End of an Era
Bromfield Brothers Left Mark On Red Horse Steak House
Mike Rickman swiped some wine coolers one night while working at the Red Horse Steak House, where he was a cook. In doing so, he learned a valuable lesson about loyalty and second chances.
“It was just one of those stupid things kids will do,” says Rickman, who was a teenager at the time. He knew he would have to face the music when he next went into work. He was right.
Roy Bromfield, co-owner of the Red Horse, asked Rickman to come into his office. He reprimanded the teen and then offered him a way out. “He told me that if I put down $20 on his desk by the end of the day, it would be forgotten,” recalls Rickman. “I wasn’t fired.”
Rickman handed over the $20 to cover his theft and Roy instructed him to get back to work. “I did,” recalls Rickman. “At that point, I would have walked through fire for that man.”
Today, Rickman is a professional chef who has prepared food in such faraway places as Hong Kong and Italy and back home again in Maryland. “I had the best first bosses anyone could ask for,” he says of brothers/co-owners Roy and Ken Bromfield.
The Bromfield brothers have touched countless lives—from customers to employees—during the last 50 years they have been associated with the restaurant. Known as much for their hard work and integrity as they are for the delicious steaks and seafood they serve, the brothers recently sold the venerable restaurant on the Golden Mile. “We are profoundly grateful to the Frederick community for supporting us these last five decades,” says Ken. “They have been very good to us.”
The journey for the Bromfields and the Red Horse began when Ken started working at the restaurant shortly after it opened in 1968. “I was sort of moping around the house that summer,” he recalls. “My mom said, ‘That’s not going to fly.’”
The Red Horse was looking for a dishwasher and Ken went to work. “And when they needed a bus boy, I said, ‘I’ll do that, too,’” he says.
Early on, Ken was intrigued by the restaurant business.
“It was a lively, upbeat and social environment,” he says. “And you have to remember that the Red Horse was, if not the first, one of the very first upscale restaurants in Frederick, so it attracted some upscale clientele. And I thought, ‘Gee, I’d like to hobnob with these people.’”
He set his sights high. While still a teenager he proclaimed to a colleague that he was going to own the Red Horse someday.
And, of course, he did.
Under the tutelage of the original owner Bill Jeffries, Ken would learn the business from the bottom up, even during breaks while he was in college. “Actually Mr. Jeffries didn’t want me to go to school,” he says. “He said, ‘C’mon, I’ll bring you in as a manger right now.’ And I said, ‘You know, boss, I just want to have that degree.’”
Once Ken graduated from Towson State College in 1974, he began working full time at the Red Horse as a co-manager.
Following Ken, younger brother Roy also worked at the Red Horse during high school and on college breaks. After graduating, however, he chose a different path and pursued a career in retail management, but not for long.
He got a phone call from Ken one day in 1984 asking him to be the Red Horse’s night club manager. Over time, the brothers went on to form an equal partnership and were able to eventually buy the business and building.
And with Roy at the helm, the Golden Horseshoe lounge was quite the popular spot for years until closing in the mid-1990s. “It’s where I met my wife,” says Roy.
The lounge followed the trends from Top 40 to country music and had an elderly bouncer named Rocky. “It was a stroke of genius,” says Roy. “No one was going to mess with a 75-year-old guy or let anyone else mess with him. He was Grandpa Rocky.”
Sitting in their office, the brothers reminisce as they look through old photos and newspaper clippings, talking about the politicians, celebrities and prominent members of the community who graced the doors of the Red Horse.
Country singer Charlie Pride ate dinner one evening and then proceeded to put on an impromptu concert for fellow diners. Actor Vincent Price also visited for a meal. “We even had one-half of the Smothers Brothers come in,” says Roy, adding that he cannot remember which one.
As for the restaurant itself, the early days, says Ken, were quite different from the hurried “dinner and movies” outings of more recent years. People came into the restaurant dressed to the nines and lingered over their meals with nary a cell phone in sight.
“The meal itself was the event,” says Ken.
As a reflection of the time, the waitstaff initially consisted of strictly Black men—skilled servers noted for their ability to memorize customer orders without writing them down. The staff became integrated but remained all-male for many years.
Until Kileen Smith.
It began as an emergency. The Red Horse was a server short. “Normally, Roy would have stepped up,” says Smith, “but he was needed to fill in in the kitchen.”
Without hesitation Roy reached out to Smith who had never worked the main floor of the restaurant as a member of the waitstaff. “Not just at the Red Horse, but at other restaurants at that time women weren’t considered dining room servers,” she says. Adding, “It was daunting.”
That night was a success and Smith is approaching 30 years at the Red Horse.
She is not alone. Don Cline, a beverage manager and server who is now general manager for the restaurant, has been there for nearly 30 years, as well. The key to their longevity with the restaurant they say is the feeling of camaraderie and the fact that “Roy and Ken would never ask someone to do something they wouldn’t do themselves,” says Smith.
Adds Cline, “Ken and Roy were great guys to work for, but they also worked with you. It was nothing for me to walk in one day and see them snaking out a drain or fixing something else. They were just down-to-earth guys. There was a feeling of, ‘Hey let’s do this. Let’s help each other.’”
Others, usually young people, just passed through working as dishwashers, bussing tables, serving drinks or food on their way to different careers such as doctors, nurses, teachers, a police detective and a judge. In many ways, it was a rite of passage to work at the Red Horse for your first job.
“People will come up to us and say, ‘You gave my child their first job, and I thank you for that,’” says Ken. “Those moments are gratifying.”
OWNERS NOW CUSTOMERS
In many ways, it is the end of an era. The Bromfield brothers’ era.
“The average lifetime of a restaurant is seven, eight years,” says Ken. “So, 53 years is unusual.”
There is a lot of history and memories associated with the red horse and the Red Horse. New owner Jose Perez, who owns several restaurants in the area, promises, “Customers can expect the same quality of food and premier service that the Red Horse has always given.”
Which may come as a relief for loyal customers. As Smith can attest. “I had a woman burst into tears last week when she found out the restaurant had sold,” says Smith. “People are really attached.”
The emotional response is not surprising. For many, the Red Horse has become a tradition, a place to celebrate milestones and life events. Michael Blum and his wife, Deborah, went on their first date there 20 years ago and try to return each year for their wedding anniversary.
“It’s something that I grew up with and something that my wife knows. And when you know something is good you keep going back to it,” says Michael.
That includes the brothers themselves. They say they will be back. This time, however, they will be customers of the Red Horse instead of its owners.
“Of course,” Ken says, breaking into a wide grin. “It’s the best steak in town.”