It's a story of small business, the value of good neighbors in the face of misfortune and crabs. More than 20 years ago, Bill Parks lent a helping hand — and frequently, crab claw — to Bruce Reamer and his floundering Eldersburg Restaurant, Salerno's.
This week, an opportunity finally presented itself for Reamer to return the favor.
In a show of support for Parks, Salerno's Restaurant, in Eldersburg has agreed to honor the outstanding gift cards to Parks Landing still held by many of the shuttered establishment's customers.
On Sunday, Feb. 15, Westminster seafood restaurant Parks Landing unexpectedly closed its doors for good after more than 20 years of business, leaving 30 employees — and Parks — without a livelihood. Also left in the lurch were the many customers who had purchased Parks Landing gift cards just weeks prior during the winter holidays, with some people holding hundreds of dollars worth of unredeemable gift cards.
In a message posted on the Parks Landing Facebook page Wednesday, it was announced that Parks Landing customers could exchange their Parks Landing gift cards for Salerno's gift cards, which will have no expiration date, or use them right away at Salerno's restaurant.
"We ask that you be patient with Salerno's for the redemption since it is difficult to gauge how many customers with certificates may show up at any given time," the Facebook post reads. "We are truly sorry about the situation and wish the circumstances had been different. Thank you for your patience and for your support throughout the years."
Parks Landing owner Bill Parks said that he had to close his restaurant because of economic reasons. He had intended to stay open through Feb. 15, but closed a day sooner because a Valentine's Day dinner rush of gift card holders cleaned him out of stock. He said his inability to honor outstanding gift cards — which stirred up a rash of angry comments from customers on the Parks Landing Facebook page — was something he deeply regretted.
"It was heart wrenching to me, just that feeling that I had done some people wrong," Parks said. "That's certainly not me or my personality."
Reamer said he wanted to help Parks meet the gift card obligations in part because he wanted to make it clear that the Parks Landing closure was a business misfortune, not an act of bad faith on the part of Parks.
"I heard about it, and I thought he was getting a bad rap. I've known him for 30 years, and his intention was never to defraud anybody," Reamer said. "He really is a great guy and has been in the business since he was a kid. He has forgotten more about crabs than I will ever know."
There was, after all, a time when Reamer and Salerno's were on the ropes, and it was Bill Parks who came to their rescue.
Reamer purchased Salerno's in 1986 at a different Eldersburg location than where it sits today. At the time, Parks was running the Tangiers Crab House in Randallstown.
In 1991, an increase in rent forced Reamer to close shop for four months while his current location was prepared. Without income for so long, and with more than $30,000 spent in renovations, Reamer said it wasn't clear if Salerno's would be able to reopen when the time came.
"Basically, we had no money to open. ... Bill Parks and his brother said, 'Here is some product to get started. Pay us back when you can,' " Reamer said. "We were on [cash on delivery] with all our suppliers after being closed for months. Over the next couple of months, we were getting crabs through Bill on the weekend, and I would pay him on Monday or Tuesday."
Parks also introduced Reamer to what is now Salerno's largest seafood supplier from the Eastern Shore, just one of the ways Parks helped Reamer make connections that would have been difficult or impossible without help. Bill Parks knew seafood, which is why Reamer said he believes closing Parks Landing must have been a last resort.
"I think it was an incredibly hard decision for him. He has been in this business all his life," Reamer said. "I guess he got to the point where he was like, 'I can't pay the bills.' ... You come into the realization that you have to close your doors."
Parks said he is not sure what is next for him. He cannot afford to retire at 60-years-old, he needs to decide quickly if he will try another venture. In the midst of personal uncertainty, he said he was pleased to get a phone call from Reamer.
"I had tried to reach out to different people, and I guess he had the same thing on his mind in a way. We sat down and talked and we figured it out," Parks said. "It is a great thing, and I am more than happy to have this done. ... Bruce has got a fine restaurant, and he offers a lot of nice seafood. I think people will be quite pleased, that's for sure."
Sandra Morgan was one of the Parks Landing customers who had purchased gift cards, and was puzzled and disturbed by the restaurant's sudden closure on Sunday — not just because she was out her money, but because she had always respected the way Parks ran his business.
"I like Mr. Parks very well. I think the appearance, the way they closed, the impression that it put upon the patrons just wasn't good. It didn't stand with what we knew of his character," she said.
Late Tuesday night, Morgan said she received an email from Parks Landing, informing her that she would be able to redeem her gift certificates at Salerno's.
"I thought it was a wonderful gesture. ... I would have been happy to get half of what I paid for the gift cards back." she said. "I am very impressed and grateful to the other restaurant. My daughter said, 'That restaurant has new lifetime customers.' "
Although the circumstances are still unfortunate, Reamer believes he and Parks may have found the closest thing to a win-win situation.
"Bill is able to work a deal out where he can honor his commitment to his customers — even though it's not Parks Landing, they are not out their money — and hopefully we end up with some customers from his customer base over the long term," he said. "I think it just makes sense all the way around."
Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or email@example.com.
More about gift cards
It's not that uncommon for a business to close with outstanding gift card obligations, according to Alan Brody, deputy communications director with the Maryland Office of the Attorney General Consumer Protection Division.
While there are rules concerning gift cards in the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, Brody said that unfortunately, there is usually little recourse for consumers if a shuttered business chooses not to honor or repay the value of gift cards.
"One of our main forms of helping consumers is mediation, a voluntary process," he said. "If you have a business that is no longer operating, the chances of them engaging in a mediation are slim to none. They are either out of money, or they are involved in some sort of activity that would not make them want to engage in business any more."
At the same time, Brody said it's not uncommon for other businesses to step in and honor those obligations either.
"While we don't encourage other businesses to accept gift cards because it is their prerogative, we have seen it before," he said. "I've seen it happen and heard it happen regarding Living Social and Groupon deals."
There are some cases where the Office of the Attorney General might file a lawsuit or an enforcement action against a business that violated the law, according to Brody, but since all cases are looked at individually, it's important for consumers to file a complaint with the Consumer Protection Division if they believe something is taking place that is not on the up and up.
To file a complaint or get more information, call the Mediation Unit hotline at 410-528-8662 or 888-743-0023. Consumers can also write to 200 St. Paul Place, 16th Floor, Baltimore, MD 21202 or file a complaint online at http://www.oag.state.md.us/Consumer/complaint.htm.
For more information on rules and regulations concerning gift cards in Maryland, an Office of the Attorney General handout can be found online at http://www.oag.state.md.us/Consumer/125.pdf.