Fit for a banquet

James King, the long-time owner of venerable Gambrills eatery J. King’s Steak & Seafood, found himself in an odd spot in mid-2016.

While the restaurant was making money, his establishment – much of which was built in the mid-1980s, but dated back to its late 1930s founding as Kaufmann’s Tavern – had an outdated infrastructure. That meant, in recent years, the profits were directed more into operations than to heightening the customer experience.

“We were feeding the beast,” King said.

A new direction was needed, so King and his investors went bold and made a $6 million gamble. They knocked down the local institution and built a new destination, The Blackwall Barn & Lodge, which features a 200-person banquet room.

Two Visions

King said, “This is the most competitive restaurant environment of my 30-year career,” noting that there are three times as many seats in West County’s dining market as there were 15 years ago.

So, King and company surveyed a local landscape that includes growing Fort Meade as well as nearby Waugh Chapel shopping area and focused on how they could “do it differently.”

He said, “We had two visions for the Blackwall. The first was to offer a venue for private events; the other was to offer something different than what’s available at Waugh Chapel, since its food segment is mostly fast food, fast casual and chain restaurants. Taking that approach, we spent a year of due diligence on design and décor, down to the last detail.”
King said, “Customers pay attention to these things. We wanted to provide an experience and more than just a meal, while still offering that casual comfort level we offered as J. King’s.”

Customers seem to be taking notice: The Blackwall has booked 30 holiday parties, as well as 12 weddings for next year. Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County (VAAAC) has been intensively marketing the wedding and banquet market, and President and CEO Connie Del Signore said the VAAAC welcomes the new option.

“We can always use another great venue,” she said.

Cost Control

Joe Burdett, owner of Jessup-based accounting firm Burdett & Associates and a former restaurateur, expressed optimism about the Blackwall’s chance for success. One reason is that King and his partners own the real estate.

“That protects the equity. If it ever doesn’t pan out, he can always rent out the building,” Burdett said, “and I also like the banquet hall, because catering services are an avenue to greater profits. With events, [establishments] know how much food they need to serve a certain-sized crowd, so they know how much they will make. They control the direct costs and the overhead.”

But that’s not the case on the restaurant side. “You usually don’t know how big an evening’s crowd will be, especially with bad weather,” he said, “and remember, you’re dealing with perishables.”

Burdett even cited the timing of the debut. “With the fall wedding season leading into the holiday season,” he said, “and that will allow The Blackwall to get well set up for early 2019.”