The Martins catering kingdom stretches across Maryland, from the verdant fields of Frederick County to the bustling suburbs of our nation's capital. Its holdings include a mansion in Hunt Valley, a palace in Upper Marlboro aptly named Camelot, and a Greek revivalist temple towering over the Baltimore Beltway—with a giant billboard as familiar and iconic as the Shot Tower or the Aquarium—seven facilities in all. It is an empire built from honey-glazed ham and pit beef, set upon pilings of three-bean salad and coleslaw. If catering had royalty, its king would be Martins founder Martin Resnick. But you can call him Marty.
For 44 years, Marylanders have made their way to Martins when they want to celebrate a wedding, bar mitzvah, sweet 16, or the New Year. They've come to raise funds for leagues—civic, bowling, and of women voters. They've come to crack crabs and jokes, and roast pigs as well as politicians. And they have come in droves. Imagine this: If all of the Martins properties were filled to capacity at the same time, it would be like having all 14,000 residents of Aberdeen over for dinner in one night. They'll do 3,500 events this year, and 70 percent of that will be repeat business.
But beyond the numbers, Marty Resnick earned his reputation among locals with human touches. Some recall that he was the first to cart out leftovers at otherwise formal affairs, so that guests could have seconds. Others remember being made to feel special at their prom, when bartenders served elaborate grown-up drinks in formal glassware, only distinct by their lack of alcohol. Stories like those have cemented Marty Resnick's place in Baltimore lore and woven his name into the very fabric of Maryland.
Not bad for a college dropout who doesn't know how to scramble eggs.
Martin Resnick was born in Northwest Baltimore in 1931 and grew up on the second floor of a Reisterstown Road rowhouse. Martin's father, Louis Resnick, owned a local deli, and later, Overlea Catering Hall. Ironically, Marty had no interest in the business and left for the University of Maryland at 17, aiming to be a pharmacist. But with an eye for business, he dropped out after two years and went to work for Sears before moving on to the Hecht Co., where he worked as a buyer. By 1964, at 32, Resnick had saved enough money to invest in a business and something drove him back to the family trade. His idea was to build a catering facility and let someone else do the catering—a sound plan, considering he didn't know how to cook. With $19,000 of savings and $25,000 in loans, he constructed Eudowood Gardens in Towson, with two banquet rooms, two bars, and some bathrooms. But his vision clashed with the public's demands. "I spent most of my time on the phone explaining that I wasn't a caterer," he recalls. "Finally, I just decided to do it all myself." His wife and his mother did the cooking, and on the strength of Resnick's business acumen and his mother's beef brisket and stuffed chicken, things took off. By 1965, Marty Resnick quit the Hecht Co. and he's never looked back.
Martins North Point opened in 1966, and Martins West, three years after that (the sign looming over the Beltway debuted in 1972), and later facilities in Greenbelt, Walkersville, Hunt Valley, and Upper Marlboro. Eudowood fell to the wrecking ball in 1995, and Resnick's $19,000 investment seems positively quaint compared to the $12 million he spent on his most recent property in Hunt Valley. Through it all, Resnick has thrived by maintaining intense loyalty among his clientele, who know and trust the Martins name and style—neither of which has changed in the past 40 years. All of the facilities have what people have come to know as the "Martins Look"—walls of gold, alabaster columns, cut glass chandeliers at every turn, and sweeping, curved staircases. While newer party spaces like Pazo and Charlestown try to stay current and hip, Martins facilities look basically the same as they always have—and that's the way Marty Resnick likes it. His son, Wayne Resnick, who now handles day-to-day operations, says Marty abandoned any attempt to follow the latest trends after touring Europe in 1986. "What he saw, especially in Greece, was that people used the buildings forever and yet, they didn't get old," he says, adding that Martins isn't entirely frozen in time: Pastels, popular in the 1980s, have been replaced with more neutral colors. "We change with the times, but it has to last—it can't be too eclectic."
Loyalty to Martins extends to its workforce, which now numbers 820. "I don't look at my business as just a building and a chafing dish," says Marty Resnick. "I've always tried to create a family atmosphere for my employees. If someone wants to grow, I make sure there are opportunities. It's not a dead-end job." His servers average 14 years of service, and his cooks, 20 years. The 16 vice presidents and general managers, a group Marty Resnick calls "the backbone of the business," have a combined 309 years of service. Child labor laws notwithstanding, Resnick's vice president of operations, William Fischer, now 54, confesses to starting work for the chain when he was 11 years old, as a dishwasher.
When Resnick returns to the office after a vacation, the scene is more like a family reunion than a workplace: The receptionist, Delores McCray, runs from behind her desk and throws her arms around him. He hugs the vice presidents who have gathered in his conference room and anyone he meets in the hall. The staff in the sales office and the cooks in the kitchen all line up for a hug from the boss. Now, at age 77—44 years after that first event at Eudowood—Marty Resnick is relaxing a little. He comes into the office only occasionally, allowing Wayne to take the reins. The duo split the decision-making, and in conversation, they often finish each other's sentences like an old married couple. But it is Wayne who points out one key difference: "I don't hug."
