At the Iron Bridge Wine Company, first there’s the look of your plate: Crispy Brussels sprouts arrive nestled in garlic-ginger tamari glaze, carrot scallion kimchi, radish and toasted sesame seeds, all presented in a boat-shaped dish that could sail off to food-presentation heaven, even if you don’t actually like Brussels sprouts.
Then there’s the cleverness of the marketing: On Tuesdays, the day of the “Great Crème Brûlée Giveaway,” order a crème brûlée for dessert after dinner. If you get the one without chocolate in the bottom, you win a prize — and not some boring cut-out coupon but a real prize, like a six-pack of wine.
Finally, Iron Bridge has a track record. Now starting its 16th year in business, it has been named a Top 50 Restaurant in Baltimore Magazine eight times, has been featured in The Wine Enthusiast and USA Today, and has maintained its unspoiled culture in a rustic setting where you can watch sheep grazing out the window while you dine.
Science? Magic? Both?
How does Steve Wecker, who co-founded the restaurant with his brother Rob, do it? “Running a restaurant is not rocket science,” he insisted. But when he starts naming, out loud and on-the-fly, the items he keeps track of every day on the job, it appears that he has restaurant operation down to a science, and a complex one at that.
“Every week we get together on Tuesdays and we look at sales from last week, sales from the same week last year, sales from the current week last year, and what we want sales to be for this week next year,” said Wecker.
He’s running through the rest of his list rapid-fire: “We look at labor costs, what we’re spending overall, what we’re spending next week. We pay attention to our customers, and we do crazy things to thank them.”
His Wordsworth-style poetic cataloguing of job tasks finally ends with his summary: “Really, it’s a series of checks and balances that says: ‘Okay, all these things are going well, but what can we do to fix it?’”
At the heart of Wecker’s restaurant — and his involvement with the Howard County Chamber and the wider community — is a humble philosophy: Treat people like they’re family.
“We have built a restaurant that is more family than it is business,” he said. “Our employees have been here 12 years, 15 years. We value them as individuals and employees.”
Learning to Care
Last year, the Community Foundation of Howard County named Iron Bridge as its corporate Philanthropist of the Year. The restaurant has donated meals and helped raise funds for Howard County nonprofits and charitable organizations, including the Howard County Autism Society and the Claudia Mayer/Tina Broccolino Cancer Resource Center.
Wecker said he and his brother were taught from a young age to give to others and have made philanthropy a regular part of their business.
“I never think we do enough, but people tell me we do more than a lot of folks,” he said. “My dad taught me that you support the community in which you do business.”
And politics, he said, should be secondary, with community coming first. “I’m done with the Democrats, and I’m done with the Republicans,” he said. “We’re going to help people as an organization personally, whether I agree with their political stance or not. We’re here to support the community and make a difference. That’s what Dad would want us to do.”
He brushes off praise for his philanthropy. “People always say, ‘That’s amazing, that’s incredible.’ Well, I say it shouldn’t be. If we were all taking a little bit better care of each other, we’d all be a little bit better off.”
The Big Event …
For Wecker, supporting the Chamber is part of supporting the larger community. “When they changed the annual meeting from a lunch to the Big Event, I was on that committee,” he said. “We don’t write big checks, but we do a lot of little things.”
Wecker believes that, sometimes, people can contribute to the Chamber or to their community by simply showing up, and that means taking action instead of just voicing an opinion.
“For example, I think all this plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean is bad,” he said, “but don’t sign an online petition. Instead I ask: What’re you going to do about it right here? My dad was a guy who used to say, ‘If somebody needs help, the best thing to do is show up. Sometimes it’s picking up a shovel; sometimes it’s picking up a bag of groceries.’”
Wecker said he will keep looking for ways to do more for people. “Look at everybody on an individual basis,” he said. “I get a little intolerant of the intolerance. Everybody has value. Everybody has worth.”