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Michelle's: New life for Dutch Kitchen

June 20, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

When Michelle Dietrich recalls her growing-up days in Smithsburg, she remembers her mother, who loved to cook so much she even did catering on the side.

So even though Dietrich is an accountant by trade, it was natural for her to invest in a restaurant when the opportunity arose to become a partner in Frederick's Creekside Cafe.

That experience - doing a business plan, watching what patrons preferred - served her well when she decided to open her own restaurant in downtown Hagerstown, in the space once occupied by the Dutch Kitchen at 10 E. Washington St.

"I just rode by here one day and saw the "For Sale" sign and I went back to my Dad's house and we just started to talk about it and how we could redo the whole thing," she said.

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Their first walk-through was a bit eerie, she said.

Called "The Steakout" in its last incarnation, the building had been empty for three years, she said.

"The tables were still set with silverware. There were liquor bottles behind the bar with the pouring devices still in them and there were cigarettes in the ash trays," she said.

The first step was to write a business plan and look for some help with financing the thousands of dollars needed for purchase and renovation. (Dietrich asked that exact amounts not be used.)

It took some time, but Waypoint Bank (now Sovereign Bank) and the City of Hagerstown came through, she said.

"That was the first week of December and we just opened last Monday," she said.

Though she now owes more than $100,000, Dietrich said she doesn't stay awake nights worrying about whether Michelle's will succeed or fail.

"I do not feel nervous about this at all. I have spoken to so many people who have wonderful memories of coming here to eat when it was the Dutch Kitchen," she said.

Some of these people are coming back again, telling her where they used to sit and reclaiming "their" tables again.

That's not to say that everything went smoothly, however.

"In terms of renovations, we had no idea what would happen when we would start to redo something," she said.

"On the floor, everywhere there were spots that were rotten," she said, adding that the entire bar had to be raised up so that new hardwood flooring could be installed underneath.

"But the very first obstacle we had was when we tried to turn on the heat. We had been in here for about a week and it wouldn't come on," she said.

The first problem was with a natural gas line in the street, she said.

Once that was fixed, they turned on the heat, a pipe burst and water came pouring down through the ceiling. Work crews turned off the heat, soldered the pipe, then turned the heat on again.

"Then they hollered 'turn it off' again. Another pipe had burst," she said, adding that it happened four times before all the broken pipes were fixed.

Fortunately, this didn't throw them off track financially, she said, because they were able to keep the old furnace, which she had feared they would have to replace.

The next problem arose the day they were to serve their first dinner. Somehow a wire inside the big freezer shorted out or was disconnected and the restaurant staff ended up throwing out $800 worth of food.

"It has been a learning experience for me. The experience I have is definitely in the front of the house," she said, explaining that the "back of the house" is the kitchen.

Dietrich said she knew she needed an experienced hand there, so she hired Lisa Poole of Chambersburg, Pa. Poole was the chef who reopened Casey's in Chambersburg, Dietrich said, and had the requisite skills in cooking, handling the kitchen staff and maintaining inventory control.

"It was very important to me to have someone who is flexible and who wants to try new and different dishes," she said.

Some of the kitchen equipment was salvaged, but when a few warm days took temperatures in the food-preparation area to 130 degrees, Dietrich had a new air conditioner installed on the roof to pump in cool air.

Asked if there had been any big surprises during the process, Dietrich said "just the length of time it took."

It got to be such a joke that when people would ask her when she was opening, she would always say "two weeks." She said that many times over the last six months, she said.

As for mistakes she made, Dietrich smiled and said that at one point she thought she could keep costs down by buying her own table cloths and washing and ironing them herself. With everything else she had to do, that proved to be impractical, so now she gets them from a linen service.

The restaurant is open now from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday. It is closed on Sunday.

I interviewed Dietrich not because I'm a restaurant reviewer, but because she agreed to be frank with me about what it took to start a business in downtown Hagerstown. We'll talk several times over the next year, to see how things are going, just as I did with Shana Ringer of The Boutique at 100 N. Potomac St. in 2003 and 2004.

I've seen many businesses come in go in downtown over the last 30 years and I want to give readers some idea of the hurdles entrepreneurs face. I'll revisit Michelle's in late summer or early autumn.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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