NOW, RICKY: Babalu Grill teams a mean mojito with Nuevo Latino delicacies.
Blue Sea Grill
MUCHO GUSTO: Babalu Grill's colorful signage and festive music beckon passersby on Baltimore's restaurant row.
COOL, FRESH, RAW: Relaxed sophistication defines de Castro's (above right) newest concept, Blue Sea Grill.
TOWERING TUNA: EurAsian Harbor presents a festive fusion of flavors in stylish surroundings.
NAUGHTY, NICE: Havana Club offers premium wines and cigars, luxe appointments and a smokin' sound system.
Steve de Castro rules Baltimore's restaurant row. In fact, he pretty much is restaurant row. Within one city block in the bustling Power Plant Live section of downtown, de Castro's Big Steaks Management operates four thriving concepts and a successful franchise. There's Babalu Grill, a funky Cuban/Nuevo Latino joint; Blue Sea Grill, an elegant seafood house; Ruth's Chris Steak House, where de Castro first made his mark on the local scene; and above it, the sexy and exclusive Havana Club, with its pulsing tropical rhythms. Just a few blocks away, near the tourism-driven Harbor Place, EurAsian Harbor packs them in with its fusion food and extensive beverage offerings, including choice sakes.
The common thread running through these diverse offerings is a driving dedication to service, clearly defined concepts, operational efficiencies and very thorough training, not to mention inventive and tantalizing cuisine. For a company with 500 employees spread among the Baltimore locations, a second Babalu Grill in Atlantic City and four additional Ruth's Chris franchises in Maryland and North Carolina, the company-wide atmosphere is intimate and inclusive, like a small, family-run business, observers suggest.
The proof is in the performance. De Castro reports 2004 revenues were up 20 percent over 2003. "Business is great; we've had a record year," he relates. COO David Sadheghi says that Baltimore sales alone topped $20 million last year.
The company's got proven players and business is rocking. So, inquiring minds want to know: What's next? Franchising? Further development? More concepts? These are questions the normally open and effusive developer is apt to hedge on. For one thing, despite his reputation for tireless drive, de Castro confesses he's simply worn out—not a surprising coming from someone who's conceived, developed and nurtured three new concepts in a few years. "I feel like I've been in the construction business lately instead of the restaurant business," he sighs.
"I'm taking a breather," he adds (although those who know his driven nature take that statement with a grain of salt). "Coming up with these new concepts takes a lot of money and a lot of work and energy. Plus, while we've had inquiries, we're just trying to fine tune everything."
Steve de Castro's rise in the restaurant industry reads like the classic American success story, defined by a drive to achieve and a determined work ethic. He immigrated with his family to this country from Havana, Cuba in 1968 at the age of 14, settling in New Orleans. He found work in local restaurants and for the next 10 years moved up from washing dishes to tending bar and managing local restaurants, and fell in love with the business.
The company-wide atmosphere is intimate
and inclusive, like a small, family-run business, observers suggest.
At age 24, de Castro plunged into ownership, opening an Italian restaurant in suburban Covington, LA. "The place bombed," he recalls, matter-of-factly, blaming timing and location. Still, it was a valuable learning experience for him. "A restaurant owner never runs of new things to learn and master," he says.
Fortunately, his luck changed shortly after he was introduced to famed restaurateur Ruth Fertel, who soon took him under her wing at her New Orleans' Ruth's Chris Steak House. Shortly thereafter, she dispatched him east to salvage a foundering franchise in Washington, DC. De Castro quickly turned it around and made it profitable.
In 1992, Fertel awarded de Castro his own Ruth's Chris franchise, in downtown Baltimore.
Ruth's Chris has been very good to de Castro. His success with the Baltimore location and subsequent units in Annapolis and Pikesville, MD, and Raleigh, NC, enabled him to branch out and invest in his own concepts. For that, he is eternally grateful to Fertel, who he reveres as "my mentor, and like a second mother." (Fertel passed away in 2002.)
De Castro's first venture outside the Ruth's Chris family came in 1997, when he opened the upscale Havana Club—with its rich leather seating, state-of-the-art sound and lighting system and extensive wine and cigar collection—just above the downtown Baltimore Ruth's Chris. Bolstered by the nightclub's popularity, and with the addition to the company of his new COO and friend, David Sadhegi (himself an immigrant success story), de Castro set out in 2000 to create yet another concept. He and Sadhegi both loved Cuban and Asian cuisines and toyed with the idea of creating a "Cubasian"-themed place. But when two great locations became available in downtown Baltimore at the same time, they decided to create two separate concepts. Thus were born Babalu Grill and EurAsian Harbor, each opening in 2001.
"We did a lot of talking, looking at spaces and discussing the feelings and atmospheres we wanted to create," Sadhegi recalls. "When we collaborated on Babalu, it took about three months to figure out the look."
The two concepts opened shortly before the 9/11 attacks. "It was the scariest month of my life because I had just opened these two locations," de Castro recalls. "We closed for a few days, but eventually people started dining out again. However, it took a good year to really get rolling."
Today, Big Steaks owns and operates eight restaurants, a nightclub and a banquet facility. A second Babalu Grill opened in Atlantic City in November 2003. It's struggling a bit, says de Castro, a casualty of surrounding construction messes and last year's hospitality workers strike. But he's confident it will find its legs.
The newest arrival to the Big Steaks party is the elegant and coolly modernist Blue Sea Grill, which debuted a year ago February on Baltimore's restaurant row. Blue Sea has a strong PR buzz and traffic, both coups in a town that reveres the Chesapeake Bay's blue crab at establishments where patrons don big paper bibs and wield wooden mallets over steamed beauties piled high on Old Bay-stained paper-covered tables.
