'We try to please guests,' not beat the recession, restaurateur says

Tony Foreman explains how he keeps 4 eateries, 2 wine shops going in tough times

February 21, 2010|By Gus G. Sentementes | gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Restaurateur Tony Foreman has been able to stay in business during this recession even though his high-end Charleston in Harbor East charges $110 for three courses, which may include soup or salad but also wine.

The Baltimore native operates four restaurants in the city with his wife, award-winning chef Cindy Wolf, even as the economic downturn has made the most devoted foodies frugal and even as Charm City haunts including the Brass Elephant have been forced to close.

The restaurants have added depth and character to the city's culinary scene and, apparently, remain profitable. Each is known for extensive wine lists and obsessive attention to the menu. Petit Louis Bistro in Roland Park serves up French cuisine. Pazo in Fells Point offers Mediterranean tapas. Cinghiale, also in Harbor East, dishes up modern Northern and Central Italian. And the Charleston evokes South Carolina and French cooking traditions.

They also own two wine shops, including one that opened late last year in Annapolis.

So how do they do it? Foreman, 44, recently talked to The Baltimore Sun about their business.

Question: How have your restaurants coped with the recession?

Answer: We try to please guests - I can't do anything about the recession. We're not in the business to beat the recession. We're in the business to please our guests. I think when you discount a lot of stuff, you devalue what you do. I think when you have not priced something appropriately, you'll start to discount.

Q: Are your restaurants profitable?

A: Sure. Our clients have been very good to us, and we bust our backs for them. But was 2009 or 2008 a year like 2005? No. You've had a serious correction in consumer habits.

Q: What's the toughest decision you've had to make in the restaurant business?

A: I don't know if I have any one particular thing. There are people at times I've had to let go, and I've never enjoyed that. ... They're either providing value or they're getting out.

Q: How much travel do you do in a year for your wine research?

A: Usually two or three weeks out of the year, I travel with staff. Cindy comes along. We visit growers and farms to learn lessons of the table together. That's how we've been able to build a professional restaurant culture among our leadership. Another week or two, I'm on purely tasting and buying trips. These are fast-paced trips across the country, what Cindy has often called my complete nerd trips.

Q: Do you enjoy dining out anymore, or does it feel like work?

A: My work never feels like work. I love what I do. I love what I get to learn, I love what I get to drink.

Q: Each of your restaurants has a different feel and theme - how did you come up with each restaurant as a concept?

A: Each restaurant has been a movie in my head two years before I got it built. There were many reels available. A lot of people thank us for what we do in Baltimore, and all I can ever think is, I've learned so much about the business from the people of Baltimore. From the artistic side of what we do, that's so satisfying.

Q: Of the four restaurants you run, is there a personal favorite for you?

A: No, [it's like asking] which is your favorite kid. I love all my children. I tend to work in each one for different periods of time. I have days where I bounce around everywhere. And there are other times where I'm in one restaurant from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. and I'm doing that at a three-month stretch - just because I have something in mind.

Q: Aside from Baltimore, what's your favorite town or city to visit for a meal? Where do you go for inspiration?

A: Anywhere with a great product, where people care about food. A lot of times, it's Europe. If I want to eat seafood, I go to Spain. If I want comfort food, I go to France. If you want meat, you definitely want to go to Argentina.

Q: Other than your own, do you have a favorite restaurant in Baltimore?

A: I've been going to the Prime Rib since I was 7 years old. I have three or four little places I like, like Weiss' corned beef on Lombard Street. Andy Nelson's Barbecue is the real thing: It's the pulled pork; don't screw around and get anything else. I'm not going to ever cry about a Faidley's crab cake with a beer standing up at Lexington Market. And La Sirenita in Highlandtown - their beef-tongue tacos are awesome. The guacamole, awesome. They do whole roasted plantains.

Q: You and your wife worked in Washington for a while, so what made you choose Baltimore to launch restaurants?

A: The quality of life, for the money, is much better in Baltimore. Having grown up here and having lived there [in D.C.] for several years, it was an easy choice. We moved back here to try and build something, and that's what we've done.

Q: What's the biggest pet peeve in the restaurant business that you tried to avoid?

A: Oh, there are thousands of them. You can ask anybody; I'm so touchy and sensitive and difficult. There are so many things. Lack of caring. Lack of respect for the industry. If it is paying your rent, it is your profession. I don't care if you think you're going to be an actor. You're a pro about everything that you do.

Q: How do you fight the battle of the bulge when eating so much good food?

A: I think I'm in pretty good shape. I'm at the gym five or six days a week. I played sports in college. I'm 6 feet, 200 pounds.

Q: Are there any more Tony Foreman/Cindy Wolf restaurants in Baltimore's future, or will you look to other cities?

A: We're going to grow our business, there's no question about that. We look at opportunities all the time. We have a culture that grows management and leadership in the kitchen and dining room. I'd rather grow my best guys for me rather than growing them as my competition.

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