Thirty-nine years ago, Rusty Romo opened Harry Browne’s Restaurant in the heart of Annapolis as a tribute to his uncle.
He and uncle Harry had dreamed of opening their own place once Harry was retired from a career in New Jersey and Romo had graduated college.
“My uncle and I were always very close, and we planned to do a restaurant venture when he retired because he was a real foodie,” Romo says. “In my junior year at the University of Maryland, he died. I studied business administration in school and started working as a waiter and a chef’s assistant at the Hilton in downtown Annapolis when I made a really strong professional contact in food services.”
That connection opened door after door Romo’s uncle Harry would have been happy to see.
In this week’s Q&A with Recipe for Success @ Boxerbrand, Romo discusses his 39-year-old eatery, which has become a popular haunt for politicians and movers-and-shakers on both sides of the political aisle.
Q: Tell me about those doors that opened.
After I’d been working as a part-time waiter and chef’s assistant, I made a really strong connection in the food world, and we started doing catering on the side. We got bigger and bigger and I finally reached out to a local real estate agent because I needed to find a commercial kitchen. It was just getting too hard to work out of a small apartment.
I got a call from this guy and he asked me to meet him for lunch in Annapolis at 66 State Circle to discuss my search. As we were waiting for our food, he said to me, “I got a better deal for you. This restaurant we’re sitting in wants to sell, and it has a lot of potential.”
I explained that I wasn’t looking to open a restaurant because I was still in school. But I talked to my folks about it, went back to school, and the following weekend I went back to the restaurant and hung around the outside for a bit, thinking. A few weeks after that, I left school and went into the restaurant business. I named it Harry Browne’s after my uncle, not the libertarian presidential candidate (of 1996 and 2000), but a lot of people do ask me if the restaurant’s named for that candidate.
Q: What’s it like serving politicians and lobbyists?
I have a great relationship with the governors and the lobbyists, and quite a few have come through our front door. Mike Bush, the Maryland Speaker of the House was my history teacher in high school, and Mike’s a big-time customer here. Our state Sen. John Astle is also here a lot.
Q: What challenges have you faced?
Economic challenges have always been the hardest, like the economic recession. Fine dining at that time was one of those things that people cut out of their budgets when the economy wasn’t strong.
But, we’ve also overcome major construction challenges. At one point the city revamped the traffic circle in front of us, and we were out of business for eight months. We’ve also had to evolve in our way of reaching customers. Twenty years ago, if you didn’t have an ad in the newspaper, you weren’t going to be busy. Now we’re blasting social media, hitting Facebook, and sending emails to our patrons as a way to keep in touch.
Q: What’s your menu’s claim to fame?
Our cream of crab soup is our most famous item, as well as our crab cakes. Our crab cakes were written up in Southern Living one year as the best. We also have a seasonal, farm-to-table menu, we’re very proud of, which is changed 3-4 times a year.
Q: And you’re also quite proud of your restaurant’s environmental commitment.
I think this is one of the things I’m most proud of. We’re 100 percent green. We do not send anything to the landfill and have no trash collection. We have recycling for bottles, cans and plastics. And we have our own internal cardboard process, which we bail and resell on a secondary market. And we compost all our food waste to company that resells it as garden soil.
We’re almost 100 percent green on our take-out side of the house too. Even our straws or swizzle sticks are made of cornstarch and bamboo. That is a feel-good thing and came from my desire to not leave our children with an environmental mess.
Q: Any advice for a budding restauranteur?
Stay in school. Make sure you have a true passion for it, because it’s very demanding. It’s one of those businesses you can’t leave alone. It’s not something you close the book on at night and go home.
Located directly across from the Maryland State House in Historic Annapolis, Harry Browne’s Restaurant offers fine dining and award-winning cuisine in an elegant setting. Open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch, Harry Browne’s has become a landmark in Annapolis and has been serving quality food and catering events for over 39 years. — Harry Browne’s uses Boxerbrand menu cover products in its table presentation. Thank you!
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