You never know what’s going on behind the scenes of a restaurant or cafe.
It’s the premise of TV shows like “The Bear” and movies like “Burnt.” Anthony Bourdain launched his career dishing secrets from the back of the house in “Kitchen Confidential.”
And it’s an observation that was on my mind this week as I spoke with Shawn Chopra, owner of Good Neighbor, a high-end coffee shop that opened during the pandemic in 2020.
I had just been by the space a few hours earlier for toast and coffee. By all appearances, the place is doing well. In two years, it’s transformed a former Falls Road hardware store into a destination, attracting diverse crowds to Hampden, which has been too white for too long. Good Neighbor also has retail space with the latest must-have seasoning from Bon Appétit and cool Scandinavian housewares.
But talking to Chopra, I learned that the business, like so many in Baltimore, is struggling to keep up with the ever-rising cost of goods and services. “It’s stressful,” he said. “Payroll is half of our revenue.”
Battered by high prices, restaurant owners ask: ‘Do we close?’
This summer, Danae Schrock, owner of Charmed in Mt. Vernon, posted a plea to customers on the business’ Instagram account: “We are barely holding on.”
Schrock, an Eastern Shore native, opened the Calvert Street restaurant with her sister in 2019. Many of their recipes, including their sausage gravy and biscuits and chocolate chip cookies, come from their mom.
Though this Charm City eatery has survived what looks like the worst of the pandemic, it now faces a new existential threat: the soaring costs of food and labor.
Schrock recited a few numbers: Eggs had gone from less than $2 per dozen to up to $4. Potatoes are up, as are avocados and to-go containers. When she looked at an invoice from her supplier she said, “Oh my God, how?”
With her sister and brother-in-law, who does the company’s bookkeeping, she realized that they had a decision to make.
“Do we close?” she asked.
Meanwhile, Good Neighbor is losing money every month as it struggles to keep up with rising costs of everything from coffee to cleaning supplies and especially labor, Chopra said.
“If we’re this busy and we’re not really making it yet... how are some businesses that don’t see much foot traffic, how are my counterparts and friends surviving?” he asked.
The situation at Charmed and Good Neighbor is anything but unique. “There are many restaurants that are very much on the position of being right on the edge — should they or shouldn’t they close?” restaurant consultant Martha Lucius explained.
Lucius, who has worked with Chopra, advises businesses to limit waste, shorten menus to reduce food costs, and to make sure that their prices reflect their food costs.
That last part isn’t as easy as it might sound, particularly as expenses are constantly fluctuating. Restaurants may need to order new menus and update prices online and on third-party apps as well as on signs.
Chopra said he’s struggled to strike a balance between selling coffee at a price that locals can afford and still covering costs. “There are limits to how much you can charge for a cup of coffee that feels respectable,” he said.
In her Instagram post in July, Schrock warned customers that over for the next few months her restaurant would be operating with fewer staff members and longer wait times for food. “We are not giving up, we are slowly fading,” she said. The business also raised prices.
A few months later, she says, Charmed’s strategy seems to be working. “Last month was our best month since COVID,” Schrock said. But, she adds, “We still have a lot of big hurdles.” The restaurant is in the process of raising prices again — adding 50 cents to each item.
A tip from a Raven
When he’s not making interceptions on any given Sunday, Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey is a real foodie, judging from his spicy takes on Twitter.
Perhaps his most controversial opinion came in August, when he posted, “Syrup is just so unnecessary.” He also hates Shake Shack and has shared observations from an evening out with quarterback Lamar Jackson. “It actually sucks to be famous famous,” he wrote after the team’s victory over the New York Jets. “This man Lamar dinner getting cold because the whole restaurant has lined up to take a picture with him.”
This week, Humphrey tweeted a photo of a $200-plus tip he left on a dinner check of around $200. He captioned it: “Was feeling a @ochocinco vibe tonight at dinner,” a reference to former NFL wide receiver Chad Johnson, who is known for his hefty tips.
Humphrey has a way to go before he is tipping at Ochocincos’s levels. Last March, Johnson tipped $1,300 on a check of just over $100, according to Twitter.
I expect we’ll soon be spotting Humphrey and other Ravens players at Mt. Vernon’s Hotel Ulysses, Baltimore’s newest place to see and be seen.
Since it opened last month, the boutique hotel in the historic Latrobe Building and Charles and East Read streets has been featured in The New York Times Style Magazine and Travel and Leisure.
Naturally, I had to see it for myself. After entering on Read Street, a stunning mosaic on the lobby floor stopped me in my tracks. So much to take in: columns, art, flowers. The maximalist decor is tastefully overwhelming.
To the right: the hotel bar, Bloom’s, with moody reds and purples and a mirrored bar and ceiling. As I wondered which Quentin Tarantino movie I had stumbled into, a coworker sipping a cocktail announced, “I feel like I’m in ‘Scarface.’” Bingo.
I meandered across the lobby to the somewhat confusingly-named hotel restaurant, Ash Bar, for a bite to eat. Again, I was enveloped by retro glamour. Some Baltimoreans might wonder if they’ve walked into Haussner’s or Maison Marconi, reincarnated. The vibe is high-end but tongue-in-cheek. Yes, there are white tablecloths. But there are crayons at each table, and you can draw on them. Ever wanted to sip a cocktail from a seashell? Now is your chance.
The recent preview menu included some basic Italian-influenced dishes like cantaloupe with prosciutto as well as some more ambitious fare. I enjoyed the creamy potato and leek soup, or potage parmentier ($12) made with hazelnuts and fennel pollen for an appetizer, perfect with the house baguette and lots of whipped butter. For dessert, the Neapolitan sundae with chocolate sauce was simple but satisfying.