Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Patrons line up for grand reopening of Gino’s in Towson

It was barely 10 a.m., yet dozens of people were itching for a burger — and not just any burger.

“It’s all about the Gino’s Giant!” exclaimed a number of hungry loyalists whose enthusiasm was matched by the hundreds of others who showed up Wednesday for the grand reopening of a restaurant that’s gained iconic status among Baltimoreans: Gino’s Burgers and Chicken.

By the time CEO Tom Romano had snipped the ceremonial ribbon and opened the doors at 11 a.m., the line of people snaked around the parking lot where the newest Gino’s has set up shop on LaSalle Road in Towson, 20 years after the franchise closed its original store nearby.

Watch video from Gino’s grand opening

But no one seemed to mind the long wait, even despite the August heat. Lifetime fans — the “old-timers,” many called themselves — recalled countless afternoons spent in a Gino’s booth, and mingled with younger patrons eager to learn for themselves what all the fuss was about.

“These are proud Baltimoreans who would stand in line for a mile to get a Gino’s Giant,” said Towson resident John Benner, 56, gesturing to the long line. “This is old Baltimore pride. Fast-food chains come and go, but here, it’s always been Gino’s.”

Benner said that community feel is what most appeals to the restaurant’s loyal customers, who love the shop’s founder — former Baltimore Colts defensive end Gino Marchetti, who had to cancel his appearance at the opening due to illness — just as much as his famous burgers, chicken, fries and shakes.

But the market landscape is quite different from when Marchetti, former Colt Alan Ameche and friend Louis Fischer first fired up the grill in 1957.

The difficult economic climate, competition from other chains and evolving consumer tastes might make it more challenging for the business to stay afloat, experts and patrons said, especially with the anticipation surrounding the opening.

Owners Scott Autry and Jared Miller spent months preparing for the opening to ensure it lived up to customers’ high expectations, executives said. They hosted three invitation-only sneak peeks for various groups, spent $10,000 and several weeks training employees, and pulled out all the stops Wednesday.

Radio stations set up promotional booths to occupy the crowds and a red carpet covered the ramp to the main entrance, which was marked with the quintessential event prop — an inflatable, waving doll.

It was all worth it, Autry said, as he bustled around the front counter. Autry said his hope is “to be the best burger joint in the area,” but with competition from a McDonald’s that’s within a mile and a Five Guys Burger and Fries location within three, he may have his work cut out for him.

Gino’s, which has five more locations — three in Pennsylvania and one each in Maryland and New Jersey — planned over the next year, is different, said many patrons who said they expect the restaurant to be very successful. They said there is a loyal customer base of long-time residents who will return frequently now that their favorite childhood burger restaurant is back in town.

“We can’t wait to bring the grandkids,” said Pat Frawley, a Towson resident who was enjoying her first Gino’s meal with her husband, John, since their regular visits there as teenagers.

For 10-year-old Andrew Jackson, who had his first taste of Gino’s at the grand opening, the experience was a little overwhelming. He was double-fisting a soda and a vanilla milkshake as he left the store grinning.

“It’s really good,” was all he could manage between sips. “Really, really good.”

Others wondered if the fast-food market has become too saturated for Gino’s to find a place.

“The difference between yesteryear and now is that there’s so, so many restaurants versus back then,” Benner said “So I think it’s just going to melt in with everything, and not really make a huge difference in the long run.”

Marshall Weston, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said in the early stages of the recession, fast-food chains were the most successful because price was consumers’ primary concern. But now people are demanding more, he said, such as higher-quality ingredients or exceptional service.

Places that offer a great experience at still a relatively low price are likely to do the best, he explained.

“What we see is that those restaurants that are providing value to their customers are the ones who are doing better in the difficult economy,” he said.

Chris Batzler, 58, said Gino’s prices are a bit high for feeding his entire family, who drove down from Harrisburg, Pa., to experience the grand opening. But his wife, Karie, 48, added “the quality of food makes the expense worth it.”

According to a report on burger consumption trends by the Illinois-based Technomic, a consulting group for the food industry, consumption of the American staple has increased since 2009, and there is a greater emphasis on specialty or high-quality options.

The report also found a growing consumer interest in health-conscious labels like “hormone free.” Gino’s products don’t fall under those categories, but many customers said if they’re going to eat a burger anyway, they would probably go all out and order a loaded one, Gino-style.

“It’s absolutely worth the drive,” Karie Batzler said. “A hundred miles, what’s the big deal?”