Ricky Johnson has spent the past three-plus years “trying to scratch and claw” to keep his downtown restaurant open.

He kept it open after losing hundreds of thousands of dollars during the pandemic, which kept the usual theater and after-work crowds away from Forno, his Italian spot near the Hippodrome.

He stayed open after losing out on a government grant that he said would have been a lifeline. Instead, he took out other short-term loans to try and stay afloat.

He stayed open after a young dishwasher who worked for him was killed in Baltimore, and Johnson and his grief-stricken staff — including the boy’s father, a cook and also a Forno employee — could barely make it through the day.

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But last week, Johnson received a letter from a lawyer for his landlord, Centerpoint, that said he is being evicted. Between a slowdown in business and trying to keep up with loan payments, Johnson hasn’t been able to make rent since the pandemic started.

He let his approximately 17 employees know the restaurant will be shutting down.

“It’s way too much money for me to try to wiggle out from,” Johnson said.

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Looking back on the past few years, Johnson said, it’s strange to say that the past 12 months were the hardest. As the rest of the world seemed to recover, things were only getting worse for Forno. The decision to close has been a long time coming.

Staying open at a time of such uncertainty was a gamble, he said, and a bet he ultimately lost. There had been times when Johnson considered shutting the eatery down, but he would look at the calendar and see events on the horizon: plays at the neighboring Hippodrome, concerts at the new CFG Bank Arena. When those happen, the restaurant is full. “If we could just make it that far,” he thought, “I could buy myself more time.”

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But no more. The restaurant closed down over the weekend, though Johnson still hopes to have a farewell event for regulars with wine and snacks. After nine years in business, it seems fitting to say goodbye.

“If reading all this makes you want a drink as badly as it does for me to write it, you’re in luck,” Johnson wrote Wednesday in a Facebook post announcing the closure. “This Saturday we’ll be open for drinks (6-10pm) and 2-6pm Sunday for wine carry out. Come by and say hello (and goodbye!)”

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Johnson, who grew up in Essex, became a staunch defender of downtown. He thought Forno would be part of the transformation of the area, which has been hit hard by crime and vacancies. Now, he’s beginning to wonder if a revival will ever happen.

“There are a lot of people like me who are showing up every day and trying to make an honest living being here,” Johnson told The Banner earlier this year for an article about the struggles facing the neighborhood. “But I just don’t know how much the city is doing the same.”

Eventually, he’ll continue his life in the hospitality industry, he said: “That’s what I know how to do.” But in the meantime, there are a lot of other things on his plate.

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For one thing, he plans to declare bankruptcy and “see if I can get through that without losing my house.”

christina.tkacik@thebaltimorebanner.com

Christina Tkacik is the food reporter for The Baltimore Banner.

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