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Just desserts: Baltimore County restaurants adapt to yearlong COVID-19 restrictions

From left, Jill Packo, owner of Barley's Backyard; Brian Recher, owner of The Recher, and Jackie McCusker, owner of Nacho Mama's, stand near the "Welcome To Towson" mural at York and Pennsylvania Avenue earlier this month.
From left, Jill Packo, owner of Barley's Backyard; Brian Recher, owner of The Recher, and Jackie McCusker, owner of Nacho Mama's, stand near the "Welcome To Towson" mural at York and Pennsylvania Avenue earlier this month. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, owning and running a viable restaurant was a tricky business.

But the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic have been a further kick in the gut for the industry. The Restaurant Association of Maryland predicts that 30% of restaurants may close permanently and that the road to recovery could take anywhere from three to five years.

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Baltimore County eateries have had to adapt to months-long closures, limited-seating rules, physical distancing, mask-wearing measures and a complete makeover of carryout operations.

However, with Gov. Larry Hogan’s latest push to restore 100% capacity to state eateries, which began March 12, some relief is in sight. Baltimore County followed suit in opening restaurants at 100% capacity but with social distancing requirements intact.

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“The lifting of capacity limits should provide assurance to the public that the governor and his team see dining in restaurants as a safe activity,” said Marshall Weston, president & CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

One sign that things might be looking up for local restaurants from Towson to Catonsville is the return of Baltimore County Restaurant Week from April 16 to May 2.

Despite the good news, the restoration to full capacity may not be all that it’s cracked up to be.

“We’re at 100%, but we’re doing only 50% of the business because of physical distancing,” Nacho Mama’s Towson owner Jackie McCusker said. “But [Hogan’s announcement] gives me some sense that at least we’re moving forward. I like the part that says, ‘Open it up.’ People want to be out again. They want to feel. They want to taste.”

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Help for restaurants came through county, state and federal grants and loans.

Under Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., Baltimore County Restaurants/Food Service Grant programs have dispensed $14.7 million to eateries, according to the Baltimore County Department of Economic and Workforce Development.

Olszewski said that restaurants and bars remain a critical part of the local economy.

“Moving forward, we’ll continue to work in partnership with our resilient business owners to do whatever we can to support our county’s long-term economic recovery,” he said.

Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce for 16 years, said that restaurants in the county seat are still navigating stormy times.

“Our restaurants took a tremendous hit, with massive staffing problems,” she said. “It was really difficult for people with children, because the parents had to stay at home with them.”

Hafford noted that the core of Towson food destinations has remained intact — with the exception of the closing of Lotsa Stone Fired Pizza on York Road and a few restaurants in the Towson Town Center food court.

Even in a downturn, Hafford alluded to a glimmer of hope with several new spots opening..

In addition to Shake Shack in Circle East, MOD Pizza and Mission BBQ have opened recently in Towson Station.

And Perennial is slated to open in May on the same Towson City Center site as Cunningham’s, which closed before the pandemic in January 2020.

“it’s been a real challenge,” Hafford said. “Some places that needed it most weren’t able to get assistance in time.”

She credits area residents for helping restaurants survive.

“We’ve lost 70% of our office workers during the pandemic,” she said. “But people in the community have come out in droves to support our restaurants.”

Barley’s Backyard, formerly known as the Greene Turtle Towson, had a different sort of issue to deal with when it changed its name in April.

Owner Jill Packo said that she already had decided to break from the Greene Turtle chain when the pandemic struck, although the timing may have seemed awkward.

The restaurant closed for a couple of days to figure things out, the Notre Dame Prep and Towson University grad said.

Packo said employees were brought in from her Barley’s Backyard Fells Point location to help staff Towson, where dining room and bar capacity was limited to 25% capacity before doubling that percentage for most of the past year.

“The city was closed, so people came to Towson, so that helped us,” she said.

Additional aid for Packo’s business came from a county grant and a Payroll Protection Program loan.

McCusker, who also runs two restaurants in Canton, said her Towson operation was shuttered from St. Patrick’s Day to around Memorial Day before the virus forced another closure in July that lasted “a week or two.”

With each shutdown, she said, lost inventory contributed to plenty of red ink.

Still, Nacho Mama’s, now in its fifth year on a site where several predecessors had failed, is doing as well as could be expected.

With a staff of 53 and looking to grow when restrictions ease, McCusker said she is proud of how strong her employees have been. She added that she has learned a few things about her own management style.

“We’ve been on a ‘COVID-coaster’ for a year now,” McCusker said. “Today you don’t manage a restaurant, you manage COVID. We manage more from a health perspective by trying to make sure that all of our employees and guests feel safe. And I have learned the art of flexibility, that when I wake up tomorrow I have to expect the unexpected.”

Brian Recher, whose business complex includes the Towson Tavern, Rec Room, The Recher theater and Torrent Nightclub, said that he and his co-owner and brother, Scott Recher, are continuing to operate the family venture on the site their grandparents started by buying the Towson Theater in 1959.

The 2020 spring shutdown hit his establishments hard, especially after a plan to sell carryout food didn’t help.

“The carryout option didn’t work for us,” Recher said, noting that the overhead on a 22,000 square-foot business with 55 employees is significant. “We were bleeding for about three months.”

A PPP loan and a county grant gave his operation a much-needed boost. The live music Recher rebooted March 19 on a stage that once featured former Allman Brothers guitarist Dickey Betts country crooner Vince Gill, among other national acts.

Both Recher and McCusker say that Towson restaurant owners have been more likely to help each other during the pandemic than they might have otherwise.

“It’s been tough and everybody has been sacrificing,” Brian Recher said. “If any other restaurant needs something, we’re always ready to help each other.”

That spirit of camaraderie also pervades the southwestern part of the county, although restaurant owners there have faced the same issues as their Towson counterparts, according to Steve Hock, owner of Farmhouse Greens, The Burger & Sausage Co. and The Greenery Creamery in the heart of Catonsville.

“Most businesses in our area are quite resourceful, and we have a very special community that is very supportive of our little town,” said Hock, also the president of the Catonsville Restaurant Association and vice president of the Catonsville Chamber of Commerce.

“I think when all indoor dining was suspended that it was our ‘holy crap’ moment and we all scrambled to purchase/rent tents, heaters, outdoor tables, chairs and extended insurance.”

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Staff does get burned out, he noted, “not only with having to wear a mask for eight–to-10 hours straight, but customers have become less patient and easily frustrated, which is significantly different than it was during the first few months [of the pandemic].”

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The third-generation Catonsville High alumnus said that the non-COVID-related closing of Dimitri’s International Grille on March 14 was sad for the community, albeit with an upside.

A new ownership group has since purchased Dimitri’s, “and my understanding is that it is also two Catonsville locals who will take over,” Hock said.

During the pandemic, at least two new dining spots, 818 Market and El Guapo, have opened along Frederick Road.

“We are a community of restaurants and eateries that believes ‘the more the merrier,’” Hock said. “Over the past few years, we have now become a foodie destination.”

Evan Brown, who co-owns El Guapo and State Fare with Keith Holsey, said he and his business partner “cautiously” opened El Guapo in October on the Frederick Road site that formerly housed the Sea Hut.

“Usually, new restaurants attract a lot of people just after they open,” the Catonsville High grad said. “But we were at 50% capacity and we took things slower. We wanted to make sure everyone felt safe with the COVID measures.”

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