Francis E. Gretz, 87, founded Circle Drive-In restaurant


Francis E. Gretz, who founded and operated a celebrated Southeast Baltimore drive-in restaurant, died of heart disease Thursday at his Dundalk home. He was 87.

Mr. Gretz, the proprietor of the landmark Circle Drive-In, was born in Scottdale, Pa., and was raised by his maternal grandparents after an influenza epidemic claimed his parents.

Family members said that he settled in Baltimore in 1929 to live with relatives who had already followed a migration of people from western Pennsylvania to work at the Bethlehem Steel Company's Sparrows Point plant.

Mr. Gretz worked at its shipbuilding division until he was drafted for World War II. After completing his service in the Army, he and his wife, the former Helen Ewing, operated the Dundalk Restaurant in historic Dundalk Shopping Center. Mrs. Gretz died in 1974.

"In a novel application of the G.I. Bill of Rights, my father studied cooking at the then-swank Belvedere Hotel," said his daughter, Anita Gallagher of Leesburg, Va.

She said that in 1947, the Gretzes created an early fast-food restaurant oriented to the age of the automobile and called the business the Circle Drive-In at 555 Dundalk Ave.

"Circle regulars know the routine," a Sun story noted in 1992. "The fast-food restaurant at Dundalk Avenue and Gusryan Street has only 11 items on its menu and most people order a barbecue sandwich and a milkshake. Few customers are there for the first time. Most grew up in this far end of Highlandtown, just across the street from Steelworkers Hall."

Mr. Gretz recalled that he opened July 3, 1947, "And the parking lot was packed, We never advertised. We never did anything but build this, open and have the barbecue ready."

He took out a mortgage to buy the land - the cost was $5,500 - and construct the circular building. He also stopped working at Sparrows Point.

"The Circle offered restaurant-quality food along with fast service to those who wished to eat in their cars," his daughter said.

Mr. Gretz also built a service window, which allowed customers to get food quickly, without ever stepping inside the restaurant.

He did not alter his basic menu: a sweet pork barbecue, barbecue with cheese (known locally as a Cheese E Q), hamburgers, cheeseburgers and cheese steaks, as well as classic thick milkshakes. Many customers often purchased a pound of barbecue and the sauce that accompanied it.

The Gretzes wanted a novel building - and at first wanted it to be triangular in shape. They then hit on a round building and commissioned architect Harry Wills to design it.

The structure was later featured in local architectural guides as an example of art deco style.

The Circle was later reproduced in miniature on a wood block by artisan C.H. Echols as one of his Dundalk landmark series done for the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society.

Mr. Gretz created his pork barbecue recipe, which became the famous Circle Drive-In Bar-B-Q. Family members said his recipe was often guessed at in the cooking columns of local papers.

His customers would come for dinner when the Circle opened at dusk. The clientele included swing-shift workers, teenagers, and young adults who would jam the large parking lot with their cars. There was also a business surge after the bars shut down. Mr. Gretz always closed the Circle at 3 a.m.

Mr. Gretz operated the Circle for 50 years, until a hip replacement forced him to retire at age 79, in 1997. He then leased the property to another restaurant operator.

He was a member of the Dundalk Knights of Columbus Council 2942 and a member of Sparrows Point Country Club.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 9 a.m. tomorrow at St. Rita's Roman Catholic Church. 8 Dunmanway in Dundalk, where he was a member and usher for many years.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include a son, Frank D. Gretz, of New York City; and nieces and nephews.

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