In Good Taste

On 10-Year Anniversary, Woodberry Kitchen Team Looks Back on Fondest Memories

The partners talk sustainability, simplicity, and serving Michelle Obama.

By Lauren Cohen | October 27, 2017, 1:00 pm

-Meredith Herzing
In Good Taste

On 10-Year Anniversary, Woodberry Kitchen Team Looks Back on Fondest Memories

The partners talk sustainability, simplicity, and serving Michelle Obama.

By Lauren Cohen | October 27, 2017, 1:00 pm

-Meredith Herzing

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“We should try one more restaurant or maybe get out of town,” Spike Gjerde recalls telling his wife Amy 11 years ago after they had just closed Joy America Cafe inside the American Visionary Art Museum.

They decided to press their luck, and partnered with local developer Bill Struever to take over an old machine manufacturing shop in Clipper Mill—a North Baltimore borough that wasn’t much to write home about at the time.

“A lot of people thought we were crazy to come here,” Spike says with a laugh. “There were barely roads, and a lot of construction. No one lived here. And it was kind of hard to find. But the building was this spectacular space. The cool industrial spaces we have in Baltimore need to have life—they don’t build them like this anymore.”

After a year of working with Struever—as well as other Clipper Mill designers including lighting specialist Anthony Corradetti and late architecture guru John Gutierrez—Spike and Amy unveiled Woodberry Kitchen to the public on October 27, 2007. Amy was the visionary behind the restaurant’s rustic aesthetic, which boasts dark woods, an abundance of Mason jars, and servers sporting plaid shirts.

“When we opened, I had a vision of how I wanted people to feel when they were in the space,” Amy says. “And it centered around them being comfortable. I didn’t want anyone to come in here and feel like they had to act a certain way.” 

Now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, the dining destination still maintains its homey atmosphere and focus on sustainability—a motto that Spike says many chefs hadn’t yet adopted when Woodberry opened.

“For me, there was always a clear idea that we were going to be buying from local farms,” he says. “I didn’t want any concept—in the sense that we were going to be just like this kind of restaurant, or that kind of restaurant—to stand in the way of that.”

Amy says that the opening menu—which included favorite dishes like Woodberry’s deviled eggs and chicken and biscuits—was inspired by the family dinners that she and Spike had in the year prior to opening the restaurant.

“We ate a lot of meals together at home with the kids,” she says. “We were making large plates with salad, potatoes, and local meat. That informed our pathway forward for Woodberry.” Adds Spike: “It sure as heck did.”

Further bolstering Woodberry’s appeal was a solid opening staff. Among the employees was Corey Polyoka, an aspiring restaurateur who was finishing college when he was offered the bar manager position by Spike’s late business partner Nelson Carey.

“When I was hired, I hadn’t met the Gjerdes yet,” recalls Polyoka, now managing partner for their restaurant group, Foodshed. “The first time I actually met them was at the liquor board hearing.”

In the early days, the trio was an integral part of the restaurant’s roster—with Spike in the kitchen, Amy expediting, and Polyoka manning the bar. Throughout the years, Polyoka helped to evolve the bar program alongside the sustainable kitchen, getting rid of big-name options like Grand Marnier in favor of locally distilled spirits and farm beers.

In keeping with the restaurant’s commitment to regional sourcing, the bar program noticeably lacks certain citrus, juices, and refined sugars. Although the team admits that this has presented its challenges throughout the years, they are sticklers for the cause.

“We think about this business as an engine to return value to our local agricultural economy,” Spike says, estimating that the restaurant returned more than $2 million to local farms in 2016 alone. “Our relationship with growers is what the restaurant is built on, and we’ve deepened those ties over time.”

Looking back, the partners have many fond memories of their first decade. They reminisce about weekend service, New Year’s Eve celebrations, and memorable employees like celebrated painter Amy Sherald—a former server who was recently commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint a portrait of Michelle Obama. 

The former First Lady, in fact has played a special role in Woodberry’s story, as she herself has visited the restaurant twice throughout its decade in business.

“She gives the best hugs,” Amy remembers of Michelle Obama’s first visit prior to Beyonce’s concert at M&T Bank Stadium in June 2016. “She walked in and I was thinking she would shake my hand, but she hugged me and the kids. My son is not very emotive, and even he was grinning from ear to ear.”

For Polyoka, the restaurant has provided him with much more than a career. It’s also where he met his wife, Jackie, with whom he now has four children. “She was a server,” he says. “One day she stole a blueberry pie and I had to talk to her about it.”

Spike notes winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid Atlantic in 2015 as being one of his favorite memories. (The restaurant has also been nominated for its bar program, and most recently for Outstanding Service in 2017.) But, above all, he is happy to see that their sustainable approach has been maintained and inspired others to follow a similar mantra.

“I’m proud of being here for 10 years,” Spike says. “We chose a different path, and probably the hardest path, for a restaurant to take. But we’re still here.”

Meet The Author
Lauren Cohen is a digital staff writer for Baltimore, where she blogs about food, events, lifestyle, and community news.

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