Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Baltimore restaurateur is going Hollywood

Cheryl Townsend

The Hollywood Diner has been a Baltimore landmark ever since Baltimore-native and movie director Barry Levinson filmed parts of his breakout film “Diner” in it in 1982.

It wasn’t on the corner of Saratoga and Holiday streets then, nor was it called the Hollywood Diner, but its new owner is hoping both the location and the celebrity will help usher in diners looking for an inexpensive — yet delicious — meal.

Cheryl Townsend, the proprietor of the Red Springs Café and catering company, formerly on North Calvert Street, reopened the diner March 5. She kept its original name but added part of her own: “The Hollywood Diner presents: The Red Springs Café.”

Townsend, 47, has worked in the food service industry for more than 20 years, and relocated her diner in hopes that business will improve. The odds, however, may not be in her favor. The economy is struggling to crawl out of the worst recession in decades, and about one in four new restaurants fail after their first year.

Townsend stares down those odds with bright eyes and an optimistic disposition — business has been great, she said.

Watch the video report of the Hollywood Diner

“We have met our projections every single day,” Townsend added.

Those projections are between 30 and 50 customers and more than $500 in sales each day, according to Renee McMullen, director of marketing and operations for the diner.

Some days they’ve nearly doubled those goals.

Townsend is not shaken by the post-recession economy and attributes the early success to her Southern cuisine, soul food-style cooking and keeping her prices low.

“I try to tailor my menu to meet everybody’s budget,” she said.

A small flyer for the diner advertises “good food at ‘recession-friendly’ prices!”

Targeting a market

Nearly all menu items — with the exception of the Maryland style crab cake — are less than $10. Many of the breakfast options are under $5, and side dishes range from 95 cents to $3.75, with most around $2.

David Kincheloe, president of Denver-based National Restaurant Consultants Inc., said that by offering and advertising low prices, Townsend is in a good position to do well.

“You have to have a very targeted market right now. You can’t be everything to everybody,” he said. “You have to have the perception of value.”

Kincheloe also said the history of the diner and ties to Levinson’s film should help draw in customers — but that might not be enough make them regulars.

“The key is to create an atmosphere in the restaurant to keep the customer coming back,” he said.

In 2003, Townsend started her catering company, Cheryl’s Homestyle Cuisine, in Burtonsville. Six years later, she transitioned that company into the Red Springs Café and Red Springs Catering on North Calvert Street in Baltimore. This year, she closed the Calvert Street location and moved in to the Hollywood Diner, at 400 E. Saratoga St. She still operates Red Springs Catering.

Townsend named the café/catering company after her hometown in Red Springs, N.C., and is committed to bringing Southern soul food and hospitality to diners in Baltimore.

The extensive menu has dozens of options for breakfast and lunch, though Townsend has opted not to keep the diner open for dinner. At least not yet.

Currently, the Hollywood Diner is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and two hours later on Fridays. It’s closed on Saturdays and Sundays, but Townsend says she will go to a seven-day schedule when the nearby farmer’s market opens in April.

Townsend declined to disclose how much she invested in opening the Hollywood Diner, but said she needed no financing to get it up and running. She covered the startup capital, along with some help from friends and family.

“I didn’t get any loans yet,” she said, “but I don’t want any.”

Not fast food

Despite the diner’s early successes, there have been a few issues, including a break-in before Townsend officially opened and some confusion among customers about the nature of the diner.

“I think the downfall for us is that we’re not fast-food, we’re a full-service restaurant, and some people didn’t know that,” she said. “They think they can come in and out in five minutes.”

And that’s not always the case when the meal is prepared fresh, she said.

Rick Lomonico, 47, came in for lunch on a busy Friday afternoon in the diner’s first full week and was impressed.

“The food was delicious, the service was top notch,” he said. “It’s a nice little restaurant. It’s very convenient to City Hall, downtown … it’s right in the middle of everything.”

Indeed, only blocks from Baltimore’s City Hall, Mercy Medical Center, the U.S. Post Office building, courthouses and hotels, the diner is situated in a prime spot for daytime business.

Aimee Ayers, 39, who works at the Department of Juvenile Services about a half-mile away, said the area needs a place like the Hollywood Diner.

“They need an established restaurant with good food, and, you know, good customer service,” she said. “This is much-needed and I think they’ll get a lot of business.”