THE DINING GUYS Restaurateurs savor sweet taste of success

THE BALTIMORE SUN

How do you become Baltimore's hottest restaurateurs?

First, ditch your boyhood dream of becoming an undertaker. Then spend a dozen or so years serving crabs, saving money and looking longingly at a former brothel on Boston Street. Find a partner who sells ATMs and bank equipment and things that interest you about as much as pocket lint. Work like a dog, never see your mother, your friends, your own furniture. And finally when it all comes true -- when the joyful buzz around town is that yours is the bistro du jour -- break all the rules by doing it again in a run-down warehouse in no man's land. Time elapsed for renovating and opening the second spot: 100 days.

Do all this and surely you will be compared to Jim Mikula and Tom Douglas, the current crown princes of the local restaurant scene. Sitting across the table, having just finished corn and crab chowder (Jim) and a barbecued chicken sandwich (Tom), the partners in Weber's on Boston and Bohager's restaurants clearly look like guys on the verge of something big. But what? Success? Madness? Exhaustion?

"We're only one mistake away from financial disaster," Mr. Douglas says with a wry smile. "That's kind of exciting."

Exciting? Other guys get their fill watching the Orioles beat the BlueJays. Not these two. To understand, listen to them talk about the July opening of their latest bar and restaurant, Bohager's.

A disastrous start

Hours before 600 people arrived, the liquor trucks circled the block waiting for the liquor license to be delivered. Construction workers were inside painting over sawdust; the cleaning staff was mistakenly wiping paint off still wet walls. The chef fired up the grill only to realize the bricks supporting the oven were cracking. And 30 minutes after opening, the toilets flooded.

"It was horrible," says Mr. Douglas, 32. "That was about as unglamorous an opening as I've ever seen."

On a bustling Friday night in August, it's easy to laugh about such nightmarish days. With its mahogany bar, paisley wallpaper and stamped tin ceilings, Weber's on Boston, the duo's first joint venture, has drawn an eclectic crowd -- Canton neighbors, suburban yuppies, local celebrities.

WBAL-radio personality Elane Stein occasionally drops by for the grilled fish, Hopkins doctor Levi Watkins swears by the Caesar salad, and Pat Sajak and his wife, Lesly, have been in for dinner twice.

There's little Mr. Mikula has to do here. A year after opening, the restaurant has rhythms of its own. He adjusts the music, tinkers with the shades, snatches a crumb off the carpet.

Less than a mile away, in the industrial-style Bohager's, the mood isdecidedly different. By 11 p.m., nearly every stool at the 75-foot bar is taken. The kitchen can't make the nachos fast enough, the sound system blares with David Lee Roth's version of "Just a Gigolo," and a Corvette and BMW nearly collide fighting for one of the last spots on the 130-space parking lot.

Best of all, say the boys by the bar, is this: Babes have arrived. They point to a group of women with hot pink pumps and tight dresses and big hair. Ahh, to be young and single at Bohager's on a Friday night.

"This," shouts Tom Douglas, his face glistening with sweat, "is everything Weber's isn't."

Opposites attract

In many ways, one man is everything the other isn't. Tom Douglas isthe salesman, the showman; Jim Mikula is the Dundalk kid who made good. Mr. Douglas drives the BMW, wears the Rolex watch, dines at the Conservatory; Mr. Mikula drives the Honda Accord, wears the 15-year-old Seiko, eats at Obrycki's.

"They're like two gears that fit together," says Diane Neas, a restaurant consultant who has worked with them. "They mesh."

Much of Mr. Mikula's life has led up to this. The youngest of seven from a working-class family, he was hired by Obrycki's as a teen-ager and stayed 17 years. His only distraction: a brief flirtation with mortuary science. His first class, which took him out of the classroom and into the city morgue, changed his mind.

"I realized I wanted to talk to people," he says, "and I wanted a response."

In 1983, he graduated from the University of Baltimore with a B.A. in marketing/advertising. He worked as the operations manager for a local oil company but always stayed at Obrycki's, even when money was no longer an issue.

Mr. Douglas came into the business almost by accident. A native of Lexington, Ky., he majored in business at the University of Kentucky before going to work in sales. But after handling accounts for everything from soft drinks to bank machinery, he ++ was ready for a change. Enter Jim Mikula.

The two met four years ago at a party given by a mutual friend. "I thought he was crazy," Mr. Douglas says. Mr. Mikula called his future partner "pretentious."

"Everyone was there in shorts. Here comes Tom in this BMW convertible. He has on Italian leather shoes and light pants and a polo shirt. I think he even had a hat on that day," says Mr. Mikula, 34.

