Food & Drink

A Career Unexpected

How Alfie Himmelrich went from a family chemical business to owning Stone Mill Bakery.

It’s dinnertime at Stone Mill Bakery in Lutherville, and owner Alfie Himmelrich is working the room, doling out granola cookies at every table, schmoozing with customers, and filling a vat with the cafe’s signature nonfat vegetable soup.

When a customer requests shrimp chopped salad, Himmelrich apologizes. “Sorry, we’re all out for tonight,” he says. But several seconds later, he has a change of heart. “You know what, I’ll make it for you,” he says.

She tells him that she only has six minutes. “I’ll do it in five,” he says to her with a laugh. “Welcome to Stone Mill Bakery, where not only does the owner make the salad, but he promises what time it will be out.”

In many ways, the congenial Himmelrich is Green Spring Valley’s honorary mayor. By day’s end, he will probably have kissed more customers, hugged more employees, and brought more people together than a politician running for reelection. As longtime customer Shelley Goldseker points out, “People come for his karma. He is so welcoming, so authentic—an incredible host. And he has passed that sense of hospitality down to his staff. In what other restaurant would you find that the person who busses the table knows you by name?”

The environment is a big part of why people flock to this culinary Eden located along a bustling stretch of Falls Road in Green Spring Station. The restaurant is one part design museum with an emphasis on Mid-Century Modern (think George Nelson benches, Vistosi lights, a Piet Mondrian-inspired color-block motif, and a rotating gallery of museum-quality European art posters) and one part community center. “It’s like Cheers,” says Himmelrich’s best friend Doug Ramer. “It’s the place where everyone comes, and everyone knows your name.”

For Himmelrich, it was a conscious decision to create that sense of community. “From the people I work with to my customers, I think of all of them as family,” says Himmelrich, 54, who has two children, Hannah, 16, and Sam, 14, with wife Dana, a co-owner in the business. “My cafe is my house. For me, the most important thing is how you feel when you walk in here.”

Baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr. is a regular. “[My wife] Kelly and I always enjoy visiting Stone Mill,” he says. “It has become a staple in the community, and we feel very comfortable there. Alfie, Dana, and their team have created a special place. I can’t imagine Baltimore without the Stone Mill Bakery.”

Himmelrich may be as surprised as anyone by his role in the successful cafe—the enterprise earned somewhere between $4 million and $5 million in revenue from wholesale and retail sales in 2009. He hadn’t set out to own a bakery business.

His route to Stone Mill Bakery was a circuitous one, from The Park School of Baltimore and a family chemical business to collecting antiques and eventually his own company, which developed a “no-dig” system for laying and refurbishing sewer pipes.

But Himmelrich says his interest in hospitality began early on with his grandmother Hilda. “We had dinners on Friday nights, and she would always cook something or have something special for everyone in the family,” he says. “You never knew what it would be—for me, it was the olives from the market on Harford Road. It could be anything, but she made an effort for everyone in that room.”

Another influence was his alma mater, The Park School, where he spent 14 years. “If you ask me what impacted my childhood most, it was The Park School,” says Himmelrich, who was an avid soccer player there. “This was a place of personal expression, and you embraced it. I learned that just because I was an athlete didn’t mean I had to tunnel my vision that way my whole life.”

He recalls a particular event that expanded his horizons. “There was a play at school called The Chinese Law, and someone dragged me there, and said, ‘Why don’t you do this, too?’” he says. “Next thing I knew, I was on stage kissing a woman for the first time, and I was in heaven. All I’d ever done was kick a soccer ball.”

After graduating from Bowdoin College in 1978 with a degree in government, Himmelrich worked at an industrial paint company in Philadelphia before joining his father, Sam Sr., at Inland Oil, the family business that his grandfather, Alfred Sr., founded in the 1920s.

He did warehouse work there until deciding, at age 25, to set out for Maine on a Kerouac-style ramble in search of antiques—and himself. Accompanied by his dog Huckleberry, driving a Dodge van customized with a bed in the back, and with $2,000 of bar mitzvah money in his wallet, the adventure began.

