Spike Gjerde’s Woodberry Kitchen preps for a post-pandemic comeback, with a focus on events and a new tavern – Baltimore Sun

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For a time, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spike Gjerde wasn’t sure what would become of his restaurant.

Gjerde, the James Beard Award-winning chef behind one of Baltimore’s best-known fine dining spots, Woodberry Kitchen, knew a change was coming; he just didn’t know what it would look like.

“As the reality of the pandemic kind of settled over all of us, one thing that became clear to me was that Woodberry wasn’t going to come back the way that it had been,” the chef and restaurateur said recently.

“It was a pretty dark time, because Woodberry was where it happened for me, and it’s the thing that’s in my career that’s nearest and dearest. I didn’t know what, if anything, it could be post-pandemic, or for its next chapter.”

The farm-to-table restaurant in the city’s historic Clipper Mill development has been mostly closed to traditional dining since March 2020, though — like many of his industry peers — Gjerde explored a series of pandemic-era shifts, from home meal deliveries to holiday catering.

This fall, Woodberry is finally ready for a comeback. Just as Gjerde predicted, it won’t be the same restaurant as before.

On its busiest nights before the pandemic, Woodberry Kitchen would sometimes serve as many as 350 to 400 diners. In this new configuration, the crowds will be smaller and much more predictable.

Gjerde is leaning into events as he charts a return for the business. Over the better part of the past year, Woodberry’s rustic, high-ceilinged dining room has been repurposed into a private event space with a capacity for 150 people. The room’s rich, industrial detail, filled with steel and reclaimed heart pine, is now airier, with light woods and hanging lamps. The dining room opens onto a tent patio, creating an indoor/outdoor flow for events.

The restaurant, now called Woodberry Tavern, will take over a smaller footprint in an adjacent room once reserved for private dining. The 30-seat tavern is on track to start welcoming diners within the next month.

Gjerde describes the new tavern as a “jewel box of a restaurant.” The room features brick walls, tall windows and a cozy bar.

“I just had this vision for a small place that felt timeless,” he said. “You couldn’t really say that it had been here a week or a year, or 10 years, or 100 years.”

Gjerde’s decision to scale back the restaurant and place a heavier emphasis on events follows a period of soul-searching amid a broader era of introspection and change for the restaurant industry at large. The pandemic’s shutdowns were particularly brutal for fine dining establishments, which thrived on atmosphere and high-quality service and were ill-suited for the switch to takeout meals.

“I would just think about the kitchen that we had here, and how it took nine chefs and cooks to run it,” Gjerde said of Woodberry’s pre-pandemic operations. “I realized that that model had run its course.”

“The DNA of Woodberry is the one thing I think that's completely intact,” Spike Gjerde said.

Paring Woodberry’s 120-seat dining room down to a quarter of its size represents a marked shift for the 15-year-old restaurant. Gjerde — already known on the local dining scene for restaurants like Spike & Charlie’s, a Midtown-Belvedere eatery he opened with his brother Charlie Gjerde in the early 1990s; Canton seafood spot Atlantic; Bolton Hill restaurant Jr.; and the Latin-inspired Joy America Cafe inside the American Visionary Art Museum — opened Woodberry Kitchen with ex-wife Amy Gjerde in 2007. It quickly became one of the city’s essential farm-to-table spots.

A 2015 James Beard Award, which named Gjerde that year’s best chef in the mid-Atlantic region, propelled the restaurant to even greater acclaim. In a three star review, Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema compared Gjerde to Alice Waters, the famous chef behind Chez Panisse. Diners flocked to dinner and brunch service as Woodberry was added to “best of” lists including Eater’s 2016 “Best Restaurants in America.”

The restaurant is known for its devotion to local sourcing, which extends not only to meat, seafood and produce from the region, but also to most everything else involved in the making of a dish, from vinegar and honey to foraged nuts to cooking oils ( the restaurant uses sunflower and canola cooking oils rather than olive oil, since olives aren’t a local crop).

That commitment to supporting the local food ecosystem is one thing that won’t change upon Woodberry’s return.

“The DNA of Woodberry is the one thing I think that’s completely intact,” Gjerde said. “Woodberry, for me, has always been an environmental restaurant. It’s connected to climate change, it’s connected to the health of the [Chesapeake] Bay and the health of this planet as a place for humans to live. So that hasn’t changed. How we accomplish that with a little 30-seat restaurant — that is the subject of intense thought right now.”

