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Arbutus eateries a part of community

Arbutus eateries a part of community
Ellla Kostinsky, left, poses with her son, Brandon, in front of the family business, Sorrento of Arbutus. Ella's late husband, Mike, took over the family business from his father and her plans are for Brandon, who has been working at the restaurant on East Drive since he was 9, to take over in the future. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda, Patuxent Publishing)

Clem Kaikis recalled that when he first started as co-owner of Paul's Restaurant in 1980, he could step out of his restaurant on Oregon Avenue and see only a few competitors on the main strip of Arbutus.

Now, Kaikis said, restaurants for all tastes have flooded Oregon Avenue and East Drive.

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"People have more choices to select from than they did 30 years ago," Kaikis said. "If you look up and down the strip, years ago on one hand you could count the restaurants we had.

"Now, all of a sudden you need two hands to count how many we have."

Despite the influx of competition, Paul's Restaurant and Sorrento of Arbutus have carved a niche within the community and have succeeded by using the same formulas they had decades ago.

The beginnings

Ella Kostinsky became owner of Sorrento of Arbutus three years ago after her husband, Mike, died in August 2008 at age 56.

Kostinsky admitted she knew little about running a restaurant outside of the bookkeeping, but the 55-year-old Ellicott City resident worked from the changes her husband made when he took over the business from his father in the 1970s.

"His father was old school. When my husband came in, he was very innovative," Kostinsky said. "My husband was just constantly updating."

Specifically, Kostinsky noted her husband worked to create a relationship with students and staff at the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He would also send heated and refrigerated trucks to sell food at local construction sites in the 1980s and started catering services in the 1990s.

Kostinsky has made some changes, such as adding Wifi and high-definition televisions to the East Drive restaurant, trying to keep that momentum going.

"It gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling that I can continue to maintain what he built," she said. "He has it working pretty much like a well-oiled machine. I just got to keep it going."

While Sorrento of Arbutus has run in the family, Kaikis came to be co-owner of Paul's Restaurant by chance.

Phil Christ, Kaikis' brother-in-law and co-owner of the diner at 5507 Oregon Ave., found out the restaurant was for sale after a waitress he worked with at the now-closed Bee Hive Restaurant at 214 E. Lexington St. overheard the news at a beauty salon.

"When I first went down there (to look at it), someone had put in a bid and they were waiting for their finances to go through," recalled Christ, who, like Kaikis, is a resident of Kingsville.

When the potential buyer's financing fell through, Christ said he received a call from Paul Moss, who had owned the restaurant for 30 years, and he purchased the restaurant.

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Since then, not much has changed. Even the staff of the diner has largely remained the same, Kaikis said.

The changes, Kaikis said, include expanding its catering to offsite premises and utilizing the diner's lower area for parties.

"We have stability here and we're holding onto our clients and to our customers," Kaikis said. "We try to treat everyone individually and with respect."

The food

As times change, so do palates. But despite the tastebud evolution, the owners of the two restaurants said their menus have remained largely the same.

Kaikis, who often cooks lunch and dinner at Paul's Restaurant, said the diner's menu now includes more fish and other, healthier options.

Wraps have more popular, he said.

But breakfast remains the diner's strength.

"People tend to still like their food the way they like it," said Kaikis, who enjoys a well-done cheese omelet when he gets to the diner in the morning and a tuna melt for lunch.

Ina Brashears, 87, who lives in the Gwynns Falls area, and Liz Wilson, 95, of Catonsville, like the food so much they go to Paul's Restaurant every week, sometimes twice a week, they said.

Brashears raved about the crab soup she had for lunch July 8.

She and her friend both said their favorite part of the restaurant was the service.

"We like the waitress," Brashears said. "They have a waitress in there, her name's Tammy (Cooper). We just love her."

Wilson quickly added, "They've all been nice. All of them."

Though the menu at Sorrento of Arbutus has also expanded, most of the restaurant's sales come from pizza and subs, Kostinsky said.

"One thing that I believe in my heart of hearts that had made us successful is that we sell a quality product at a reasonable price in a family atmosphere," Kostinsky said.

Dylan Hartman said he eats lunch at Sorrento of Arbutus once or twice a week.

"It's nice, clean, good food," said Hartman, an Eldersburg resident, after finishing his pizza on July 8. "I spend some time reading a book while I'm eating. It's just a nice place to be."

The competition

Though both restaurants offer casual dining and even some of the same menu items, such as crab cakes, familiarity does not breed contempt.

"We've all gotten along for many years," Kaikis said. "We've all had our piece of the pie, our own little market share. We don't infringe on each other."

Both owners agree that the most recent competitor had nothing to do with a new restaurant in the area.

"Our competition is the recession," Kaikis said. "It's the Great Recession. (You combat it) anyway you can."

Kaikis said cutting costs is the best weapon against the competitor.

Kostinsky said her restaurant started feeling the pinch from the recession in the fall of 2008, shortly after her husband died.

"We were definitely affected by it," Kostinsky said. "Customers that were coming in twice a week were coming in once a week. Once a week to every other week."

In addition to trying to keep costs down, Kostinsky said the restaurant has used television advertisements andFacebook.

The road ahead

After running the restaurant for more than 30 years, Kaikis and Christ are still willing to adapt but don't want to stray from what has business has become.

"We plan on maintaining our family atmosphere, and we're trying to grow the business (by) appealing to other clientele and more different palates," Kaikis said.

Paul's Restaurant has gone digital, he said, sending out emails to members of its mailing list with the day's specials and offering Wifi for its patrons.

Expansion is key, Kaikis said, to the restaurant's survival because it can raise prices only so much in the "blue-collar town."

In spite of the rising costs of food and energy, Kaikis said he hopes to serve the community he loves for "as long as we make a living."

Christ had a more precise timeframe.

"For the next 10 years, at least, probably for the next 15," he said about how much longer he would continue to operate his restaurant.

Whenever Christ does step aside, it's likely to be emotional.

"I love the customers. They've become not just customers," Christ said. "In the past 30 years, they've become families to us."

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Family is part of the vision Kostinsky has for Sorrento of Arbutus.

"It's like we're an institution in Arbutus," Kostinsky said.

Her son, Brandon, 20, said some of his first memories are of when he came to the store as a toddler.

He started folding pizza boxes at age 9 and 11 years later can do everything in the store, except bookkeeping.

"I'm hoping (my mother's) going to teach me soon," he said, estimating it would be 5-10 years before he took over the store.

Asked when she thought her son would become the third generation of the family to own the store, Ella gave the same estimate.

"I don't want to wait that long," Brandon said in a tone that suggested he was eager but not impatient."I just don't know how long it will take for my mom to have that much trust in me."

Brandon said his favorite part of the job right now is working the cash register because he gets to interact with the customers.

"He's such a natural," Ella said. "I think he'll definitely continue the tradition and the mission of the restaurant."

As for his vision about what the store will become under his reign, Brandon said it will likely resemble the way it currently looks.

"I like the way it's set up now," he said. "There's nothing broken. I don't want to fix it."

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