurateurs, they pivoted to carryout food and cocktails. Stinchcomb posted funny videos of Hughes at work in the kitchen, each one he signed off, “Help us help you,” in his Highlandtown accent.
“We had fun with it,” Hughes said of the videos. “As much fun as you could possibly have when you think you’re going to lose your restaurant every single morning.”
The past year was “crushing,” said Hughes, but Stinchcomb added that there was a sense of solidarity in knowing that everyone was dealing with the same thing. With the fire, “It’s a whole new beast to conquer. It’s every business’ worst nightmare I feel like.”
Hughes said he’s committed to paying his staff while the restaurant remains shut, and he’s determined to find new ways to bring in business in the meantime. If he gets the OK from the health department, he could set up a grill outside and sell pit beef, the East Baltimore specialty.