Blue Sea Grill does offer crab dishes, but clams, oysters and caviar also grace the extensive menu, which changes daily based on fresh catches. One might sample simply prepared (broiled, grilled or pan fried) Dorado, Yellow Tail Snapper, Bronzini or Kajiki Steak. Or, dig into such rich and hearty entrees as Flounder Imperial stuffed with crab and served with lemon beurre blanc, or Lobster Mac 'n' Cheese.
"It's a chicly comfortable place," says Sadhegi. "When you walk in you first see the raw bar and we created this ice machine on the ceiling that continually drops crushed ice on the bar."
SWEATING THE SMALL STUFF
Overseeing Big Steaks' food and beverage operations is Bill Irving. A stickler for flawless service, he oversees training as well. "It's all about passion," says Irving. "It's about having employees buy into the program, living it and loving it."
New hires are required to shadow another server for a week without touching a table. On the seventh day, they're assigned just one table and observed carefully. After that, they'll get a second table, but never more than three or four, tops, says Irving.
de Castro does a good job of training and
compensating managers so they can afford to stay with him.
Success lies in attention to details, such as a server offering a guest a dark-colored napkin when observing they're wearing dark pants, so they won't end up with white lint clinging to their slacks. It may sound a bit obsessive, but "we aim to deliver 110 percent," Irving explains.
"And Steve prides himself in hiring good managers," says Irving. "He does a good job of training them and compensating them so they can afford to stay with him."
"It's very tough to get good management, but we've got great concepts, great benefits, great training, profit sharing—an overall very attractive package," notes de Castro. "We've had great chefs and managers, and while a couple have left to do their own thing—which I certainly can't blame them for—we've been able to retain people due to a combination of the way we treat them and the packages we offer. Number one is treating them like our customers and suppliers, with respect. I don't believe in screaming and dictating like some others do."
Franchising one or more of his concepts isn't out of the question. It's just that right now "we're trying to fine tune everything,"-explains de Castro. "EurAsian Harbor would be fabulous in just about any market, as would Babalu Grill." Blue Sea Grill's franchising prospects are more limited to markets with access to the fresh, abundant seafood the concept demands.
De Castro has been described as a savvy, tough negotiator, but with a very hands-on, compassionate manner. The secret to his success is his boyish enthusiasm, believes Marcia Harris, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, who has known and worked with de Castro for years (he's on the association's board). "He simply loves his business, life, making people happy, being the best he can be. He started life with little else other than enthusiasm and a desire to succeed."
Philanthropy takes up a big chunk of de Castro's time, too. His annual Ruth's Chris Steak House Sizzling Celebrity Golf Classic, benefiting The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Maryland, has raised more than $1.1 million over the past seven years. In 2000, he donated a substantial sum of money to the Restaurant Association of Maryland to build new state-oftheart headquarters building in Columbia, MD.
"Steve's not only done very well for himself and his family, but has created hundreds of jobs and makes thousands of people happy every day," says Harris. "He's also an outstanding corporate citizen—one of the people, when I want to impress legislators with our industry, I point to as an example."
De Castro is happiest strolling through his dining rooms and chatting up staff and customers. "It's my favorite thing to do," he says. "Unfortunately, I have to put in office time, but around five or six o'clock I'll tell my managers, "hey, the office is closed; we belong in the restaurants with the staff.
"Besides, we don't make money in the office," he laughs.
With festive poster-size photos of the late famed Cuban bandleader and "I Love Lucy" costar Desi Arnaz livening its rough-hewn walls, Babalu Grill serves authentic Cuban food, from Steve de Castro's family recipes (his mother serves as menu advisor) combined with some Nuevo Latino dishes. Portions are generous, prices moderate and flavors bold and bright. A separate menu lists 19 tequilas and 24 rums, and bartenders pour a mean mojito. Late at night on weekends, the eatery morphs into a dance club with pulsing Latin rhythms and a sultry vibe. Babalu was named one of the Top 50 Hispanic Restaurants in the United States by Hispanic Magazine.
A cheering fusion of flavors and stylish surroundings at moderate prices characterize this Asian bistro and sushi bar. A review in Baltimore Magazine rhapsodized: "From innovative fusion appetizers like wok seared green-lip mussels...to the delicate but rich entrèe of drunken fish...you'll find most of the seafood here treated with the same love and care." In addition to premium sakes, whimsically named cocktails like the Rising Sun, Grass Hoppa and Tsunami attract a hip after-work crowd.
BLUE SEA GRILL
Relaxed sophistication defines de Castro's newest concept. "Cool, fresh, raw" are the catchwords in advertisements touting "the natural and pristine qualities of seafood that we promote here." Immersing diners in various hues of blue, the interior encourages a personal connection with the sea, while bare wood floors and mesh curtain dividers keep the feel chic and contemporary. Seafood and raw bar selections are shipped in fresh daily, the wine selection is extensive and interesting side dishes include items like sauteed fresh broccolini with lemon and garlic; grilled corn off the cob with bacon and pepper confetti; and shoestring potato fries drizzled with white truffle oil.
"A little naughty. Very nice," promises the promotional brochure for this Cubaninspired club above downtown Baltimore's Ruth's Chris Steak House. Beautiful people gather in the intimate setting with seating for up to 250 guests, including a membersonly lounge. A selection of tasty tapas and sandwiches includes Tamal En Hoja, a Cubanstyle tamale wrapped in a corn husk, filled with seasoned roast pork and cilantro mojo with avocado mango salsa; the Havana Grilled Quesadilla with Caribbean jerk chicken, roasted peppers and pepper jack cheese; and, everyone's favorite, a classic Cuban Press Sandwich. A smokin' sound system, plush leather seating and masterful martinis set the stage for memorable evenings.