Food & Drink

Not Sorry Charlie

Spike Gjerde’s younger brother has no regrets about pulling out of the culinary fast lane.

A few weeks before Christmas, Charlie Gjerde is meeting with a fire marshal to discuss fire-code regulations at Papi’s Fells Point Taco Joint, a Mexican eatery right around the corner from his restaurant Alexander’s Tavern. As his contractor puts the finishing touches on the handsome wood bar, Gjerde speaks with the marshal about the occupancy rate on the patio, while surveying his second venture. “If we can get Papi’s turned around and on track, then we’ll get [restaurant] number three going,” he says with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. 

“I’d definitely love to get more places than my brother, but he’s opening them too fast.”

Gjerde’s older brother is none other than chef superstar and James Beard nominee Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen (not to mention Artifact Coffee, Shoo-Fly Diner, and Parts & Labor) fame. Charlie is two-and-a-half years younger and several inches shorter, but he shares the same blue eyes and Nordic looks of his older brother. Nelson Carey, owner of Grand Cru and a former co-owner of Woodberry Kitchen, who has known both brothers for years, distinguishes between them: “Charlie is more laid-back, calm, and fun-loving,” says Carey. “And Spike has a very intense intellectual approach to everything.”

Time was, in the early ’90s, both brothers were Charm City’s culinary “it” team, with four restaurants including their signature spot, Spike & Charlie’s Restaurant & Wine Bar in Mt. Vernon (across from the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall); Jr., a Bolton Hill comfort-food spot; Joy America Café, a Pan-Latin-inspired restaurant inside the American Visionary Art Museum; and Atlantic, an upscale seafood spot in Canton’s Can Company. Before opening Spike & Charlie’s in 1991, Charlie was working as a manager at LensCrafters, and Spike had a gig as a local pastry chef. “I remember sitting at my parents’ house one day, and Spike said to me, ‘Let’s do something together,’” recalls Gjerde, now 49. “We both like to cycle, and we even talked about opening a bicycle shop together.”

The idea of working with each other was not a new one. In their teen years, the Gjerde boys once toiled together at an outdoor-outfitters store as well as at a Crown gas station in their Cockeysville neighborhood, where the younger Gjerde was his big brother’s boss. “He would drive me crazy wearing his Crown hat sideways,” says Charlie. (“I wore my hat that way precisely to annoy him,” admits Spike, laughing at the memory.)

Even so, brotherly love prevailed, and despite their lack of experience, they decided to open an eatery. “We were looking around at restaurants and got introduced to urban real-estate pioneer Bill Struever,” says Charlie Gjerde. The brothers, still in their 20s at the time, were filled with youthful optimism. “It’s funny to look back at it now,” says Gjerde. “When you’re young and you’re opening your own place, you overlook things that are huge red flags—like no parking and the fact that five other places have gone under in the same spot. First, we were looking at this snake-bitten place on Charles Street, but when we got to Spike & Charlie’s, the place seemed to have so much more potential, even though they had gone through three owners before us.”

When they saw the spot, a mixed-use space with a jazz club on the lower level, they decided to forge ahead with their father David in tow as an investor. “The last place had gone out of business overnight and the bar was still fully stocked,” says Gjerde. “We each had a beer at the bar and did the deal with Bill right there—I don’t know what his thinking was. Here we are, two guys and my dad knowing nothing other than what my brother knew about cooking, and Bill said he would take a chance on us.”

With a business degree from the University of Vermont in hand, Gjerde handled the front of the house, while Spike (who had distinguished himself as a foodie while hosting elaborate dinner parties out of his Middlebury College dorm room) was in charge of creating menus and working in the kitchen. Besides being an investor, their father—a retired Proctor & Gamble executive—also acted as a banker and business adviser, while their mother, Alice, a retired Baltimore County schoolteacher, served as a hostess.

From the get-go, thanks to the proximity to the Meyerhoff and the fact that there was little competition in the area, the restaurant side was packed. “We had to turn people away,” recalls Gjerde. The menu was innovative as well. “We had a mixed-greens salad,” he says. “At the time, that was unheard of. It was the fanciest thing. That was the start of Spike and his local sourcing—instead of using just romaine or iceberg lettuce, the salad was this mixture of exotic lettuces.” The jazz club was another story. “Two white guys running a jazz club was not a recipe for success,” says Gjerde. “We had no clue.”

