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Turning daydream into reality

August 15, 2005|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

daniels@herald-mail.com

Struck by a craving for breakfast one morning in 2001, South Hagerstown High School juniors Justin Warner and Eric Muritz wandered into Bentley's Bagels Gourmet Coffee at 96 W. Washington St. in Hagerstown.

Due to a variety of factors, including the atmosphere, the flavored coffee, the oval-shaped table by a window overlooking Washington Street and Summit Avenue, they found in the small downtown restaurant a place to dream the dreams of idealistic youth.

"We started going there in high school, mainly because one day we were hungry for breakfast and we kind of happened upon the place," Warner said. "It kind of became our base of operations for high school shenanigans."

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With time at a premium in those days, Muritz routinely carved out a moment before classes in the mornings to dine on the restaurant's specialty pumpkin-spiced coffee and an egg, bacon and cheese sandwich. For Muritz, who was president of the student government association and a member of the Destination ImaginNation team that won a state competition in 2002, the time commitment was well worth it.

"I used to get up a whole hour before school started to come down here," Muritz said. "This was kind of like my youth hangout. It was just a really chill place to be."

Among their early daydreams, aside from the one about eventually taking over South High, was to someday own Bentley's.

Then time moved on.

The two graduated from South High in 2002. Warner eventually moved to Fort Collins, Colo., where he works as general manager of a Japanese restaurant. He married in late May and closed on a new house in Colorado two weeks ago.

Muritz traveled across Europe for a month after graduation, then returned home with a lack of direction in his life.

"I was just a teen who was unsure of what I wanted to do with my life," he said. "I could never deal with the overhead of a corporation stifling my creativity."

He worked in the production department at NBC25 in Hagers-

town, and at Bentley's, but felt restless. Eventually, he went to Colorado, where he took a job at the restaurant Warner managed and worked for a landscaping company.

The classmates returned to Hagerstown in May for Warner's wedding, stopping off at Bentley's as the first of their homecoming activities.

At Bentley's, owner Bill Eichelberger told them he was thinking of selling the place. Warner dismissed the notion as a high school fantasy. Muritz, however, saw it as the chance to turn his dreams into reality.

"He proposed that Justin and I come back to Hagerstown and buy the business, and I was ecstatic, it was my dream," Muritz said.

Muritz, 21, gave himself a month to mull over the details. Then he called Eichelberger.

"I called Bill from Colorado and I said: 'You know what? I'm going to go back to Hagerstown and make a go of it.'" Muritz said. Eichelberger's reaction: "He didn't think I was serious."

While he worked to line up the money for a deposit, Muritz went to Bentley's every day, hanging out there from about noon to 3 p.m., helping out when he could and learning how things worked. Eventually, with help from his parents, he scraped together the money to buy the restaurant, and took over its operations on Aug. 1.

Muritz said he does not want to change those things that have made Bentley's customers loyal to the establishment, although it is his hope to cultivate a second clientele welcome to linger inside Bentley's rather than just eat and run.

He would like to encourage other businesses to extend their regular hours to develop a vibrant nightlife in the downtown area. Effective Aug. 1, Muritz expanded the store's hours until 10 p.m.

"I want to encourage people to read here, and to write here, and just come here to enjoy stimulating conversation," he said. "In the daytime, it is a completely different atmosphere than what I intend for it to be at night."

He has plans for other changes as well, including a menu expansion and a bicycle-delivery service between 8 and 11:30 a.m. for businesses within the downtown area.

"This is the culmination of my dreams," he said. "I'm young, I'm ambitious, and I'm single - that's a good plug for myself. I have the time and energy, and I really want to draw businesses back to the downtown."

Muritz said he knows many workers in the downtown area depend on Bentley's and have certain expectations, including good food, fast service and a relaxed environment.

'Great food ... faster'

"Downtown, during the day, I truly intend to offer the same great food and efficient service," he said. "It's going to be the same atmosphere here in the day, same great food, just a whole lot faster."

Eichelberger's daughter, Amber MacRae, has worked at Bentley's since her father bought it from Steve Bentley in 1998 and says she will stay on until Muritz settles in.

After seven years, MacRae knows most of the customers by their first names and by the meals they order.

"It's been a family business," said MacRae. "We're mostly on a first-name basis with, I'd say, 80 percent of the clientele."

She said Bentley's cultivated its following in large part because it retains the feel of a family restaurant.

Warner said he was not surprised by Muritz's decision to buy Bentley's and is optimistic his friend will make inroads in the business district.

"It's just a matter of, I think, finding the right things and having the right attitude to bring it into the future," Warner said. "He's the kind of person that can just do something like that."

MacRae said she is comforted that, if anyone were to take over Bentley's, it is someone like Muritz who cares about the restaurant's reputation and relationship with its customers.

"I trust that Eric's going to continue with most of the things that people like most about the business," she said. "I think his advantage is he is young and energetic."

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