During Woodberry Kitchen’s pandemic hiatus, Gjerde tried so many business “pivots” that he grew tired of the word. The restaurant set up a curbside market selling essential pantry items and goods, like cheese and vegetables, from local producers. It sold prepared meals for pickup and delivery. And, for a time last year, Woodberry offered limited dine-in service, with customers ordering their food at the bar.

Those temporary shifts helped to keep staff employed and local growers paid, but none of them really stood out as viable options. “Woodberry was never going to be, long term, a curbside market,” Gjerde said.

James Beard Award-winning chef/owner Spike Gjerde is preparing to reopen his restaurant.  The new Woodberry will lean heavily into private events, and the restaurant will be scaled back and renamed Woodberry Tavern.

Private events, another revenue stream for the restaurant during COVID, represented the one path that felt like it could actually be the basis for a business.

“Baltimore is overserved with higher-end restaurants and underserved with events spaces with great food and beverage,” Gjerde said. “We had that clarity: Here’s a business that feels like it could have some viability.”

The step toward events offers more predictability for the business, with staffing and food orders nailed down far in advance. A smaller staff on the restaurant side will also help Gjerde meet another one of his goals for the restaurant’s rebirth: higher pay for employees.

Gjerde, once a trailblazer for farm-to-table dining in Baltimore, now wants to be on the vanguard of a movement to ensure restaurant workers are paid fairly for their labor.

Rather than relying on tips to account for most of their pay, all employees at Woodberry will be paid a living wage. Hourly wages for line cooks, event staff and front-of-house positions will all start at $20 an hour according to online job listings — more than five times higher than Maryland’s minimum hourly wage for tipped workers of $3.63.

Gjerde said it was an acknowledgment that wages in the restaurant industry have long been inequitable that drove his decision to restructure his business model.

“A restaurant like Woodberry doesn’t have a big pot of money to just shift around,” he said. “We ran on very, very tight margins, if there was a margin at all. The way you do it is to kind of start over, and that’s what we did. And that’s one of the things that drove us toward events and one of the things that drove us toward a smaller, leaner, more efficient, but still beautiful, little restaurant.”

The tavern, which will serve dinner five nights a week, will have a three-person kitchen and a four-person service staff. The higher wages will be supported by a service fee of 26% on events and 23% on the check at Woodberry Tavern.

Gjerde acknowledges that he’s uncertain about how the new model will be received. Some customers might balk at the higher prices. Front-of-house staff, meanwhile, could miss out on the flush of tips they might garner on a particularly busy night.

That tension was a challenge for New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, the head of the Union Square Hospitality Group, who made headlines in 2015 when he announced that all of his restaurants would eliminate tipping and set higher hourly rates for employees. Meyer ultimately abandoned the policy in 2020, saying he didn’t want to deny bartenders and servers the opportunity to make more money in tips during a tough financial time.

Tipping can be lucrative for waitstaff and restaurant owners and can incentivize good service, but it’s also laden with implicit bias and it creates a pay disparity between front-of-house and back-of-house workers, said Jeremy Schwartz, a professor of economics at Loyola University Maryland.

“Trying to equalize the pay between the two parts of the organization means lower pay for the front of house and higher pay for the back of house,” he said.

Restaurants also face fierce competition from others in the industry who are willing or able to charge less.

“Restaurant workers can be some of the lowest-paid workers in the workforce,” Schwartz said. “The competition between restaurants makes it very very hard to voluntarily raise wages, because that might mean pushing up prices a little bit, and in a competitive industry people are just going to eat elsewhere.”

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Still, he said, Woodberry’s position as one of Baltimore’s most lauded dining spots might make the transition more palatable for diners.

“Woodberry Kitchen, as a singular sample size, has a terrific reputation and sort of a higher-class name,” he said. “It could be sort of a different take than the average” restaurant.

Steven Kenny, the executive chef at Woodberry Tavern and for the restaurant’s events business, said he’s looking forward to being part of a paradigm shift in pay for restaurant workers.

“This industry is already incredibly tough: long nights, hours, holidays, weekends, all of it,” Kenny said. “I think it helps build a really strong team, because there’s no larger pay disparities and everyone’s got the same mission within Woodberry. It’s kind of cool to feel ahead of the curve.”

Gjerde is eager to see how it plays out. Despite his decades in the business, he concedes being a little anxious about the return of the restaurant that cemented his reputation.

“I think I’ve opened 12 or so restaurants, and I think by any measure the tavern piece is probably the smallest,” Gjerde said. “But I couldn’t be any more nervous about putting something out into the world again that is substantially new, even though it’s in the same building and under the same kind of name.”

But, he added, “it’ll feel really good when there are people. When guests are here, and especially in the tavern, I think that’ll feel like we’re really back.”

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