A legendary local name appears headed to take over a well known North Baltimore business.
John C. Unitas III, grandson and namesake of Baltimore Colts football legend and Golden Arm restaurant owner Johnny Unitas, has emerged as the prospective lead buyer of the Grand Cru wine bar and wine shop, nearly six months after the sudden death of former owner Nelson Carey.
Unitas and a business partner, Jacqueline Beal, are identified as prospective buyers of the popular gathering spot in Belvedere Square Market, including its liquor license, in documents on file with the Maryland Board of Liquor License Commissioners for Baltimore City.
Unitas and Beal have formed an entity called BSq Wine Co. LLC to buy Grand Cru. An application to transfer Grand Cru's seven day liquor license to BSq Wine Co. LLC was filed on January 6, and a public notice was posted on the exterior of the wine bar last week. The current license holders are Christina Carey, Nelson's widow, and David O'Ferrall. Christina Carey and the Grand Cru staff have operated the wine bar since Carey died of a heart attack last year, at age 50.
Stan Meros, manager of Belvedere Square Market, said the management of Belvedere Square supports the new owners.
"We're upbeat about the transfer," Meros said. "It is working out very well. It's a bad situation whenever someone dies, but we have made the best of it."
Meros said the business is changing hands because Christina Carey has another career and did not want to continue operating Grand Cru after her husband passed away. He said Grand Cru has been an asset to Belvedere Square and the management wants to keep it that way. Meros also noted that Unitas's grandfather operated the Golden Arm restaurant about a mile north of Belvedere Square.
Unitas, 26, said he is currently a buyer for Urban Outfitters in Philadelphia but has worked on the wine team at Cinghiale in Harbor East and as a server at Petit Louis Bistro in Roland Park. He said he is excited to be taking over a business with such a strong reputation and following.
"I want to get back into the food industry," he said. "What better way to do that than to have a place with such a great legacy and such a great soul? . . . I have tremendous admiration for what Nelson Carey accomplished . . . I would say the experience will not change. It's a great meeting place, a great place where people can get together. The legacy that Nelson built at Grand Cru will always remain part of Grand Cru. That will not leave."
Unitas, who goes by "JC" and called his grandfather "Pop-Pop," said Grand Cru was his "date night spot" before moving to Philadelphia and he knew Carey from being a patron there.
He added that with the last name of Unitas, "I have always been handed a huge pair of shoes to fill . . . I am ready for the challenge."
Since opening in 2003, Grand Cru has become a magnet for a diverse mix of patrons from North Baltimore and beyond, including attorneys, doctors, developers, educators, politicians, clergy, artists, television personalities and the occasional Pulitzer Prize winner. Its success was largely attributed to Nelson Carey, whose sudden death was followed by a wave of tributes. Hundreds attended his memorial service at The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.
According to the liquor license transfer application, Unitas will have a 99 percent financial interest in the business, and Beal, 28, will have a one percent financial interest. Unitas will be the "full time operator." Additionally, the sale price of the business, including the liquor license, is $200,000. Grand Cru's monthly rent at Belvedere Square is $6,630 per month.
The liquor board has set January 22 as the deadline for people to protest the proposed liquor license transfer. According to Douglas Paige, assistant executive secretary of the liquor board, a public hearing on the application likely will be held in February. If approved by the liquor board, the sale of the business and transfer of the liquor license could take effect shortly afterwards.