On Thursday, local officials and restaurateurs will be slurping up raw oysters, sinking their teeth into pastas and sampling fine Italian pastries at the Restaurant Association of Maryland's new Columbia headquarters.
Though they moved into the building in June, Thursday is the grand opening of a new center of operations that association officials say will mean more services and education for its members and the public.
"Our goal is to turn this facility into the town hall of the hospitality industry," said Marcia S. Harris, association president and CEO.
The association chose Columbia because it is easily accessible from all over the state.
It is also near Annapolis where the group lobbies for the hospitality industry and closer to most of their members in Maryland's southern counties, Harris said.
Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, said the move "underscores the central location that Howard County offers to nonprofits and associations, as was the case with the Maryland Hospital Association that moved here last year."
But for the restaurant association, the bigger, more accommodating Columbia office means it will have the capacity to offer more classes to its members and the public.
"We will be able to reach out to the general public in a way that we would never have been able to do with our old building," Harris said.
Here's how: In the kitchen - equipped with a stainless steel refrigerator, freezer, stove, grill, fryer, dishwashing area and demonstration tables similar to equipment you might find in a fine restaurant - the association plans to offer a dinner-with-the-chef night. That is, a Maryland chef will come to the Columbia headquarters, cook dinner for a group and talk about the trade.
Lisl Wilkinson, executive vice president of the Maryland Hospitality Education Foundation, the educational arm of the restaurant association, said the idea is "to bring people in that want to take a peek into the industry and want to learn the secrets of the industry."
The foundation also plans to offer etiquette classes for young children so parents can take them out to dinner, or for prom-bound students so they know how to order at a fancy restaurant on the special evening of their high school career.
Classes on plate and table decoration are also in the association's plans, part of an effort to increase the enjoyment of dining and promote an appreciation of the hospitality industry.
The association, which aims to promote, protect and improve the service industry, was founded 65 years ago as the Baltimore Restaurant Association.
It made the transition 15 years ago into a statewide group.
Today, it has 25 employees and more than 2,700 members who are either suppliers, owners or operators of a business in the hospitality industry.
Most members come from Montgomery and Prince George's counties, with Baltimore County close behind, Harris said. There are more than 100 members in Howard County.
The Restaurant Association of Maryland moved into the new 10,000-square-foot building because it outgrew its old Baltimore headquarters. Industry courses offered, such as safe food handling and responsible alcohol service, had been held on-site at restaurants, hotels and catering halls.
The building is named after Steve F. de Castro, owner of Ruth's Chris franchises in the area, who secured the naming rights.
Though the association will continue with on-site training for those in the industry, it plans to use the new headquarters for seminars and roundtable discussions among hospitality professionals.
The new building also has a research library with videos and books about industry standards.
Michael Wagner, executive chef of Piccolo's in Columbia, has made use of the new headquarters, attending a refresher course on safe food handling there this summer.
"They're so accessible now," he said. "They're right down the street."