“I went to every auction, bought antiques, and hung out at a campsite,” he recalls. But when he returned to Baltimore six months later, he had to sell his finds because he couldn’t store them, ending up with only $300.

He soon landed back at the family chemical business. He stayed for five years before forming his own company Enhansco, which used cutting-edge technology on sewer pipes. “Contractors would take a tube, run it through a bath of my resins, and inject it into the old pipes,” explains Himmelrich, who had a worldwide exclusive on the product.

Financially stable, Himmelrich reinvented himself again in 1996, at age 42, when his lifelong passion for food finally came into play. “Growing up, I always cooked,” he explains.

He was quite amenable when his younger brother Billy, a classically trained chef who had opened the first Stone Mill Bakery in 1987, asked him to get involved in expanding the operation.

“So I bought equipment, and I hung out at the bakery,” Himmelrich says. “It was great.”

When Billy decided to sell the business because of a move to Florida, Himmelrich took over the helm, growing the wholesale side (with more than 200 customers), increasing his on- and off-site catering business, and consolidating the retail space. He did several major renovations and also redesigned the menu (keeping many of Billy’s original recipes).

Today, Himmelrich is a hands-on proprietor. Back in the kitchen, as he blanches asparagus and chops romaine like a pro, he explains his core philosophy. “I can’t let just anyone make the salad when we’re out of it,” he says. “If you ate my tuna fish 10 years ago, the same person is making the tuna fish today, and the same person is putting it on your sandwich. Consistency is what it’s all about.”

Customers—from businessmen and women to young moms and ladies who lunch—come just for that reason. They can count on fresh sandwiches (like the classic Reuben with lean corned beef or the chicken, mozzarella, and pesto panini) and racks of delicious homemade pastries (like Valrhona chocolate brownies and tangy, melt-in-your-mouth lemon squares).

It’s clear that Himmelrich puts an abundance of passion on every Villeroy & Boch plate for his customers. Even his canine guests—who dine alfresco on the patio—get strips of applewood bacon.

“The food is beautiful and inspired,” says longtime employee Cris Janoff, “but the cafe is a sanctuary in a tough world, where you can come and be made to feel special and celebrate life.”

Fellow restaurateurs enjoy it, too. “One of the reasons it works so well is that Alfie cares so much,” says Linwood Dame, owner of Owings Mills-based Linwoods. “He had a vision as to what was needed there. He expanded the menu and created a nice, warm atmosphere. For someone to be able to put that together and know the audience in such a short period of time was incredible, and Alfie is very likable, very sincere—he is built perfectly for the business.”

Remarkably, Himmelrich never seems to tire from his long days. He’s up at dawn and heads to Stone Mill to make slow-roasted brisket and eat breakfast with friend Doug Ramer. Mid-morning, he checks in with his executive chef, Alan Maw, at his Hampden commissary and then drives to his bakery at Meadow Mill to consult with his office manager and check on the booming wholesale business, which includes The Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College, and The Oregon Grille.

Midday, he often works the lunch shift at the cafe, and then heads home for a late afternoon nap before handling the dinner crowd and going back to the bakery.

When he’s not working, he will go the distance to find a good meal—from Marie Louise Bistro in Mt. Vernon to Sushi Sono in Columbia—with son Sam, a fellow foodie, as his dining partner.

Later, back at Meadow Mill, racks of bread are set out to cool, and a fleet of six Stone Mill delivery trucks is lined up at the ready. Himmelrich is jazzed as he gives the once over to nearly every loaf.

On this night, more than 8,500 breads—from 251 baguettes and 132 bâtardes to 660 brioche—will go out the bakery doors.

“I love what I do so much,” Himmelrich says, plucking an oatmeal raisin cookie off the rack and popping a piece in his mouth. “As I learned at Park School, just because I was in the chemical business, it didn’t mean I couldn’t go into the bakery business.

“People are always asking me when are you going to retire? I’m not. Well, why would I? This,” he says, still chewing, “is what feeds me.”