If there's ever been a mantra for small business success it's "LOCATION... Location, location..." But there's also another awfully important aspect to any successful entreprenurial venture and that's TIMING. No one knows that better than Tom Looney and Ed Scherer co-owners of helen's garden in Canton.
When they bought their first row house at 2908 O'Donnell Street, they hit the "location nail" right on the head. The two entrepreneurs found a nifty little spot right on the square in Canton - but while their original concept for business was innovative and creative... it was somewhat out in front of the pack. The timing was off.
The original Helen's Garden was not a restaurant at all but a gourmet retail operation named after Tom's mother Helen, an avid gardener who bequeathed to her son a life-long devotion to great food.
After gutting the building and restructuring the inside themselves, Tom and Ed started out selling fresh flowers on the sidewalk and peddling organic produce in bins on the first floor. Fancy teas and spices were available upstairs. Almost as an aside, they set up a salad bar and a small kitchen where Tom prepared a creative selection of hot dishes for carryout.
Well, the flowers, the teas and the organic potatoes didn't really fly... but Tom's cooking was a hit! And what's more, they found their customers were so charmed by the warmth and ambiance of the place that they wanted to stay - not take away.
So Tom & Ed added a table for folks to have a seat and hang out if they wanted. And that's just what they did. Tables were added one after another and another... and soon enough, Helen's Garden was completely in sync with the hip, urban and sophisticated crowds migrating to Canton.
So, in time they morphed into a genuine restaurant - eventually expanding into the building next door and becoming one of the first and the most magnetic anchors in Baltimore's trendy Canton Square.
"I don't think Canton was really ready for the kind of thing we set out to do." Tom admits, "A gourmet retail like that would do great now. In fact I wish somebody would come along and open one in the square 'cause I'd love to shop there! But in'95 we were a little ahead of the times."
Once they were hustling and bustling, Helen's Garden was one of the first establishments in town to compliment it's menu with a fabulously stocked wine bar. This was a fantastic move as it coincided with the American palate's growing appreciation for finer wines. Today Helen's Garden pours over 50 fine wines by the glass and their wine Happy Hour is notoriously popular. Of course, there's another equally integral aspect to their success and that is Tom's art in the kitchen. Tom has enjoyed being in the kitchen since he was a kid, so becoming a professional chef was a natural progression.
"I grew up in a food family," he explains, "We would spend weekends together canning tomatoes and stuff. When other kids were out playing sports I was helping my mother in the garden. All my friends would be watching TV and I'd be cooking soup. The whole family cooked. It's just what we did - and we loved it!"
After high school, Tom took summer jobs at the Delaware beaches where he was pulled into the whirlwind of Rehoboth's restaurant scene - which, at the time, was the emerging star of the Delmarva seacoast's culinary show.
"I learned so much those summers from guys like Leo Medisch and Siri Svasti" Tom insists, "They were my mentors. Working with them was my formal education." Medisch trained at the New York Restaurant School, which was then part of Manhattan's avant-garde The New School. He's now chef and co-owner of Rehoboth's famous Back Porch Cafe.
Svasti was a Thai prince who dropped out of diplomacy school to pursue cooking as a career. He's currently a celebrity chef in Thailand and hosts the popular television show "McDang Cooks." "Leo had a classical French style of cooking and, of course, Siri brought his unique Asian sensibilities to the mix. I guess you could say what we were all doing was really 'Early Fusion,' but that was before they started calling it that," Tom recalls with a modest laugh.
After Rehoboth, Tom went on to do his own thing serving as Chef and part owner of east Baltimore's favorite breakfast nook, The Morning Edition. Although he left Morning Edition in the early 90's a lot of the quirky charm that The Edition is famous for seems to have found a second home in the two narrow row houses down in Canton Square that are Helen's Garden.
Even entering the restaurant is an experience. Walking through the narrow passageway that once separated the two buildings, you're enclosed by aged brick walls brightly painted with huge blooming flowers. This once dreary corridor has been transformed to look like a secret path that leads to a special hide-away. And that's just what you'll find inside Helen's Garden - intimate dining rooms filled with the tastes, aromas and sounds typical of a successful kitchen... small but creatively configured spaces energized by local artist Olin Yoder's brilliantly colored paintings of familiar Baltimore street scenes.
Tom's cheerful ways and easy-going style keep the energy on track in the kitchen but that's only half the equation. Enter Ed Scherer: front of the house manager and what Tom calls "the brains" of the operation. With a stint in the now defunct PATH Dance Troupe of Washington, DC, Ed came to the partnership with an entirely different background that helped to create a winning formula. Ed's front of the house expertise allows Tom to keep his focus where it should be... in the kitchen, where he spends about 50 hours each week working alongside his other three main chefs.
"I have a wonderful staff - really the greatest. And we each have an unique style of cooking that we bring to the menu - Darin is very Euro in his approach while Ann Marie brings a real Mediterranean flavor to things. Chris, our Day Chef, is what you'd call an American eclectic and, of course, I come from an Asian Fusion kind of place."
Together the kitchen staff prepares six specials everyday in addition to the regular menu items. Although there are so many tempting dishes on that menu, like their Greek Shrimp with Ouzo and Feta, or the Strip Steak with Gorgonzola Pear Cream Sauce... the Pork Chops au Poivre have proven to be the most popular item by far. These are bathed for two days in a unique brine of salt and spices then grilled with a brown sugar bourbon glaze. "It's a wonderful dish but we never really expected it to be so popular," Tom admits, "People are just crazy about it."
These days Tom and Ed get down to Rehoboth Beach just to relax. But they know hard work got them where they are and in gratitude, the sign in front of their beach place reads: "The House That Pork Chops Built"