Peerce's painful decline

Restaurant: Peerce's Plantation, once a premiere place to dine, date and get married, is in bankruptcy and seeking to reinvent itself.

November 28, 1999|By Amanda Crawford | Amanda Crawford,SUN STAFF

Standing in the driveway, moments before heading for retirement in Florida, Peerce Lake's father offered him some final advice.

"Stay on this side of the bridge, mind your own business and kill them with politeness," Duff Lake cautioned in 1963 as he turned over the keys to the family business.

Today, Peerce Lake wishes he had listened. Had he, "I may not have been in the situation I am," he acknowledged.

The "situation" as he calls it, is the struggle not to lose Peerce's Plantation, opened by his parents almost 60 years ago on Dulaney Valley Road in Baltimore County. The restaurant, facing clusters of pine just northeast of the bridge spanning the Loch Raven Reservoir, became one of the region's most popular gathering places -- not just where people dined but where they took prom dates and got married.

Last month, though, Peerce's filed for bankruptcy protection.

The fall from grace seemed abrupt. But several industry experts and patrons say Peerce's actually has been suffering a slow, painful death -- the result of poor management decisions and momentous cultural changes.

"I think for a long time it was one of the premiere places, but I think they've lost their place of importance," said Diane Feffer Neas of restaurant consultant Feffer & Associates Inc. of Kingsville, and who had her wedding rehearsal dinner at Peerce's 15 years ago.

"They have undermined their foundation by not making a metamorphosis into what is going on now."

Those changes, Neas and others said, include preferences by customers for lighter and healthier cuisine and a more casual atmosphere. In addition, competition from restaurants downtown and in the suburbs has increased.

"Maybe we are Old World," Lake, 57, said. "Maybe the culture is going one way and Peerce's is going another."

There was a time when Peerce's Plantation was one of the places to dine. At first it was nothing more than a small country store.

Lake's uncle, William Peerce, opened Peerce's Corner in 1937. It sold dry goods to farmers, served beer and wine and had gasoline pumps out front.

The restaurant emerged almost by accident in 1941 when Lake's mother, Marie, sold fried chicken during a farm equipment expo held on the property.

At first, Peerce's offered only outdoor dining, but by the 1950s an inside dining room was added, and the name was changed to Peerce's Plantation. Lake, who was born in an apartment behind the restaurant that now is a lobby, remembers bringing out wooden beer crates for people to sit on who were waiting in long lines out front.

Lake was 21 when he took over the restaurant in 1963. In the 1970s, he switched Peerce's to an upscale restaurant, specializing in continental cuisine.

The change paid off, and for the next decade the restaurant enjoyed a period of unmatched success. At its peak in the early 1980s, Peerce's was doing more than 400 dinners on a Saturday night.

"It was an icon in Baltimore," said Brian Boston, owner and operating partner of the Milton Inn, who once worked at Peerce's. "People had their first dates, proms and weddings there. Almost any cook or servicing personnel who is any good worked there."

Peerce's problems began when it was still at the height of popularity.

Flush with success, Lake ignored his father's warning and ventured across the Loch Raven Reservoir bridge to expand.

He opened Peerce's Downtown in 1980 on Charles Street. It did well at first, but as the renovation of downtown continued, business fell off, and Lake was forced to close the restaurant in 1988.

He tried his luck again in 1993 with Peerce's Gourmet in Timonium. But with pricey lunches, he watched the crowds turn to budget-priced restaurants. The Gourmet survived five years.

Combined, the failed ventures buried Lake in $500,000 debt, which he financed from loans by using the Plantation as collateral.

The recession of the early 1990s began to take a toll at the Plantation as well. As business declined and losses mounted, Lake was unable to pay off his debt. Just hours before the Plantation was to be auctioned last month to recover about $1 million in debt, Lake filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Working against Peerce's Plantation were other pressures that the restaurant did not respond to quickly.

The 1990s brought changes in the way people ate. Lighter, healthier food was demanded, instead of the rich continental cuisine that Peerce's offered.

A Timonium chef who once worked at Peerce's recalled the glory days before the difficulties set in.

"I used to be in awe watching those guys. That was when Peerce's was at its high point. That is what got me interested in the business," said Mark Hofmann, co-owner and executive chef at Rothwell's Grille in Timonium, who worked as a prep cook at Peerce's before leaving in 1985 to attend culinary school.

"But I always felt Peerce's never really kept up with the trends -- they never changed quick enough."

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