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Schmankerl Stube gamble proved to be a good one

March 05, 1998

Bob MaginnisSchmankerl Stube gamble proved to be a good one

Nobody can accuse Hagerstown restaurateur Charles Sekula of taking the easy road to success. He searched for two years before finding a site at the corner of South Potomac and Antietam Streets. Then he had to convince the city council to overrule their own loan review board and approve a Community Development Block Grant loan for his Schmankerl Stube restaurant.

Early next month, Sekula will celebrate 10 years in business and in August will make his last payment on the $111,000 loan. In hindsight, the loan was a great deal for the city. Not only did it bring a new restaurant downtown, but it also gave Hagerstown a tireless promoter of downtown revitalization.

For someone less determined, there might have been a much different ending. He was working at Mack Trucks, after all, a firm which has provided a comfortable living for many in this region.

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He left, he said, because he had determined that "I'm not a factory person. Don't get me wrong, Mack was great to me, but I saw that a reduction in force was around the corner and I had always wanted to have something small of my own, with Bavarian-German cuisine."

But there were a few obstacles on the path to his dream. He had worked in relatives' restaurants in his native Germany, but had never operated his own place. Finding the right site wasn't simple either.

"I was looking for two years to find a place - in the North End, on the Dual Highway even in Frederick," he said.

Then while he was driving through downtown, he noticed a building for sale near the Washington County Free Library.

"I stopped and just walked around the building," he said, noting that while it was rundown, it had potential, in part because it had a rear courtyard that could be turned into a biergarten for outdoor dining.

His original plan had been to have a German delicatessen with a limited menu, but after consulting with an executive chef from the German embassy, he decided to go with a full menu at his Schmankerl Stube, a Bavarian expression that means "Bavarian Speciality Room."

"One thing that I was sure of is that most of my customers would be from out of this area," he said, adding that while most come from within a radius of 100 miles, some travel from as far away as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

"I think it's a little part of economic development," he said, revealing that he hopes to increase his business by another 25 percent, in part by adding some nearby parking.

That would tie in with the city's plan to promote the first block of South Potomac Street as an arts and entertainment district with a variety of ethnic restaurants, art galleries and facilities for the performing arts.

While no one who knows Sekula doubts he's the driving force behind his business, he's generous about sharing credit for his success, beginning with city officials.

Without the gradually escalating interest rates built into the block grant loan, he said he never would have been able to build the business into a place known for good food and good service.

"I take everybody's well-being very seriously, but I can do that only because I have a very, very capable staff," he said. His wife, Ursula, also deserves much credit, he said, because she puts up with the long hours he must spend at the restaurant.

Sekula has spent many of those hours on city business as well, working to promote downtown revitalization and Hagerstown as a tourist destination. The Hagerstown/Washington County Chamber of Commerce named him Small Business Person of the Year in 1993, Business Volunteer of the Year for 1997 and he was Sixth District delegate to the White House Conference on Tourism in 1995.

"The last 10 years have been very rewarding," said Sekula, in no little measure because of the friends he's made.

He recalled that just four weeks before he was due to open, Carol Engstrohm, wife of veterinarian George Engstrohm, called to arrange a surprise birthday party for her husband on Saturday, April 2, 1988.

"I said, 'I'm not ready for this,' and she said, 'The invitations are already out.' "

Sekula called the contractors and told them they had to be done by that weekend. They were, and the party went off without a hitch, except that the surprise was on him.

"I didn't know it had been planned by them as a pre-opening party for me," he said.

Sekula began serving the public the following Monday, and 10 years later, the city's decision to help him seems less like a leap of faith than a sound investment in downtown. Sometimes going with your gut is the right thing to do.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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