It's Saturday night, and Redwood Grill is hopping. The year is 1996 and the South Calvert Street eatery and lounge is in its heyday. On any given evening, guests inside might include local — and not so local — luminaries like Ray Lewis and Will Smith.
But by late 1997, the restaurant has fallen on hard times; it will close before the year is out. The cook, "Shorty," has disappeared and management discovers he's wanted by the FBI for the murders of several women. The crowds are thinning, having scattered to new hot spots, and the owners of Redwood Grill are struggling to pay the electric bill. They make plans to sell the restaurant, only to end up in court after they discover their prospective buyer is a con man.
Redwood Grill's former owner, A. Rod Womack, has captured these stories, along with the rest of the ups and downs he experienced as the restaurant's proprietor, in a new book, "Redwood." Womack, along with two partners, owned Redwood Grill between 1995 and 1997. In his book, the Severna Park native and current resident of the Ashburton neighborhood looks back on his restaurant days fondly but with the kind of wry observations that can only come from bitter experience.
Writing the book was "difficult but very rewarding," he says. "Not all the memories were good. There were times when you're sitting in your restaurant, and Gene Hackman is on one side of you and Will Smith is on the other side, and you're having a ball. You feel on top of the world. Then there are other times when business was not as good, you're trying to figure out how to pay bills and BGE wants to cut you off in the middle of lunch service. You feel like the world's on top of you."
Womack started writing "Redwood" about seven years ago; with his work commitments and his lack of professional writing experience, the process wasn't always a smooth one. At one point, his laptop was stolen — with his only draft on it. But knowing he had a great story, he persevered.
"I had to put those experiences into a book," he says. "Where can you find a restaurant where you have situations with major international celebrities, a serial killer and a con man?"
With big names and major drama, Womack says, "Redwood" is "a good, quick read." But it's more than just a page-turner; it is also a smart motivational and business tome. "It's like an onion you peel," he says. "There are all these layers in the book. For any aspiring restaurateur or entrepreneur, you'll learn what we went through putting together the money and the experiences. It wasn't all beautiful. There are lots of lessons a person could glean along the way."
Ultimately, he hopes readers take away the lesson that it is OK to fail at business. "Don't be afraid to take a chance. Even if it could mean failure, don't be afraid," he says. "You never know where it'll take you."
After Redwood Grill, Womack continued along his entrepreneurial path, following numerous avenues. In 2010, he went to work for Baltimore's public schools, first as a business liaison and eventually as the managing director of food and nutrition.
He has since left that position, which was, he acknowledges, a challenging change of pace. "It was difficult for me, coming from the private sector with my personality type," he says. "I'm Type A, high-strung, and was coming into a situation where people generally are not. I don't want to discourage folks who are passionate and work hard every day at BCPS, but overall, a lot of folks didn't take the extra effort. In the food and nutrition department, it was an uphill battle."
Dish Baltimore Newsletter
Get the scoop on that new restaurant, learn about chef changes and discover your favorite new recipe. All your Baltimore food news is here.
Today, Womack is focusing on his real estate business and his second book, a fictionalized account of his time with the Baltimore schools. "It's called 'Central Office,' the nickname for the city schools' headquarters," he says, explaining that though the book is fiction and does not mention Baltimore, the story is heavily influenced by his experiences.