One night in the fall of 1978, Lou Fonti left the restaurant and drove out to the bridge over Loch Raven Reservoir. His body was found the next day.
Neil Smith took over the business in 1979 from a squabbling (and unlikely) pair of restaurateurs: a doctor and a dentist.
Smith, a guidance counselor at Garrison Junior High School in Baltimore, seemed equally out of place. But the business, which made around $700,000 that first year, grew steadily, fueled by a booming economy and a palpable sense during the Reagan years that the good times were here forever.
"In the '80s, if you had a restaurant, you could pretty much make money without even trying," says Smith, now 56.
But in the '90s, the chain restaurants began arriving. TGI Fridays opened in what is now Towson Town Center, and soon there was a Chili's in Belvedere Square, an Applebee's on Joppa Road, a Red Lobster in White Marsh. An Outback Steakhouse and a Carrabbas Italian Grill were destined for Hunt Valley.
"When new restaurants open, people go to them," says Smith, always a realist. "They want to experience new surroundings, see what the food's like ... just go someplace different."
By 1993, customer counts and revenues at the Crackpot were down significantly. Smith reacted in the time-honored manner of so many business owners: He became delusional. He woke up each morning and thought, "This is a temporary problem. It will go away."
For a while, Smith skirted the problem. When the pharmacy next door moved out in 1995, he opened a liquor store. It was an instant success and helped soften the restaurant's losses.
But this past spring, Smith decided it was time to tackle the chains head-on, before one more eatery opened nearby with a 20-foot-tall Day-Glo sign and a smiling onion logo and a "fun-food!" menu.
In a rear office at the end of the Crackpot's long, narrow bar, a meeting was held. Present were Smith, Tom Lyons and the restaurant's three other managers. It wasn't the Yalta Conference, but an air of urgency permeated the proceedings nonetheless.
Beat them at their game
The focus of the meeting was simple. How do we increase sales? How do we cut costs? How do we handle the competition from the chains?
It was decided that an experienced consultant was needed. P.J. Byrne, Smith's nephew, a 31-year-old whiz kid who had managed chain restaurants in North Carolina, was brought on board.
In essence, Byrne preached a Zen-like philosophy: To fight the chains, BE the chains.
He urged them to learn a new and sacred mantra: portion control. Weigh everything you serve, he said, just like the chains do.
"Before when you came in here, you might get a crab cake that weighed 4 ounces, or one that weighed 5 ounces," Smith explains. "You'd get a sandwich with 4 ounces of shrimp salad one time and 3-plus ounces the next time."
Byrne also urged them to tighten up on inventory, lest high-priced seafood slip out the back door into the trunk of an employee's car.
Finally, he said, the place needed more servers. One for every four tables, just like the chains. This is the '90s -- people don't like to wait for food. Keep customers waiting too long to be seated, he said, and the next sound you hear will be the squeal of tires as they go fishtailing out of the parking lot.
"We had a lot to learn," Smith says. "Our problem was to copy the chains, but keep our own identity."
To this same end, Smith felt the Crackpot needed a new marketing strategy.
"We needed to find a niche that set us apart," he says. "We wanted [to offer] something no one else had, something easy to prepare ... something that would appeal to everyone and be affordable."
It was during yet another meeting with his managers that Smith was struck by what passes in his business as divine inspiration.
"Why don't we do a crab cake?" he said. "Only we'll make it the biggest crab cake in the world."
Certainly, the crab cake was a hugely popular item with local diners. John Shields, author of "Chesapeake Bay Cooking," writes that the crab cake has been a staple of the Maryland diet dating back to at least the 16th century.
It's a food that engenders tremendous passion, too; Shields says he's witnessed barroom brawls over which restaurant or tavern serves the best crab cake.
Armed with their new idea, the Crackpot managers went to a half-dozen nearby restaurants, bought crab cakes and brought them back to the Crackpot to critique. It was all very cloak-and-dagger.
Then Lyons, the chef, went to work in the kitchen, mixing the staples -- crab, eggs, mayonnaise, bread crumbs -- and experimenting with different ingredients to create the Crackpot's own unique flavor.
Then one Monday this past spring, the World's Biggest Crab Cake made its low-key debut.
Low-key is the way to go with these things. If a new entree bombs, you get rid of it, pronto. By the weekend, when the big crowds come, nobody even knows the thing blew up in your face.
But the reaction to the Pounder, Smith recalls, was "Wow!" The Crackpot had a big hit on its hands.