You won’t hear Zachary Schoettler say his location was bad or that the rent was too high. You won’t hear him blame the squeegee kids. He could have done without the nuisances inflicted by the guys with samurai swords who squatted in the building next door, but he won’t even say that’s what prompted him to announce the closing of his happy little diner in downtown Baltimore.
The Zach of Jack & Zach Food won’t blame anyone or anything. He will simply tell you his enterprise could not survive another year.
“It was an unsustainable business model,” he says as he checks on the six loaves of multigrain bread baking in his oven. “I managed to pay my employees a livable wage and to use all locally-sourced products. But it just wasn’t sustainable after eight years.”
The grandson of Carl Schoettler, the late feature writer of The Baltimore Sun, Zach partnered with his lifelong friend, Jack Neil, the grandson of retired Washington Post reporter Paul Valentine, to start Jack and Zach Food.
The young men bought all the ingredients for their menu from regional farms, including Broom’s Bloom and Andy’s Eggs in Harford County, South Mountain Creamery in Frederick County, Knopp’s Farm in Anne Arundel County, Cat’s Paw Organic Farm in Carroll County, and from the Whitelock Community Farm in Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill.
Another founding principle: Make everything from scratch. That’s why I found Zach in his small kitchen Thursday morning with a loaf pan in his hand. The English muffins and bagels are made in-house, too, along with the outstanding veggie burgers, sausage links and potato chips. His grits, made from red corn and topped with fried sage leaves, are delicious. As a result, there is often a line of customers waiting for a seat at Jack and Zach’s on Sundays. The place is open for breakfast and lunch, until 3 pm. It is closed on Saturdays.
In late November, it will close for good.
When Zach announced that on Instagram two weeks ago, the responses from customers were full of regret and praise. I found the news distressing — because the veggie burgers, with Zach’s pickled onions on top, are so good — and wondered why he decided to withdraw from the Baltimore restaurant scene.
Whenever a restaurant closes here, some people immediately attribute the decision to a decline in downtown customer traffic caused by the city’s insane rate of violent crime since the Freddie Gray spring of 2015. Or they point to municipal dysfunction and corruption or, of course, the fear and loathing of squeegee kids among suburban visitors. But restaurants are always opening and closing, and their owners are rarely forthcoming about the reasons they shutter or sell a place. When you dig a bit, you find factors that challenge public assumptions: The owner might have grown old and sick, or burned out from the long hours; the owner and investors might have had a fatal disagreement; there might be a dispute over a lease.
With Jack and Zach, their ambitions might have been too big for the size of their diner and the reasonable prices they charged. Locally-sourced products cost more; paying workers a livable wage is an honorable, but challenging goal — especially when you can only serve, at most, 12 customers at a time.
Jack left the business two years ago; he now has a job in construction. Zach stayed on, and, within the past year, the expenses looked more ominous, especially payroll taxes. Having a non-profit move a homeless teenager into an office space next door, and having other teens, some with samurai swords, come into the building — that added a layer of stress Zach didn’t need.
“I don’t want to knock [the non-profit] for what it was trying to do,” he says. “But it was a bad situation, and it lasted two months. We had some guys sleeping outside, and the sewage backed up and the alarms were going off.”
But, he insists, that’s not what put him over the edge; the future of the diner was already shaky, and not for any reason but the tough, uncompromised locavore model he and Jack established and worked their tuchuses off to maintain.
“I loved running this business,” he says. “We started off as two starry-eyed 20-year-olds ...”
Just then, his one helper, Meg Beck, brings Zach a new order from the counter: Sausage, egg and cheese on English. Sometimes, Zach can tell who’s come for breakfast or lunch based on what they order: Lisa the Librarian (from the Enoch Pratt Free Library) likes the veggie burger without the pickled onions; Archdiocese Man (from the nearby Archdiocese of Baltimore headquarters) likes an omelet of sweet potato, pickled onion and bacon; and NASA Man (he’s retired from the space program) always asks for the bacon omelet.
Down the road, Zach, a graduate of the Oregon Culinary Institute, expects to work in someone else’s kitchen, and perhaps his own again. “I hope to open up a very similar place down the line,” he says. “Maybe one with a 24-seat lunch counter.”