Would-be chain serves up sass Attitude: Mikie's restaurant is a father-and-son act that is craving to go big-time.

November 09, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

It began as a joke. A possibility so far-fetched the Wagner family laughed at the idea, then cheekily slapped it onto their menus.

Which was how Mikie's, a local diner-style restaurant that opened late in the summer of 1997 in Glen Burnie, came to have "Now on the East Coast" and "The newest location on our East Coast Tour" plastered all over its menus.

"We wanted to make this place have a little attitude," explained Scott Wagner, who owns Mikie's with his father, former state Sen. Michael J. Wagner. "We wanted to make it sound like there was a bunch of them."

The joke, however, didn't wear out.

From the get-go, the restaurant packed in huge breakfast and lunch crowds almost every day. People were coming in for a sandwich, a Mikie's burger or a fat slice of freshly baked pie two, three, sometimes even seven days a week.

Soon, the Wagners figured maybe they could do what has never been done before. Maybe they could carry a taste of Glen Burnie to the rest of the state. Heck, maybe even the nation.

"The short-term goal now is to get the next store open," said Scott Wagner, 30, who can be spotted in the Mikie's kitchen every lunch rush, flipping burgers or washing dishes while sporting baseball cap, T-shirt, jeans and apron. "The long-term goal is eight to 10 stores in this area and then we'll see what happens. It certainly could be a national thing."

The Wagners are not new to the restaurant business. Since 1990, they've owned Michael's Eighth Avenue, a successful Glen Burnie banquet hall and catering business. Mikie's -- named after the elder Wagner -- was supposed to be their "part-time job" in addition to catering.

And they're hoping that people other than Glen Burnites will buy into a restaurant where waitresses call you "Hon," "Sweetie" and "Dear," and serve up food with huge dollops of sass.

Where the menu offers homespun favorites, including meatloaf according to a recipe by a real Uncle Bruce.

Where the decor is so down-home as to feature framed pictures of a 10-year-old Scott vacationing in Stone Harbor, N.J., and of children from a favorite calendar of Scott's wife, Andrea.

"We're just good, old-fashioned Glen Burnie boys," Scott Wagner explains, and they've imbued their restaurant with their innate Glen Burnieness.

For Mikie's to succeed as a chain, industry observers say the key to success is to nail down its identity and uniqueness.

"It's key to build a real culture and a bunch of people who have the [management] talent as you expand," said Robert T. Giaimo, president of Silver Diner Inc., a Rockville-based chain that has 11 restaurants in the Baltimore-Washington area and in Cherry Hill, N.J. "You have to develop a brand recognition so everyone knows what you stand for."

Herman Cain, chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Restaurant Association, said restaurants with a strong local identity like Mikie's do succeed, but the key is to expand slowly so the replication is done well. So the food quality stays high and the new staffs are well-trained to deliver the same caliber of service for which the flagship restaurant is getting famous.

"And don't get too far from home as you begin to grow, because of logistics problems," Cain said, so the Wagners can keep an eye on and make sure everything's going well at the new diners in their budding chain.

Cain noted that now seems to be a good time for restaurants to expand, as 50 percent of money spent on food today is spent dining out. Twenty-five years ago, he said, people spent just 25 percent of their food budget in restaurants, the rest in grocery stores.

What the Wagners say defines Mikie's -- and what they hope to really spread when the chain gets going -- is its attitude. The Wagners say they want the waitresses' smart-mouthing to be their stamp of recognition as the restaurant expands.

"We want that sweet, sassy, you can call me 'Hon' and I'll call you 'Hon' kind of thing," Michael Wagner said. "A place where you can come in, have lunch and laugh."

The local customers, at least, eat it up.

Melvin Simmons, 72, a retired National Security Agency employee who lives in Glen Burnie, said he dines there four to five times a week. He was there for lunch recently, sipping coffee with his pecan pie. It was his second visit of the day.

Simmons said he gets something at Mikie's he can't find anywhere else -- playful harassment.

"The other day this waitress said to me, 'If I knew you'd be here, I wouldn't have come to work,' " Simmons said. "And I said, 'If I knew you'd be here I would have gone next door and gotten drunk. And I don't even drink!' "

The Wagners are taking their time, screening sites in Linthicum, Millersville and other Anne Arundel communities for the next Mikie's. They want the second restaurant to be close enough so that father and son can pop in during lunch to help cook, clean or bus tables.

And they know the next venue probably will have the added challenge of not coming with a network of family and friends to provide a set customer base from the start.

"We don't have that many family and friends," Scott Wagner said. "But the concept is going to work in other areas. If you have good food at reasonable prices, you can always bring a lot of people in."

Pub Date: 11/09/98

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