Chrys Kefalas usually worked the front of the house at Costas Inn — the Dundalk institution his family has owned for decades — because he was good with names and faces and, even as a high school kid, paid attention to detail.
But as he slung crab cakes and bused the dinner rush, Kefalas was also acutely aware that the family business was slipping along with the number of workers collecting a paycheck at nearby Sparrows Point.
The steel mill slid toward its demise, but the restaurant reimagined itself.
Kefalas learned from both outcomes.
"He really caught on to all of that. When the economy and Bethlehem hit, I think that maybe left a mark on him," said Pete Triantafilos, a cousin and the general manager at Costas. "He is who he is, and he tells it the way he feels."
Kefalas, 36, wasn't born when then-City Councilwoman Barbara A. Mikulski won her first election to the House of Representatives in 1976 — on her way to a Senate seat he and 13 other Republicans are now seeking. Not only is he the youngest of the serious candidates seeking the GOP nomination, he is arguably the most difficult to define.
Kefalas, a Baltimore native, is openly gay and recently engaged to Tommy McFly, a popular morning drive radio host in Washington. Kefalas worked for former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, but also wrote speeches for Democratic former Attorney General Eric H. Holder, a close ally of President Barack Obama and a regular target of GOP invective.
A lawyer and executive at the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers, Kefalas describes himself as a "Hogan Republican," a reference to centrist Gov. Larry Hogan. But he cut only one check to a candidate in the 2014 gubernatorial election: $250 to liberal Democrat Heather Mizeur.
All of those things could be an advantage in a general election in deep-blue Maryland. But they could also be liabilities in a Republican primary — particularly as the national party shifts to the right. Most polls have put Kefalas in second place behind Del. Kathy Szeliga, but those surveys have indicated that none of the candidates are well known.
Kefalas, who is on leave from the manufacturers' trade organization while he pursues the seat, said he supported Mizeur for her work on marriage equality. And he said he doesn't buy the narrative that the party is lurching right.
"Voters are looking for disrupters, they're looking for change agents," Kefalas told The Baltimore Sun. "I'm the only candidate who can bring the Republican coalition together with Democrats and independents and win this election."
Why start as a candidate for statewide office as opposed to, say, running for a seat in the Maryland General Assembly? It's a question Kefalas is clearly practiced at answering.
"I don't believe in standing in line," he says. "The problems of today require action."
The Greektown man takes a libertarian tack on some issues: He's open to considering decriminalization of drugs. He thinks Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, should receive a hearing in the GOP-controlled Senate. He's willing to consider a pathway to legal status — but not citizenship — for the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally.
Asked if he would support Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump in the fall if the New York businessman wins the nomination, Kefalas said he is "not making any promises."
One attribute friends and allies repeatedly point to is Kefalas' capacity for hard work. Co-workers from different times in his career described an image of Kefalas hunched over a desk late at night, the last one to leave the office.
Kefalas helped defend the Ehrlich administration during the 2005 brouhaha over the governor's political firings and hirings. Democrats accused Ehrlich of targeting state workers loyal to the prior Democratic administration. Hogan, who has not endorsed in the Senate race, was Ehrlich's appointments secretary at the time.
"Chrys was not afraid to take on the lawyers in the legislature," said Diane Baker, who was the deputy appointments secretary back then. "As a young attorney, he stood up to some pretty large legal minds. He was sharp."
Kefalas moved to Washington years ago, and still owns a condo there. District of Columbia property tax records indicate he is collecting a homestead credit on that property. Kefalas said he alerted city assessors months ago that he switched his principal residence to Greektown when he began his campaign.
Kefalas' background is undeniably rooted in Baltimore. His grandfather worked at Sparrows Point. He grew up in St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, where he still worships. He attended Calvert Hall high school, earned a degree in English literature from Loyola University Maryland, and studied law at night at the University of Baltimore.
His father still works at the family restaurant.
Former colleagues say Kefalas' background has allowed him to advocate for Republican principles to voters of all political persuasions.
"He was really passionate and was a public servant's public servant," said Riley Roberts, a senior writer at a Washington-based speechwriting firm who hired Kefalas at the Justice Department.
"Regardless of my political views and his political beliefs, I think a Washington led by a bunch of Chryses would function a lot better than the one we have now."