There's a line to get into the Wayne Room on the second floor of Martins West, and that makes Richard Swartz very happy. Yes, he's the Richard Swartz, great-grandson of Mano Swartz, Baltimore's premier furrier since 1889. For 12 years, the annual Mano Swartz fur liquidation sale has been held here—same location, same room. Hundreds of thousands of dollars'worth of mink coats, beaver jackets, and fox headbands hang on metal racks. "We started out as a two-day event over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend," says Swartz as he helps a customer fill out an on-the-spot financing form. "But over the years we've grown it to five days." He credits much of his success to Martins West's prominence on the Baltimore Beltway. "Customers can always find us. If they haven't been here, they've certainly seen it."
Outside the Wayne Room, faint music can be heard drifting up from the first floor. Follow it down the opulent spiral staircase, along the gold leaf encrusted hallway, and into the Grand Ballroom. There, the Optimist Clubs of Northwest Baltimore, Cockeysville, Cherry Hill, Woodlawn-Gwynn Oak, and Timonium have combined to pack the place to capacity for their annual Bull and Oyster Roast. Ed Crawley, the event chairman, proudly makes his way through the crowd. In the past, the party had been held at the Pikesville Armory or the Patapsco Arena. Parking was always an issue and the turnout had dropped to under 600 people. "The members insisted that we find a new place," he says. "This is our third year at Martins and attendance has almost doubled."
On the dance floor, Louis and Mozella Burriss get down to a funk selection by D.J. John Scavilla. Louis wears a tan zoot suit with a retro tie. Mozella wears a copper-colored, floor-length swing coat. Against the chandeliers and mirrored ceiling, the couple look like an advertisement for Martins. When the music stops, they sit at a nearby table to catch their breath. "We don't just come here for the Optimists, we come here for everything," says Louis: "If it's at Martins, we come and dance." The D.J. cues up another song; Mozella grabs her husband's hand and they leap back onto the floor.
Jeff Post sits quietly behind a metal desk in a small office, but his influence can be felt throughout the Martins empire—he's the vice president in charge of purchasing. And never is his impact greater felt than every Sunday when the general managers at each of the seven sites do their food ordering for the approaching week. Each keys his anticipated needs into a central system, based on upcoming events, number of guests, and selected menus. Purchase orders are automatically generated, sent to the proper vendors, and deliveries are scheduled. Last year, they bought 105,000 pounds of prime rib, 322,000 chicken breasts, 367,360 meatballs, 161,956 steamed crabs, 602,472 dinner rolls, and 789,000 linen napkins. Asked if anybody in Maryland buys more goods than he does, Post thinks for a moment and shrugs: "The Army?"
At Martins West, military precision is in action as the staff prepares to serve the packed house gathered for the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation Gala, the NFL-affiliated group focused on child-abuse prevention. Moments before "plating up"—assembling the meals to be served—5 stations of 10 workers stand ready. All wear rubber gloves, and hats or hairnets. At the rear of the banquet hall, five auxiliary stations of five staff members each also wait for the go ahead. Chef Tom Hooks has constructed what a finished plate will look like and calls it to everyone's attention. Within minutes, each guest will have a chicken breast with sage stuffing, filet mignon, vegetable medley, twice-baked potato, and a pink flower garnish—an edible orchid. "Plus," adds Hooks, "two kosher, four sea bass, and one salmon."
The first trays have been removed from the ovens and the fans in the kitchen are turned off to prevent the food from cooling—the temperature skyrockets. Executive Chef Mario Cantu paces back and forth with a two-way radio pressed to his ear. He listens for general manager Chris Burke's order from the floor to begin plating. Then he waits.
At 7:10 p.m., the radio crackles to life giving the green light to the kitchen. "Now! Let's go!" yells Cantu and twirls his hand in a circle. With that, a dozen lids are lifted from a dozen pans, and a cloud of steam wafts toward the ceiling. Everyone springs to life. Plates are smoothly passed down the lines—potatoes placed first, then chicken, filet, a ladle of vegetables, and finally a flower. A plastic lid covers everything to keep it hot. At the end of the line, a black-clad waiter puts four completed plates on his tray. Then he adds another level, and another, and still another. Sixteen dinners piled high. He hoists everything to his shoulder and disappears through the kitchen doors. Another waiter takes his place and the process starts over. At every station, the action is identical. It is a perfect whirlwind of activity.
The chefs keep a close eye on the food levels. When something runs low, more is removed from the ovens and replaced seamlessly. Assistant general manager Franklin Goodridge runs into the kitchen, slides to a stop, and shouts, "One kosher, one sea bass." Someone calls back, "Coming up." His message delivered, Goodridge turns and runs out again. Not all special dining arrangements are made beforehand. A floor manager carries back the dinner of a guest who would rather have two filets and no chicken. The substitution is made. Later, word comes of a child who doesn't like anything offered. A plate of chicken tenders is quickly assembled, finished off with the requisite orchid.
Another communication comes over the air, and as quickly as it began, the action on the lines stops. Everyone has been served. The help can take a breather before cleaning up, and someone mercifully turns the kitchen fans back on. The clock on the wall reads 7:25 p.m.: 75 people just distributed hot meals to 1,500 people in 15 minutes.
