Spike Gjerde | Crain's Washington D.C.

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Spike Gjerde

Background:  

Spike Gjerde is a chef, restaurateur and local food advocate who lives and works in Baltimore. In 2015, Gjerde became the first and only Baltimore chef to bring home the James Beard Foundation’s award for “Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic.” Spike is also co-owner of Foodshed, the restaurant group dedicated to building and developing projects that support local growers and producers. He leads a team of nearly 300 across seven locations including Woodberry Kitchen, Artifact Coffee, Parts & Labor, Bird in Hand, Sandlot, Grand Cru and canning operation Woodberry Pantry, and the forthcoming A Rake’s Progress and The Cup We All Race 4 opening at The LINE hotel in Washington, D.C.

The Mistake:

I’m a chef, and this mistake goes back to our first restaurant where I misjudged what my customers might want.

The first restaurant that my brother and I had was called Spike and Charlie’s, which opened back in 1991. We were all new to the restaurant business, and I was kind of finding my way as a chef. I was wanting to make my mark here in Baltimore, and for some reason one of the ways I thought I would do that is to not have a crab cake on the menu at Spike and Charlie’s. We opened with a menu that I thought was pretty interesting. But given the place that crab cakes hold in our culinary pantheon, it was conspicuously missing from the menu.

When we opened, it was a dark and rainy night, and very quiet in the restaurant. I don’t think we had a single table of customers. Then we got the news that a four top had sat down. It was the president of the Baltimore City Council—that was pretty cool that we had not only a table, but a table with a local dignitary. The next thing we knew, there were four menus on the table and everyone was gone.

I asked the server, “Why? What happened?” I got a short answer: no crab cake.

They came in, sat down, looked at the menu, saw no crab cake, and were out the door.

The Lesson:

That was a great lesson for me, because it taught me that sometimes the customer may not always be right, but the customer knows what they want. Since then I’ve owned and operated many places here in Baltimore, and I can say pretty confidently that we always have a crab cake on the menu.

Now we didn’t add a crab cake to the Spike and Charlie’s menu right away—that was a lesson that took a while to sink in. As I have been since then, I was kind of into working things out on my own. But over time, that night contributed to my understanding of the business, and in a larger sense how to take care of people. Despite not having a crab cake, what allowed us to be successful at Spike and Charlie’s is that we were obsessively trying to take care of guests that were attending the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, or the opera or other performances at The Lyric. Our stock and trade there for all those years was really taking care of a guest before and after concerts.

To be successful doing something, you have to care more about it than anybody else. You have to care more about it than your competition, and you have to care more about it than your customers. Based on my experience, things didn’t really click until I did that, and all of the sudden they started to make sense, and I’m not sure they entirely did before that. For me, that clicked in 2007 when Woodberry Kitchen opened.

Woodberry Kitchen is a little different because we have this clarity around what we do and our involvement in the food system here in the Mid-Atlantic. You can make a pretty compelling case that maybe I didn’t learn my lesson because there’s a lot we don’t do at Woodberry.

Aside from having a great crab cake made with Chesapeake Bay blue crab, there are a lot of other things we don’t do that many places wouldn’t dream of—not having citrus is one of them.

But we do everything we can with what we have. My thing is, let’s do everything we possibly can with what our farmers are providing to try to take care of our guests.

Woodberry Kitchen is on Twitter at @WKrestaurant and on Instagram at woodberrykitchen.

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