Burger stand serves up root beer and nostalgia in Rosedale

Stewart's Root Beer fans make pilgrimages to this stretch of Pulaski Highway

August 26, 2014|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

The roadside root beer stand's orange contours memorialize this venerated shrine to a different era.

Its fans make pilgrimages to this Stewart's franchise on Pulaski Highway, a truck-battered stretch of U.S. 40 in eastern Baltimore County, to recall the food experiences of their youth.

This is the place where it seemed a little cooler in the days before broiling city neighborhoods such as Highlandtown or Canton had air conditioning. Suburban Rosedale was the summer destination when the sun was bright, the humidity was high and school was a distant notion.

Adding to the stand's charm is its seasonal schedule. Come September, this Stewart's Root Beer shuts down and will not reopen until March, when its owners return from the six months they spend each year in southern Texas.

Its menu, displayed in movable plastic numerals and figures, lists a $2.10 basic hot dog and a Stewart's root beer float for $4. Regulars barely look at the board. They've already made up their minds on a chili dog, traditional hamburger or fries with brown gravy and cheese. Some of the curbside cognoscenti favor the steamburger, a ground beef concoction that has been cooked for hours and mashed repeatedly with a wire whisk, comparing the flavor to pot roast.

The steamburgers "have a beefy taste," said Ken Rasin, a longtime customer from Baltimore's Armistead Gardens who dropped in for a Stewart's root beer in a frosted mug. "I once tried to duplicate the recipe, but you really can't do that."

Customers also like the milk-heavy shakes and their ability to request special touches, such as an added ripe banana.

"I am not changing one thing about this place. We serve real food, not fast food," said Leonard Martin, a Rosedale native who bought Stewart's in 1969. "I've seen a lot change in Rosedale, but my customers like it in here the way they see it. This is not like a chain. We do all our own cooking."

Stewart's was among the original fast-food restaurant franchises, growing out of an Ohio stand opened by the root beer's inventor in 1924. Several dozen of the restaurants remain, mostly in New Jersey.

But aside from the bottled concentrate of Stewart's root beer that lends the establishment its name — and the bright-orange color — the rest is vintage Rosedale.

Martin's wife, Dora, and her sister, Debbie Cole, nod in agreement. Dora Martin, who does the cooking, said she likes to multi-task, simultaneously waiting on customers, producing a custom milkshake and keeping an eye on her simmering chili.

Martin, whose family settled in eastern Baltimore County decades ago, is a member of an enormous genealogical network. His cousins branch into the Langenfelder and Bartenfelder clans.

C.J. Langenfelder, a heavy equipment owner and contractor, built the roadway in front of Stewart's Root Beer in the late 1930s, when government and transportation officials were trying to resolve traffic issues.

The highway had to do a big job and multi-task as much as the counter staff at Stewart's.

While the road served interstate traffic before Interstate 95, Pulaski Highway was also the preferred route for Sunday drives and short excursions. And it served such major local employers as the mighty Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point and the Glenn L. Martin aircraft plant in Middle River.

A Martin aircraft employee, Garnet Jones, built the first Stewart's here in 1949 and operated it with his wife, Clara. It was an unadorned roadside root beer stand; he also devised the steamburger. The current structure came in 1975.

Leonard Martin, who is only the second owner, kept Stewart's open year-round until 1990, when he said a wave of industrial layoffs and an economic downturn cut into his sales. He took a breath and decided to close for a few months.

"Our business was always better in the summer anyway," he said. "The closest competition was a Gino's in Armistead Gardens. There was no McDonald's here. I did my best business from 1969 to 1975. Nobody had air conditioning in the city. … They drove out here to escape the heat."

After enduring another beating in the 2008 recession, Martin decided to cut back further, locking up in September, then reopening in March. A highway signboard proudly announces the closing. He and his wife own a winter home outside Corpus Christi, Texas, where they go crabbing.

At 72, Martin has seen businesses come and go here, as well as the jobs they once supported.

"What people don't know about Rosedale is that it was really a place where everyone had a pig farm," he said. "Once a year, the pigs went on a truck and went down the highway to Sherrie's Showbar and made a left into the Esskay plant."

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