Gino's return to Maryland brings back giant memories

Fans of the burger-and-chicken joint are licking their chops and recalling happy days behind the counter

  • Jim Sexton and his father enjoy hamburgers and shakes at a Gino's in Essex in the late '60s. "It was a family destination," says Sexton. "It was special."
Jim Sexton and his father enjoy hamburgers and shakes at a Gino's… (Handout photo )
February 27, 2011|By Laura Vozzella, The Baltimore Sun

For the record: Julie Shanklin did not, as a 16-year-old girl in the 1970s, take up the hem of her Gino's uniform to make it a mini-dress. She was 5 foot 11, OK? And because she was so tall, the red-and-white dress was short on her, even by 1970s standards.

"My mom was like, 'Is there any hem we could let out?'" There was not, so Shanklin paired her uniform with the ruffled bloomers her mother wore square dancing. "It would have been obscene."

Even with obscenity averted, Shanklin caught the eye of Harold Autry, also 16 and working as a cook at the same Gino's in Montgomery County. He asked her out and proposed on their first date. They married. Had a baby. And, if you must know, eventually divorced. Gino's didn't fare much better, closing its last store in 1991.

But don't rule out a fairy-tale ending: Gino's is back in business in Pennsylvania. It's coming back to the Baltimore area. And one of the guys opening Gino's here is Shanklin and Autry's baby, Scott Autry, all grown up and ready, with partner Jared Miller, to revive a little bit of family history with a 10-store deal.

"He's very nostalgic," Shanklin, 52, said of her 32-year-old son. "He sort of likes to relive the past."

The newly minted franchisee is not alone in his Gino's nostalgia.

As news broke last week that the chicken-and-burger joint launched in 1959 by Colts legend Gino Marchetti was returning to the Baltimore area, fans of the place cheered as if the Mayflower trucks carrying away the Colts had suddenly hung a U-turn.

OK, maybe they weren't quite that overjoyed. But Gino's devotees — even those who can't trace their family tree to the fast-food restaurant — were very, very happy.

Gino's is a place, after all, that in death inspired online memorials. (The Facebook group "Everybody Loves Gino's" has 2,395 members; the website has had 25,836 hits since 2008.) The restaurant's planned rebirth — Scott Autry and Miller were scouting locations last week and hope to open their first store by summer — had fans reminiscing about dining and working at Gino's as much as anticipating their next Gino Giant.

"It felt like family to work at Gino's," said Keith Swango, 57, of Ewing, N.J., who worked at the restaurant as a teenager from 1970 to 1972 before going on to become a draftsman for the state of New Jersey. "They seemed to care about you."

As an employee, he appreciated the all-you-can-eat-free policy when he was on a work break.

"I remember we could eat, we just had to write down what we ate," he said. "It was delicious."

Even when Swango wasn't working, he and his friends would hang out at Gino's, stopping in after a night at a ballgame.

"Me and my friends, we'd ask them [the servers] to mix chocolate and strawberry shakes together," he said. They'd get their combo-shake, even if "special orders don't upset us" was somebody else's slogan.

A few years ago, Swango created the "Everybody Loves Gino's" Facebook page.

"I was thinking about my younger days and looking for old friends and also remembered the great time I had at Gino's," he said. "There were a few people here and there joining the group, and after several months, someone added a message that Gino's was coming back. Honestly, I couldn't believe it."

Swango called Tom Romano, the former Gino's executive who is CEO of the revived Gino's Burgers & Chicken, to wish him well.

"We had a wonderful conversation," Swango said. "I was invited to a taste test and meeting of possible franchisees [at the King of Prussia location]. … Gino was there. He actually made the Gino Giants for us to sample."

Jim Sexton was so excited to hear that Gino's was opening in King of Prussia that he dug up an old picture, taken about 1968, of his little-boy self and his dad enjoying burgers and shakes at the Gino's near their Essex home.

"I wanted to take that picture up there and have him [Marchetti] sign it," said Sexton, 47. He wasn't able to make the trip, however, so now he's hoping to catch up with Marchetti when the Baltimore-area store opens.

"It was a family destination," said Sexton. "It was special."

When George Moniodis turned 16, he and his best friend walked the half-mile from their houses to the Gino's on Liberty Road to apply for their first jobs.

"I still remember the two flat-iron grills, one set at 500 [degrees] and one at 400," said Moniodis, 53, who lives on the Eastern Shore these days and sells janitorial supplies to hotels and restaurants. The 400-degree grill was for cooking the burgers, the 500-degree one for toasting the buns.

"The cooks worked between the two grills," he said.

He has a particular reason to recall that. One day his friend, who was supposed to be mopping the floor, played a trick with the mop that caused Moniodis to lose his footing. He grabbed the only thing he could: the 500-degree grill.

"I did have to go to the hospital," said Moniodis, who badly burned his hands.

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