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Phoenix Emporium actively looking to stay on Ellicott City's Main Street

It’s open when it snows. It’s where people go for more than a beer or a meal. It’s where they celebrate big life moments, such as bridal showers, baby showers and graduations. It’s where husbands and wives meet for the first time.

It’s the Phoenix Emporium.

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The beloved bar and restaurant sits at the base of old Ellicott City’s Main Street, across from the B&O Ellicott City Station Museum.

However, the building that houses the Phoenix — which has stood in that spot since its construction in the 1850s — will soon be gone. The building’s infrastructure has withstood many battles over its long history, including deadly floods in July 2016 and May 2018.

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The Phoenix owners have known its ultimate fate since August, when then-County Executive Allan Kittleman proposed the first Ellicott City flood plan that included tearing down 10 buildings on Main Street to limit future flooding.

Current County Executive Calvin Ball recently announced his approved flood plan earlier this month, calling for the razing of four buildings on lower Main Street, including the Phoenix. Scheduled to be completed by mid-2025, the estimated cost of the plan is between $113 million and $140 million.

As a sophomore at Marriotts Ridge High School, Michael Wade has been researching flood reduction strategies specifically for Ellicott City.

There is no timeline yet as to when the buildings will be razed, but the Phoenix owner Mark Hemmis already is taking steps to move elsewhere and isn’t looking to move too far.

Hemmis, owner of the restaurant but not the building, said he is “actively negotiating to move the establishment to another building on Main Street.”

“Our goal is to stay on Main Street in Ellicott City in Howard County,” Hemmis said. “For my family and my employees, I need to advocate [for] the survival of the business.”

While the building that houses the Phoenix has not yet been purchased, Hemmis said he intends “to negotiate with Howard County in good faith.

“We want Howard County to move forward as well as we want our customers and visitors to Ellicott City to be safe.”

Phoenix Emporium’s history

The Phoenix Emporium opened in July 1979.

Hemmis, 46, bought the bar in 2001, officially opening under the same name in November of that year.

“I was 29 when I bought the place. They [previous owners] thought I knew everything, and they learned that I knew nothing,” he said laughing.

The Catonsville resident decided not to change the name because “this was a landmark Howard County restaurant, bar – [to] change the name would have been quite stupid.”

Even so, Hemmis added his own flair to the place.

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He found the original wooden Phoenix Emporium sign that used to be outside for years in storage. It now sits on the first floor of the restaurant, protected by plexiglass. Also on the first floor, where the main bar and dining area are, stained glass door frames hang on the ceiling. Hemmis said it’s a mixture of old Baltimore and South Carolina home door frames.

And then there’s the 99 Beer Club. Little gold plaques, 632 of them with the champions, are on display for all to see.

While the Phoenix offers 150 different kinds of beer, customers only have to try 99 of them to be part of the club. It’s a way for the bar to rotate its stock and for people to try beers they might otherwise not.

Customers used to be tracked in three-ring binders, filling out what beer they had when they came in. All of the binders were lost in the 2016 flood, calling for the need to move to a card system.

Some people get their name on the wall in a matter of months, others years. One soldier who was setting off on deployment got his name on the wall in under two weeks, Hemmis said.

Cori Rufenacht, 31, started going to the Phoenix when she turned 21.

“It’s the place where everyone knows your name, that’s why I love it,” she said.

While Rufenacht has drank more than 99 single beers since becoming a patron, she is the only one of her friends who does not have a 99 Beer Club plaque.

“I’ve definitely drank more than 99 beers at the establishment … [I’m] not a regular beer drinker,” the Silver Spring resident said.

Besides drinks, Rufenacht, who works in cosmetology, loves the restaurant’s burgers, french fries and especially the crab dip.

There’s been many occasions where she has ordered platters of the crab dip for parties.

‘No question at all’

After the July 2016 flood hit Ellicott City, leaving the Phoenix Emporium with a “catastrophic” amount of cleanup and repairs, Hemmis had no doubt he would reopen.

“We lost everything on the first floor and basement,” he said. “All the tables and the bar were ripped out from the floor.”

The power, plumbing, the gas lines and all the equipment were all gone. A foot and a half of mud covered the basement. It took Hemmis six months to the day of the first flood to reopen.

The intense and deadly flooding that has twice ravaged the historic district in two years is not unique to Ellicott City, officials say.

When he did, business was booming.

“The response from the community was unbelievable,” Hemmis said. “It was literally packed until the next flood.”

When the flood hit the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend last year, the Phoenix had just finished its lunch rush, so there was a lull. There were 22 people in the restaurant, a mix of patrons and staff. As the water began to come up from the street onto the sidewalk, everyone was moved to the second floor, where they were trapped for 3 1/2 hours.

Seventeen feet of water came through the building in two years. Hemmis had to gut the first floor and basement all over again.

This time, however, Hemmis was able to reopen within three months.

Masud Roshan, 39, has been a patron of the Phoenix since his college days at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“They could be serving fruit juice and grilled cheese sandwiches,” and Roshan and his college friends would still be going to the Phoenix as much as they do, he said.

“It’s a place we have all called home,” he added.

Roshan said the Phoenix is “the anchor” of Main Street and it needs to be established somewhere else on the street.

During both floods, Hemmis set up GoFundMe accounts, asking for donations to pay his staff during the time the Phoenix was closed. He has never asked for donations to help bring the restaurant back.

After the first flood, nearly $35,000 worth of donations came in. Hemmis vowed to pay back the community by taking $35,000 of the business’s profit and donating it to local charities and organizations. Over $25,000 had been donated before the May 2018 flood.

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Hemmis set up the accounts both times because he understood his staff still had to pay their bills, car payments, rent, student loans and more.

Julio Valles, 52, has been working as the Phoenix’s kitchen manager for nearly 17 years. His wife Gloria, 54, also works there as kitchen prep.

In the fall following the July 2016 Ellicott City flood, a volunteer team of Howard Community College students helped some businesses during the difficult time

When Julio Valles came looking for a job, he recalled Hemmis immediately saying, “When do you want to start?”

Hemmis is “more than just a boss,” said Valles, a Columbia resident. “Mark is a nice person; he has helped me with a lot of stuff.”

The “staff on average has worked here for eight years, in the restaurant industry that is absolutely unheard of,” Hemmis said.

“They love it, they love the community. They’re having children, buying houses and becoming part of the community themselves,” he said.

Rachel Kahan, 29, has been working at the Phoenix on and off for nearly a decade. She started during college, working during winter and summer breaks. Over the years she may leave temporarily or drop to part-time, but nevertheless she’s always around.

“So many [of us] have been here for 1,000 years,” the Canton resident said. “We’re a giant, dysfunctional family.”

Even when employees get full-time jobs, they sometimes still work once a week or even once a month to say they’re still with the Phoenix, Kahan added.

“It’s Mark; we stay for Mark,” she said.

Kahan described the Phoenix as “a staple” establishment and a “community hot spot.”

“It would be a pretty big loss to the community if we left,” she said.

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