The Old Guard

Downtown Restaurants Open and Close, but Some Have Found Lasting Success

By Kate McDermott | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 04.04.16 – Dining, Feature, Food & Drink

Three hours before the lunch crowd starts rolling into Wag’s, Joe Ellis is making regular trips in and out of the kitchen at carefully timed three-minute intervals to make sure the day’s 150 pounds of potatoes will be perfectly blanched, drained and dried. Who knew those sinfully delicious crispy brown fries involve more than a simple dunk in a deep fat fryer?

For a restaurant that cleverly markets itself as “Eight Steps Below the Competition,” that kind of attention to detail might seem like a bit of a contradiction. But although he may have fun with his slogan, Wag’s owner John Wagner takes his food seriously. His soups, including the popular gazpacho and lobster and shrimp bisques, are all made fresh on the premises, and he refuses to compromise on the size or quality of his signature burgers, which are perennial winners in this magazine’s annual “Best of Frederick” competition.

Such a commitment to quality and consistency is what Wagner believes has enabled Wag’s to stay in business in Downtown Frederick for 35 years, while more than 80 other restaurants have come and gone during the same period. “I’ve had guys come in and tell me they haven’t been to Frederick in years and they just wanted to get one of our reubens. And they are thrilled when they taste it because it is exactly the same way they remembered it.”

But consistency and continuity haven’t come without some challenges. Shortly after opening at 24 S. Market St. in 1981, work on the Carroll Creek flood control project blocked vehicular traffic in front of the restaurant. Then came more construction with the burying of power lines on Market Street. Wagner borrowed money from friends to keep the business afloat and his wife took out a loan in her name when the bank wouldn’t give one to him. “I went 13 weeks without a paycheck,” Wagner recalls. “But I always made sure my employees got paid.”

That might explain why many of his 15 employees (some of whom started out as regulars at the bar) have been with him for more than 25 years. Ellis’ tenure is pushing 32 years. When Wagner went into business for himself, he vowed to always treat his employees with respect. He even offers a regular vacation plan, with employees of 10 years or more getting three weeks off a year. After that, however, the weeks are not specifically spelled out because, Wagner admits, “Honestly, I never thought I’d be in business this long so I never really planned beyond that.”

Wag’s success is all the more impressive when you consider that early on, Wagner was told that no one would ever go down a set of steps to go into his restaurant. Three and a half decades later, the restaurant continues to defy its detractors. “Our clientele runs the gamut,” says Ellis. “We get lawyers and judges, exterminators and truck drivers. We even have high school kids who come here like it’s a malt shop and who order the burgers and fries.” And what about those who can’t maneuver the steps? No problem: Wagner, his employees and even his customers, have been known to carry disabled patrons down the steps so they don’t have to miss out on the action.

If there’s one thing that Wag’s is not, it is not a place you go to “be seen.” The bar has one tap and one tap only: Yuengling Lager. Part of that is due to space constraints (you can only get so many kegs into an area that is less than 1,000 square feet), but it also has to do with the fact that Wagner and Ellis answer to the demands of their clientele. “They tell us what they like and what they want,” Ellis says, noting that they do carry several bottled craft brews. “We just try to give people what they want.”

Masters of the Margarita

If Wag’s clientele stays “hidden” below ground, customers at La Paz are out in the open—and they like it that way. Those strolling along Carroll Creek or traveling up Market Street can’t help but notice the colorful umbrellas on the restaurant’s popular patio. When warm weather beckons, for many Fredericktonians, La Paz, at 51 S. Market St., is the place for people watching.

It’s also a far cry from the restaurant’s original location, which was tucked away behind the Church Street parking garage at 18 Market Space. The tiny two-floor building hardly offered prime street visibility, but its somewhat-quirky location allowed the inexperienced entrepreneur Graham Baker an affordable spot on which to launch his new business in 1978.

“At the time there were no other Mexican restaurants in Frederick,” Baker recalls, so it seemed like a fairly safe bet. Plus, he adds, “It was the one thing I knew how to cook.” The restaurant quickly developed a following, especially for its margaritas, chips and fresh salsa. Although the menu offers much more, those staples are to La Paz what burgers are to Wag’s. “It’s what we’re known for,” Baker acknowledges.

As a college student and young adult, Frederick native Kim Chaney frequented La Paz at its original location and admits that although she had some reservations about its move to the bigger spot on Carroll Creek, she now admits the patio “is my first choice when the weather is nice. The margaritas are killers and the chips are still the best in town.”

“We strive really hard for consistency,” Baker says. According to his wife, Marcie, they haven’t changed the recipe for their hot chips and fresh salsa over the course of their 38 years in business. “We keep a close eye on our menu and if we do add something, we want it to be great,” she says.

