Last week I mentioned that diners are often in the dark about the challenges happening behind the scenes at their favorite restaurant or cafe. Particularly with rising inflation, a business can appear to be doing well while struggling financially.

This week I’ll tell you about another local eatery that seems to be thriving, but it’s about to shut down. I’ll also fill you in on the opening of a new BYOB from a longtime Helmand chef and manager, and tell you where to find traditional sour beef in Baltimore.

The pizza spot inside Union Brewery will end operations in November. (Christina Tkacik)

Well Crafted Kitchen to shut down

Tom Wagner likes sports analogies. So he compares the decision to close down Well Crafted Kitchen — the popular pizza business that he founded with his wife and another couple as a pizza catering business — to an athlete retiring at the top of their game.

“Sometimes it’s just time for the journey to come to an end,” he said, sitting at a table inside the cavernous UNION Craft Brewing where Well Crafted has operated a stall since 2018.

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In an email to customers, or “Pizza Pals,” the owners said the business had reached a watershed moment, needing to expand or else shut down for good. “Unfortunately, we know that in order to grow our business in the way we dream, it would take fuel we no longer have left in our tank,” they wrote.

Wagner, like most of the eatery’s co-owners, also has a full-time job: he’s an engineer. Balancing the demands of both has been hard. “We’re tired,” Wagner said, in between walking out orders to customers and stretching dough in the kitchen.

Tom Wagner, co-owner of Well Crafted Kitchen, has a full time job in addition to running the restaurant. "We're tired," he said in an interview about the decision to close the business, despite its success.
Tom Wagner, co-owner of Well Crafted Kitchen, has a full-time job in addition to running the restaurant. "We're tired," he said in an interview about the decision to close the business, despite its success. (Christina Tkacik)

The owners announced the decision to their 14 staff members, as well as their event workers, last Monday. Kelly Sniffen, assistant director of service, called the news “a punch to the gut.” “We didn’t see it coming. We’re in such a good space and we have such a great community.”

In its years in operation, the restaurant has worked hard to cultivate relationships with local farmers, sourcing most of its ingredients locally — and it has a dedicated fanbase of customers. Some even volunteered to help staff process tomatoes for sauce last summer. Both Sniffen and her brother, Curt, work at the restaurant, and she says it’s hard for her to imagine a job in any other kitchen.

“I think we’re really going to be missed in the community,” Sniffen said.

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As he tossed a circle of pizza dough in the air, Patrick Brosnan, whose sister also works at the restaurant, said he learned to make pizza while working at Well Crafted Kitchen, a job he took after attending the culinary program at the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Baltimore County.

Wagner said the owners will sell the restaurant’s wood-burning pizza oven and truck — and will fulfill all existing catering orders. But the Well Crafted name won’t be up for grabs.

“We’re not trying to monetize what we did,” he said. They’re hoping to write a cookbook, so Well Crafted Kitchen’s recipes can live on.

Kandahar Afghan Kitchen nears opening

Here’s a restaurant that will be high on my list of places to try when it opens on Hampden’s Avenue: Kandahar Afghan Kitchen.

Originally set to launch in January, the BYOB restaurant is now set to open in either late October or early November, says owner Assad Akbari.

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“Inshallah we will open soon,” said his wife, co-owner Zakia Akbari, using a phrase that means: “God willing.”

Assad worked at Baltimore’s Helmand from 1991 through the pandemic as chef and then manager of one of the city’s most iconic restaurants. Assad says he is still on good terms with the Helmand’s owners, Pat and Qayum Karzai.

Now on 36th Street, he will be bringing with him some of the hearty home Afghan cooking that put the Helmand on the map. Look for items like a lamb and apricot dish that Assad’s grandmother cooked in her village, Afghan beef ravioli and pumpkin with yogurt sauce.

Chef Assad Akbari, formerly of The Helmand, brings his authentic Afghan flavors to Hampden (Photo courtesy of Arlex Meza). (Handout)

Authenticity is the goal. Assad said many nominally Afghan restaurants feature Mediterranean or Indian options on their menu that aren’t found in rural Afghanistan. “Afghan cheeseburger or Afghan pizza? There is no such thing,” he said.

Last week, artist Theresa Foggo was painting the walls with murals that depict scenes of life from rural Afghanistan, including a dancer in traditional garb and a game similar to polo. Both pictures speak to the regional diversity of Afghanistan, and to a bright vision of the country that predates its current problems, Zakia said.

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“Baltimore has given to us a lot,” Assad said. “I want to give whatever I can give back to Baltimore.”

Try this

Fall in Baltimore abounds with international festivals, many back for the first time this year after pandemic hiatuses. Consider this your chance to sample home-cooked fare from places around the world.

At last weekend’s Greek Food, Wine & Culture Festival, now 50 years strong, I loaded up on cinnamon-seasoned pastitsio and light-as-air Christmas cookies. All of it was prepared by volunteers of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, who spend months getting ready.

When it comes to cooking the signature items, “Everybody’s yia yia’s recipe is the best,” said Pat Bartsocas, who is in charge of the food prep, using the Greek word for grandmother. “But we try to keep it the same.”

Want to try another type of cuisine? Add this to the calendar: The Holy Trinity Heritage Food Fair is happening this weekend at Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church, where you can sample crepes called blinchiki or skewered meats called shashlik. You can also visit the annual American Indian Festival in Upper Marlboro, where Native foods will be available, this weekend. And this week in downtown Baltimore, you can try traditional German sour beef at Zion Church of the City of Baltimore.