After 58 years, Jennings Cafe gets new ownership outside the family

After 40 years working at — and then running — his family's restaurant, Omar Jennings III decided it was time to retire.

As Jennings, 57, considered who would be the next owner of the Jennings Cafe, which his grandfather opened in 1958, neither of his two children were interested.

With no one to hand the Catonsville restaurant to, he decided to sell it to Steven Iampieri, who has spent the last 20 years as a restaurant consultant.

Iampieri said it has been a dream of his to own a restaurant. Now, he gets to make the decisions. His first day was July 19.

"I'm ready to run the show without having to check in with someone," he said. "At some point, it was the natural progression for me."

Jennings never advertised the restaurant for sale, but he said he felt comfortable with Iampieri owning the family business, saying he's known him for years. The deal came together over the course of several months, they said.

Iampieri declined to disclose the purchase price but said the restaurant has more than $1 million in annual revenue.

Iampieri, 47, lives in Sykesville but has Catonsville connections. He lived in Catonsville for 20 years and his family owns Westway Liquors on Edmondson Avenue.

"I'm from Catonsville so I know how special it was," he said about the restaurant. He said he plans to keep the Jennings name.

The Frederick Road restaurant is in an area with several restaurants nearby. Each one offers something different, Iampieri said, which will allow for Jennings Cafe to stand out.

"It's a little different than everybody else," he said. "It's not just a sports bar, it's a home-cooked, local watering hole that's been here forever."

With new ownership will come some changes at the 105-seat restaurant, but he is keeping its comfort-food theme. While popular dishes such as Jennings' liver and onions, crab cakes and shrimp salad will remain on the menu, Iampieri has already added a Guinness pulled pork sandwich for $9.99 — the pork, along with vegetables, is soaked in Guinness beer and slow-cooked for 12 hours prior to being pulled —and an oyster po' boy sandwich for $11.99.

He said he wants to transition the restaurant to a kitchen where everything is made from scratch and with fresh ingredients, estimating that right now, about 30 percent of the ingredients used are frozen. He also plans to renovate the restaurant within a year.

With the changes, he hopes to entice new customers to Jennings Cafe. He sees potential for growth and as much as an additional $500,000 in annual revenue.

"It's been so successful as Jennings," he said. "I want to build off the traditions they were so successful with and bring somethings up to 2017."

The restaurant will now be open seven days a week instead of being closed on Sundays, and once football season starts, football food and drink specials will be offered, Iampieri said. A hearing on the proposed transfer of the restaurant's liquor license is scheduled for Monday.

All but one of the restaurant's 24 full- and part-time employees have stayed on since the change in ownership, Iampieri said, including Peggy Bailey, who has been a waitress at the Frederick Road restaurant for 37 years.

"He's going to be good," said Bailey, 75. "He's going to bring a lot of fresh things here."

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