When the restaurant moved to Carroll Creek in 2006, the goal was to bring all the favorites from the original location. And that included families. Given its large space, its wallet-friendly price-point and varied menu, it’s not uncommon to see family meals taking place on the patio or perhaps at the upstairs tables that look out on the activity along Carroll Creek and Market Street. “Mexican fare lends itself to the family environment,” Graham notes.  “We have always wanted our restaurant to be a place of comfort for people,” Marcie adds.

Part of that comfort also comes from the many employees who have worked at La Paz for decades. “We have several people who have been here for most of the journey,” Marcie says. “Our employees know our customers and the customers know them. I think that’s part of our charm.”

Big Apple in Frederick

It takes only a few minutes of conversation to realize that Bruce Derrick is not from these parts. His New York accent gives him away quickly. So how did a guy from Long Island end up opening a deli in Frederick? “There’s a girl behind every story, right?” he says.

Indeed, when Derrick’s wife landed a job in Washington, D.C., the couple moved south. After eight years working in aeronautical cartography for government agencies in the U.S. and in Saudi Arabia, Derrick decided to make a career change. After a short stint in corporate sales, he decided to pursue his dream of opening a good New York-style deli—despite having no food experience.

When the space at the corner of Court and East Patrick streets across from the Frederick County Courthouse became available in late 1987, Derrick decided to take the plunge. But he also did his homework. “I spent a week studying this location,” he recalls. “I counted the number of people walking by, counted cars, etc.”

When it first opened, Crabapples only offered lunch, but Derrick soon realized there was a market for breakfast as well. He was adamant, however, that he would not go into the dinner hour. “I’m a family man and I know how hard those hours can be.”

Like Wagner and the Bakers, Derrick attributes much of his success to consistency, both in the quality of his food and in his expectations of staff. “We haven’t changed the way we do things in 28 years. And I expect everyone here to adhere to that. I always tell my new employees: We are only as good as we were the day before.”

He counts bankers, brokers, police officers, accountants, lawyers and judges among his customers. And although he may not know them by name, “I know what they order.” His regulars also know that Derrick has been known to offer a little “New York charm” to customers who dawdle in line. “Anyone who’s been to a New York deli knows that they will get you in and out quickly, no matter how long the line,” he says. “So I’ve been known to ‘push the line’ to keep it moving because one of the biggest compliments I can get is when I hear a regular customer say to a new customer who is taken aback by the length of the line, ‘Don’t worry. You’ll be out of here in five minutes.’”

One of his regulars is Joe Welty, a principle attorney with the law firm of Miles and Stockbridge, located just across the street from Crabapples. As a loyal customer, he has no problem giving Derrick a hard time about his New York-isms. “Every now and then I liken him to Seinfeld’s ‘Soup Nazi,’” he says. But it’s all in fun, especially since Welty doesn’t want to do anything to endanger his status as a customer in good standing. “Sometimes I hit Crabapples for breakfast, then I usually get my lunch and often my secretary’s lunch there and then sometimes I hit it again on weekends if I’m working in the office.” He pauses, musing, “I hate to think how much money I’ve spent there.”

Another Place at the Table

Although conventional wisdom might suggest these three stalwarts of the Downtown Frederick food scene should worry when a new restaurant comes to town, time and success has enabled them to see the “big picture.” They are not threatened by the city’s growing reputation as a dining destination.

“For a long time, it wasn’t uncommon for people who couldn’t get a table at Griff’s to come here and vice versa,” Wagner says. So when it comes to new restaurants coming to town, he says, “Bring it on.” The Bakers feel the same way and are not threatened when a new neighbor moves in. “We feel that having Hooch and Banter next door adds to our place,” Graham Baker says.

Indeed, if they’ve learned anything over their decades in the business, these veterans know that success in the restaurant industry has less to do with their competition than it does with their own work ethic. “It’s hard work,” says Marcie Baker. “You have to stick with it and be willing to put in the time.”

Derrick couldn’t agree more. “I was blessed to have parents who instilled in me a great work ethic and a supportive family who recognized that this is hard work. There are no overnight successes. It requires discipline and a commitment to doing it right.”

Published data on restaurant failures varies, but it’s generally believed that nearly one-quarter of all new restaurants fail in their first year, and the three-year failure rate can be as high as 60 percent for independent eateries. Even those owners who achieve success, however, may ultimately choose to sell their restaurants, as in the case of another Downtown classic, Bushwaller’s, 209 N. Market St., which has changed ownership several times during its tenure.

If there is any true “recipe” for success, the owners of Wag’s, La Paz and Crabapples say the key ingredients are hard work, consistently good food and good employees. But Wagner would also offer one more caveat:  “Everybody claims to have ‘the best’ crab cake,” he says. “So I decided early on that I wasn’t going to make crab cakes a regular menu item. Avoid the crab cake wars at all cost.”