Still, the reviews were good, and the brothers basked in being the toast of the town, opening three additional restaurants along the way and feeding scads of celebrities, including Jerry Seinfeld, the B-52’s, Elvis Costello, and Kevin Bacon (“he wrote on a napkin that we should call our guacamole, ‘rockamole,’” recalls Gjerde), as they passed through to perform at the Meyerhoff. “A lot of the symphony people were awesome,” says Gjerde. “They’d come in with the conductor and say to us, ‘Sit down at our table and finish our wine with us.’ [Cellist] Yo-Yo Ma came over a lot. One time, we had a birthday party for 10 people, and, when he heard it was someone’s birthday, he played ‘Happy Birthday’ on his cello during dessert.”

But by 2004, Charlie was ready to call it quits, due to a combination of factors including high overhead at the Atlantic, landlord issues at Joy America Café, and continued problems with filling Spike & Charlie’s on non-performance nights at the Meyerhoff.

“It was very stressful,” admits Gjerde. “Jr.’s, which was a small restaurant with all the headaches of a big restaurant, was the first to go. Spike was ready to keep going, but I had gotten to the point where I didn’t want to go to work.” 

Though the brothers have not worked together since, the relationship remains strong (their families fish at Deep Creek Lake, for example, vacation at other locations, and holidays are almost always a shared occasion), and each says he has tremendous respect for the other. 

“There was no strife,” says Charlie. “We just needed to take a break. We’d been in the trenches together for 13 years. When he was working on Woodberry, I’d go by and see him, and he’d be in there with a sledgehammer standing on scaffolding. And it was just him, and that allowed him to lock into his exact vision.”

Spike says he’s proud of the fact that despite not seeing eye-to-eye as business partners, they weathered the storms well. “There was a real risk that a family business can blow a family apart,” he says, “and, to me, the best possible outcome was that we were able to manage a difficult process really well. We learned this process with each other and from each other, even though our partnership wasn’t the strongest.” Carey offers an outsider’s perspective: “Wisely, I think they both decided they’d rather be loving brothers than business partners,” he says.

With the folding of their mini-restaurant empire, Charlie took some time off to regroup and lick the wounds of a failed marriage. “I didn’t want to get back into the grind of the restaurant business,” he says. He remarried in 2001 (and now has two daughters, Emerson, 8, and Delilah, 11, with wife Lori) and did some consulting in area restaurants. Then, seven years ago, he and his sister-in-law Carrie Podles, a former bartender at Mother’s Federal Hill Grille, opened Alexander’s. They are still business partners today.

Podles calls Gjerde her “best friend.” “He’s always been there for me,” she says. “He’s such a good guy.

With his older brother’s culinary fame, running a restaurant with the Gjerde name has been a mixed blessing. “When we first opened Alexander’s, a lot of the symphony crowd came in, and I’m like, ‘This is going to be a disaster,’” says Gjerde. “The reviews were pretty straightforward that we were a casual Fells Point bar, and they would come in, and, in the beginning, we struggled to find waiters who could open a bottle of wine.” Adds Podles, “You can see it in their faces when they come or they’ll name drop and mention Woodberry Kitchen. We’ve never tried to be Woodberry Kitchen. We’ve never tried to be more than we are—a fun place with better than usual bar food, but some people think this is Spike’s place.”

The opening of Papi’s has been met with the same set of expectations. “When we took over Papi’s,” says Gjerde, “people started tweeting and doing blogs, saying, ‘I can’t wait to see what the other Gjerde brother is doing,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, no. Here we go again.’”

To this day, Gjerde finds it amusing that when both Woodberry and Alexander’s opened within a few months of each other in 2007, “it took Spike forever to open Woodberry, and in the time he was working, we flipped Alexander’s and opened it.” The ultimate imprimatur? “We got 3 1/2 stars from [then Sun restaurant critic] Elizabeth Large, and she gave Spike three, so I love to rub that in,” he says. “We still laugh about it.”

For now, Charlie Gjerde is more than happy being a success in his own right. “It worked for me to take time off, and now I’m feeling really inspired,” he says. “I love this business, but the stress of running all those businesses dragged me down. I feel like I’m in a better place now.” Is there regret about not being a part of Spike’s stratospheric accomplishments? “People ask me all the time if it’s hard for me not to be a part of his success,” says Gjerde, “and, honest to God, I don’t miss it. I go to Woodberry and try to see if I can picture myself there, and I don’t want to be a part of it other than sitting there and eating.”