Two of the people served are food brokers Jim Pine and Corynne Courpas, who sit together at a table, sipping wine. They are guests of the Resnicks, who often purchase a table at events held at the site. It's a perk for keeping the stockroom shelves filled. They extol the virtues of their benefactors. For 20 years, Pine has owned Steamin' Demons, a strictly carryout crab house in Middle River. He recalls the day in 1987 that Wayne Resnick walked into his place, and with a handshake—they've never had a contract—invited him to be one of only two suppliers of steamed crabs for Martins numerous crab feasts. He grows wistful thinking of the passage of time in service to the Resnicks. "Martins transcends my bachelor days, my married days, and the births of my children." But underlying the business aspect is fierce devotion to the client, "When crabs get scarce, I close down the carryout so I have enough for Martins. I don't want to be put in a position where I disappoint Marty Resnick." It's also a good career move—he'll steam anywhere from 1,000 to 7,500 crabs at a feast. "I'm blessed to operate in a state where people would rather eat crabs than make a car payment," Pine says with a laugh.
Courpas, a 20-year veteran of PFG Carroll County Foods, has been handling a Martins account—mostly meat, spices, groceries, and dry goods—for 12 years. Out of habit, she reaches for a packet of sugar, carefully examines it, and is relieved to see the PFG imprint. "Nothing is more embarrassing than going out to a place we service and seeing a competitor's sugar," she says.
Like Pine, Courpas's dedication lies close to the surface. Late one afternoon in 2001, she got word that PFG had inadvertently shorted an order of muffins for Martins East. She loaded up a truck with the missing pastries and drove from her office in New Windsor to the Pulaski Highway facility, and, in her zeal, smashed the vehicle into the entrance of the newly renovated building. "I thought Martins was going to fire me." But instead they gained a staunch ally. "The next day, Wayne Resnick sent me a fruit basket," said Courpas, admiration obvious in her voice. Then she suspiciously stares at the pads of butter on a plate in the middle of the table and mutters, "Those aren't ours."
By the time the doors opened at Martins East for Mother's Day 2008, the event had been sold out for two weeks. "Not unusual," says Domenic Cristofaro, the general manager. "It sells out every year." He sits by the front door collecting tickets with his 3 1/2-year-old, chocolate-cake-consuming granddaughter on his lap. As some of the 795 guests file by, it is remarkable how many know him by name, and he them—a happy byproduct of so much repeat business. A good example is Thelma White. It's her fourth Mother's Day at Martins East. She wraps her arm around her daughter Talia Bastfield and proclaims, "I already told my daughter we're coming back here next year." Between them, they hold Bastfield's 7-month-old son Jaydin Biggs and pose for pictures. He squeals with delight at every flash and eventually kicks off his shoes. Three generations in one photo—a situation repeated hundreds of times before the day's end.
The lights are dimmed in the grand ballroom and those not enjoying the all-you-can-eat shrimp feast are on the dance floor, entertained by the jazzy selections of D.J. Delights. Sitting at one of the round tables nearby are five couples: Stanley and Mary Smoter, George and Janet Sullivan, Raymond and Anna Myers, Steve and Irene Roguski, and John and Rosalie Petrush. They represent more than three centuries of marriage and have 18 children among them. "We all had our 50th wedding anniversary parties with Martins," explains Raymond Myers, "so we're always invited back for Mother's Day free of charge." They all raise plastic cups filled with beer and toast their success.
A hot July day gives way to a pleasant evening. Soon Christopher Boccanfuso and Stacie Mirkin will become man and wife at Martins Valley Mansion. A recent audit revealed that Martins has hosted more than 30,000 wedding ceremonies since its 1964 inception. When Marty Resnick and I enter the Mansion, he steers straight to Mirkin's great-grandmother, 98-year-old Mayme Oberfeld. She hails from the old Baltimore, when its Jewish community centered along Wilkins Avenue on the city's southwest side. She smiles and squeezes Marty's hand. "I knew your mother Esther. A nice lady," she says.
When they're through reminiscing, he inspects the Embassy Room, where the wedding will take place. A hundred empty chairs face a vacant marriage canopy, but soon the venue will be filled with friends and family, all sharing in the most joyful day of this young couple's life. Marty says it's too bright for a holy ceremony and dims the lights, giving the space a more sacred feel. "I see things other people wouldn't even notice," he tells me. The doors open and the guests quickly fill the seats. "So much has changed in this business," Resnick says. "When I started out, it was the parents who came to me. I'd tell them what we do and that was that. If I wanted to meet the bride and groom, they'd say, 'Why? You'll meet them at the wedding.' Now it's the brides and grooms coming to see us, not the parents. They bring bridal magazines, and they know what they want. We don't tell them anything, we merely suggest."
He moves to the back of the room where the wedding party is lined up. The music starts and they slowly glide by. The congregation rises as the bride enters, and Marty leans over and whispers the Martins motto: "Every day is a happy occasion." With that, we slip outside into the fading summer twilight—Marty's job is done here. But before he goes, Marty Resnick gives me a hug.