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Camden Club isn't exactly packing them in Restaurant seeking to boost membership

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At first glance, Oriole Park's Camden Club seems to have everything you'd expect of an upscale restaurant overlooking one of baseball's most talked-about ballparks: Good food, appealing surroundings and striking views.

But five months after opening, the club is missing one desirable ingredient: A dining room bustling with members.

The club, located on two floors in the B&O; Warehouse, attracted some interest among fans of Orioles baseball and linen tablecloths when it served its first gourmet meals last April. An aggressive membership drive launched this month has given its rolls a significant boost.

But as the ballpark's inaugural season winds down, there's room for more. Lots more. The Camden Club's initial membership goal was 750. So far, about 350 have joined.

It's unusual to spot an empty seat at the ballpark this year, even an upholstered one in the warehouse. But most of the Camden Club planners say they're not at all concerned.

"We're doing all right. I hoped it would be sold out the first season, but I never really expected it," said Bruce Hoffman, the Maryland Stadium Authority's executive director.

The club's membership director, Julie Ehlers, said she has been encouraged by early interest in the club, considering it has largely been generated without advertising.

"This is pretty much the last facility at the stadium to be marketed," said Ehlers. "It's the best kept secret."

The Camden Club is more than a secret. It's also an experiment. For decades, the ballpark was the last place Orioles fans came for a fine meal. The closest thing to atmosphere at a Memorial Stadium food stand was the napkin dispenser, invariably empty.

The Camden Club is different. Rooms are softly lighted. Walls are lined with framed, black-and-white photographs of turn-of-the-century Baltimore ballplayers. Even the feet of dinner patrons are not far from their beloved baseball -- plush carpets are stamped with the ornate "Baltimore Baseball" logo.

The menu also is alien to most ballpark visitors, with gourmet dishes rotating day to day. Despite the amenities, the club still is seeking members, which could be attributable to a number of factors.

For one, the club is not for bargain hunters. The club's initiation fee is $1,000. Members also pay monthly dues of $45 and a minimum monthly meal bill of $35.

If that seems pricy, it is, even compared with private restaurants at other ballparks. At Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, fans looking for an upscale meal can join the Allegheny Club, which, like the Camden Club, is open weekdays for lunch and before home baseball games.

In Pittsburgh, though, members pay significantly less -- initiation fees as low as $400 and minimum monthly charges of $15.

Bob Aylward, Orioles vice president for business affairs, acknowledged that the Camden Club's fees place it among the "upper half" of stadium clubs. But he suggested that members receive more.

"It's always dangerous to say you're better than somebody. But what is the level of the club you're buying into?" he said. "We had high expectations for our ballpark and our club."

In the early months, the Camden Club also experienced growing pains common for the start-up of any first-class restaurant, including sluggish service and parking problems.

The stadium authority controls spaces at the ballpark, but isn't -- responsible for day-to-day management of the restaurant. When club members arrived for lunch, they were asked to pay the daily lot charge and sometimes motioned to a distant lot.

At the start, service wasn't perfect, either. Fans arriving for dinner an hour before the game expected to have polished off their gourmet meals before the first pitch. A few members complained about pokey service until the club caterers, ARA Leisure Services, stepped in.

"Fine dining and doing it quickly -- it's kind of a contradiction. But we've made adjustments," said Joe Costa, an ARA vice president.

Some problems aren't as easy to address. One of the club's drawbacks are the views, or specifically, the absence of them. Many stadium clubs are equipped with huge glass walls, through which guests watch the game as they eat.

From the Camden Club, the best way to watch an Orioles game is on the bank of closed-circuit televisions that line one of the walls. The field is visible from the small windows that run along the west side of the building, but only for diners who drop their napkins and leave their tables.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Camden Club is competition, both from other downtown restaurants and the myriad of eating spots inside the ballpark, also run by ARA.

Although club officials downplay the rivalry, the Camden Club's chief rival seems to be a similar, downtown dining room, the Center Club.

The Center Club also is open for lunch and dinner, is within an easy walk of the ballpark and -- unlike the Camden Club -- is in the middle of the downtown business district. The Center Club has about 2,000 members, said its president, Alvin S. Wolpoff.

Still, Aylward said he didn't view membership in the two clubs as "an either-or choice."

"It's an opportunity to broaden," he said. "It's like so may attractions in this town. The more you have of something, the better."

In the end, the goal is for the club to turn profits for ARA and the Orioles. (The stadium authority shares in revenue generated by private parties held in the club, but not directly from club proceeds.) It may be awhile before any of them see huge sums, but the team could be on the hook for a six-figure payment if membership doesn't pick up.

ARA paid most of the charges for renovating the old warehouse space into a luxurious private club. But the agreement between the caterer and the Orioles calls for the team to pay back money to ARA if membership isn't going well.

According to the pact, the Orioles will pay ARA all initiations fees during the first two years the club is open, up to $750,000. If less than that amount is collected, the Orioles must pay ARA the difference.

If membership slumps, the bill could be the biggest in Camden Club history, which may explain the Orioles' recent decision to press ahead with an ambitious marketing plan.

This month, the Orioles mailed 7,000 letters to season-ticket buyers, inviting them to visit the club and stay for a meal. In addition, Orioles players and front-office officials, among others, are visiting the club during lunch hours to shake hands and persuade diners that a Camden Club membership is a necessity.

If that doesn't attract you, maybe this will: The Orioles are offering the first 100 fans who join in August the chance to buy two tickets to the 1993 All-Star Game.

Still, Aylward said the Orioles have more than a monetary interest.

"We care about the dollars, but also that the facility works. We take a tremendous amount of pride in everything that goes on in that ballpark."

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