Recipe For Success

Brothers Spike and Charlie Gjerde turned their differences into an asset, forging a restaurant empire and an unshakable bond.

April 18, 1999|By Peter Jensen | By Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Summer evenings at the family's lakeside cabin, the boys would play restaurant, the eldest acting as chef, his younger brother as waiter.

They were only 9 and 11 years old, but their menus revealed a nascent talent. Steak was offered as "Judge's Choice, a large prime cut of beef, grilled to perfection" or perhaps as "Netman's Favorite, a kabob featuring Grade A beef, tomato and mushroom."

Lists of beverages, side orders, desserts, even illustrations on the menu cover, were standard. The boys loved it. They were good at it, and they made money, too: Not only did parents pay for supplies, but they could also expect a bill at meal's end.

Twenty-five years later, Spike and Charlie Gjerde, two fun-loving guys from Cockeysville, are still playing restaurant.

This month, the brothers took over Joy America Cafe, the chic harborfront eatery in the American Visionary Art Museum, the latest conquest in a growing culinary empire.

It joined their original enterprise, Spike & Charlie's, the trend-setting bistro across from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall; jr., a casual neighborhood cafe in Bolton Hill; and Atlantic, the recently opened seafood restaurant in Canton with the adjoining Hudson Street Bakery.

Whether grilling steaks for their parents or managing a payroll of 140, one thing has stayed constant: Although different as "night and day," as their mother likes to say, the two men needed each other -- as friends, as partners, as brothers.

"It's a wonderful story of improbable success, and it's a wonderful family story," says C. William Struever of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, the Baltimore developer who first coaxed the brothers to take over the former Ethel's Place and create Spike & Charlie's eight years ago.

Spike, 36, is the ball of energy, the creative juggernaut. Born David, the tall, blond, intense, artistic half of the partnership acquired his nickname in high school, mostly because a friend found it amusing.

The kitchen is Spike's studio, the dinner plate his canvas. At any given moment, he may lecture on the freshness of fish or the varieties of yeast. His temper is legendary, but so is his love of his work: Twelve-hour days, seven-day work weeks are his standard.

Charlie, 34, is the unflappable, dependable, buttoned-down brother. Before he launched a restaurant with Spike, he managed an eyeglass store for four years. His college degree is in business (Spike's is in Chinese and philosophy). He'd be perfectly happy to eat a head of lettuce with salad dressing for dinner.

Shorter, dark-haired, more comfortable around people and computers than his brother is, Charlie is often cast as the negotiator and staff accountant. He watches the numbers, the suppliers, the bottom line.

"It's like the yin and yang," says Lisa Stachura, Charlie's wife.

They are so different that some of their employees -- even after years working for them -- don't realize they are brothers.

But these unassuming, unpretentious guys from the suburbs who love foosball and ice hockey take after their parents more than anything else. In looks and manner, Charlie resembles his more stoic father, Spike his energetic mother.

Midwestern natives, Dave and Alice Gjerde moved to Baltimore in 1968 from Iowa City. Dave had been assigned as personnel director at Procter & Gamble's Locust Point plant.

They raised their two sons in an archetypal suburban neighborhood. The boys attended Baltimore County public schools. Their mother taught in the same system.

Many vacations were spent at the cabin at Deep Creek Lake where the brothers, both fairly athletic, picked up skiing and other outdoor sports.

If it all sounds a bit rosy, then maybe it was. The Gjerdes have always been a close-knit family. Perhaps because of that, or genetics, or some basic need for companionship during long summer vacations, Spike and Charlie developed a trait uncommon among adolescent brothers -- a genuine affection for each other.

"I'm extremely jealous. They have an amazing relationship," says John Peltz, a friend since junior high. "There was always a year grade difference, but they still hung out together."

Food didn't enter the equation until much later. For Spike, the joys of cooking were discovered at Middlebury College in Vermont when he took a job part-time in a nearby bakery.

Not long after graduation, he returned to Baltimore and worked at Patisserie Poupon, the downtown French bakery that supplies many of the city's finest restaurants. When Charlie graduated from the University of Vermont, he joined his brother at the bakery ringing up sales and making deliveries.

Under owner Joseph Poupon's tutelage, Spike not only became a top-flight pastry chef, but also absorbed Poupon's exacting standards.

"Spike likes to do things 100 percent," says Poupon. "Some restaurants would buy their bread, or whatever, but he wants to do it all. It makes it a lot harder, but you end up with something where truly everything is your own."

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