First impressions aside, they became friends, in large part because their girlfriends, both members of the Junior League, were friends. Whenever they were together, Mr. Mikula talked about restaurants and Mr. Douglas eagerly listened.

By 1989, Mr. Mikula had learned the ropes, having opened the successful Fells Point restaurant Pierpoint. It was drawing rave reviews for its imaginative, original menu, but with only 52 seats, dozens of people were being turned away on weekends. Profits were also split between two other partners -- chef Nancy Longo and Gino Kozera.

While Mr. Mikula respected Ms. Longo's creativity in the kitchen, there were signs he didn't always understand it.

Says Ms. Longo, "When we first opened and I had rabbit sausage on the menu, he looked at me and said, 'Why would you want to put this on the menu?' "

"We have different drives," Mr. Mikula explains. "Nancy's is her food and cooking. Mine is financial."

Although the two are still friendly, and Mr. Mikula is still a partner in the restaurant (and in fact owns the building), he is seldom involved in the daily running of the restaurant.

In all fairness, they're not the most romantic guys in the world when it comes to talking about restaurants. Mr. Douglas refers to them as "units," describes how the industry is "trending" and says "unique concept" about as frequently as religious folks say "Amen."

Mr. Mikula says, "I'm in the business to make money."

An ideal property

On their way to brunch one day, they found the dream property they were looking for. It was a turn-of-the-century Canton tavern that in the past had been a speak-easy, gambling parlor and, some say, brothel. Mr. Mikula, who used to pass this spot on his way to college, had been enchanted for years.

Weeks later, they had the lease and were tearing down walls. Friends and family helped with the initial investment of $150,000. Six months later, they opened and the crowds came.

There were some glitches at first. A few patrons mistakenly expected Weber's to be another Pierpoint. When they saw crab dip, chicken wings and steak salad on the menu, they were disappointed. And if there's been a criticism, it's that the entrees, all under $17, though well-prepared, are not extraordinary.

"We never intended to be a Polo Grill or Brass Elephant," says Mr. Douglas. "We weren't trying to be visionaries as far as menu and nouveau cuisine."

An 'ugly warehouse'

Nine months after opening Weber's, the two men decided to try again, raising $350,000 to open a restaurant in an abandoned warehouse east of the Inner Harbor. Formerly Bohager's, a wastepaper and trash removal company, the dormant building had been renovated into offices.

"I thought they were stark raving mad," says Ms. Stein, a friend of the two. "It was this ugly warehouse on this ugly street."

Others agreed. How could they make a restaurant out of 49,000 square feet (inside and out) of rubble? Who would come? Where would they park? Weren't they spreading themselves too thin, anyway?

By July, they had renovated the restaurant -- adding an open grill and outdoor deck -- and were ready to open. Word of mouth and curiosity have brought crowds in such numbers that the duo are revising projections for the year. On the weekends, lines have snaked around the building, which holds 600 people.

Yet large establishments -- including the Fishmarket and the Power Plant -- have a checkered past in this town. Once the newness wears off and the summer ends, will Bohager's have trouble attracting a crowd?

"I think we're going to get stronger in the fall and winter," says Mr. Mikula. "We'll have people coming back into town and kids coming to college."

There's no time to think about failure now, anyway. The men are expanding Weber's, adding a kitchen and seating to the second floor. For Mr. Douglas, that means more time away from his home in Homeland, which he shares with his wife of two years, Shauna Teelin. For Mr. Mikula, who is single, it means letting his belongings languish in boxes in his new Fells Point home. Understand, though, they are not complaining.

"Entrepreneurial people are never satisfied," says Tom Douglas. "You'd think you would want to step back and take it all in, . . . pinch yourself. You're thankful, but you're never really looking behind to what's happened in the past year. We both look forward."

"And the reason you pinch yourself," says Jim Mikula, "is to stay awake."

THE MIKULA-DOUGLAS FILE

Occupation: Partners in Weber's on Boston and Bohager's restaurants; Mr. Mikula is also a partner in Pierpoint restaurant.

Born: (Jim) Dundalk, July 9, 1958; (Tom) Lexington, Ky., Nov. 18, 1960.

Marital status: cf,tem (Jim) Single; (Tom) Married since 1990 to Shauna Teelin.

Current home: (Jim) Fells Point; (Tom) Homeland.

Education: (Jim) Bachelor of arts from the University of Baltimore in 1983; (Tom) Bachelor of arts from the University of Kentucky, 1983.

What each would change about the other: (Jim) "I'd make him more punctual." (Tom) "I'd tell him to relax more."

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