I read in the New York Times a while back that what sets companies apart in an ever saturated market, aside from good products or services, is a strong company story.  People like doing business with real people, it said.  That makes sense, and to a certain degree I think that is true.  Obviously, it’s not the only deciding factor or places like Applebee’s and Cheesecake Factory would be long gone.  People also value consistency, convenience, quality, and any number of other factors.  But the article got us thinking about our company story.  We talked about it a lot when we first opened in 2009, but we have a lot of new customers out there and I’m not certain that everyone knows much about us.  Well, people, now is your chance to learn about the people behind the restaurant you know and love (or maybe know and hate), Punk’s Backyard Grill.

The Beginning
Sheila, Dave and Jeff in 2005 at the Hotel School

This is one of the first pictures of the Punk’s team, taken way back in 2005! We look a lot younger and lot less stressed there, huh.  I guess that’s what opening a restaurant will do to you. The three of us met in 2005 while attending the graduate program at the Cornell Hotel School.  We shared a couple of drinks over the first few weeks that summer and when it came time to pick teammates for a class where we had to develop a restaurant concept, we decided to team up.  It didn’t hurt that we have somewhat similar (dry, sarcastic and occasionally obnoxious) personalities and senses of humor.  As it turns out, we all also have oddly competitive personalities and we wanted to win.  So we set off to develop a concept and to simultaneously crush the competition.  A lot of people in this class started creating their dream restaurants where you walk on water and get spoon fed by angels, but we were a bit more realistic. Here we are with some friends in early 2006 celebrating Sheila’s 25th birthday!

We came up with the idea for Punk’s because we wanted to accomplish a few things, (1) to come up with a concept that filled a niche that hadn’t been explored yet, (2) to make a viable concept that could actually be built, (3) to feel good about the food, service and general product we were putting out, and (4) once again, crush the competition.  We set out on an ambitious yet pragmatic approach to building a restaurant concept. We analyzed everything we could think of from every possible angle.  Would a pulled pork sandwich make people think we’re southern bbq? If we name it “Punk’s” are families going to stay away? If we have two cashiers on for lunch, will our labor costs be in line and will our service suffer? We love data and spreadsheets (Dave is a big excel nerd) and we plugged in lots of data to come up with something that made sense and we thought we could execute.  Now keep in mind, that at this point, we were talking about an internal competition at the Hotel School, not a real restaurant.

As it turned out, we ran away with the competition.  At the end of the semester, all the concepts set up in the Hotel School atrium and a bunch of industry professionals came in to vote on their favorites.  We went a little over the top and built a small backyard in the atrium, complete with green turf, picket fences, a grill and some delicious food from the Dinosaur BBQ. After we won, a lot of these industry folks starting coming up to us and telling us that our concept had “legs” and that we should call them if we ever decided to move forward with it.  Here is a shot of Sheila tending the grill that day.

After the win, we spent the following semester working on an independent study doing all sorts of feasibility analyses, determining whether we should really take a go at this.  When the moment of truth came in the spring of 2006, the three of us all turned down real jobs where you actually get a paycheck on a regular basis, and we decided to uproot our lives and move to Washington, DC to get to work on this restaurant.


As you may know, there is no guidebook for opening a restaurant, but everyone has advice.  About 50% of the advice is of the “don’t do it” nature and the other 50% is about some great apple pie recipe from someone’s grandmother. Neither of which is very useful (although we’re sure your grandmother was a great cook). So we made a lot of lists, talked to a lot of people and got to work.  We finished our business plan in the fall of 2006 and starting shipping it out to people. We were all simultaneously holding down part-time or full-time jobs while trying to raise money from interested (and not so interested) people.  It took us about six months, but we were able to get the money raised from individuals and banks while only having to sign away our lives and our first born children. With the funds in hand, we set off looking for a site and working to get this place up and running.

Most landlords wouldn’t even talk to us.  Restaurants are risky to start with and inexperienced, young entrepreneurs weren’t at the top of their lists when they had banks and coffee chains knocking at their doors.  After a year or so of looking at horrible spaces that were infested with all sorts of oddities and getting the door slammed shut by many landlords, we found the space where we currently reside in Annapolis.  It was the size we wanted (3000 sf), it had a lovely outdoor space and it was in Annapolis, which we all loved. At that point, in early 2008, it looked like this on the inside,

and like this on the outside.

Needless to say, it needed some work. But we loved the 100 feet of storefront and the blank canvas on the inside.  We could make it exactly how we had envisioned it and we liked that flexibility.  And in case you were wondering, our original vision (long before we started looking at spaces) looked like this, via our designer, Kathy Diamond. Not too far off, wouldn’t you say?

Anyways, while we started working with our designers, we also started working with the ever talented and gracious Chef Dean Maupin who was, at the time, Executive Chef of the Clifton Innin Charlottesville, VA.  Dean is the man responsible for visualizing the menu, creating all of the recipes at Punk’s, continuing to drive home the “made from scratch” mantra that exists here, and all of our seasonal menu changes.  We worked through a lot of full menu tastings with Dean in 2008 and he was very patient and understanding in dealing with our three strong and often differing opinions of the direction of the dishes. We wouldn’t be where we are today without Chef Dean.  He was, and continues to be, the culinary brains behind the operation. He is currently the Executive Chef at The Keswick in Charlottesville, so if you’re ever down that way and want to eat something delicious, that’s where you need to go. This is Chef Dean, hard at work at our first tasting.

So it was early 2008 when we started the design process, construction documents, permitting (don’t get me started on permitting), and eventually construction.  We spent that summer at farmer’s markets and festivals in Annapolis, trying to hawk some potato salad and get people excited that we’d be opening.

We finished construction in late January of 2009 and got open in February of 2009.

Since opening in February 2009, we have been constantly tweaking, changing and adapting to what our customers want and what we think is going to be interesting and unique.  We don’t like gimmicks and we don’t like shitty food.  We strive to avoid the mediocrity that we too often find in restaurants and although we think that the Golden Rule is flawed, we do our best to treat everyone like family.

And that’s it! The next time you’re in, be sure to say hello to us, as you’ll find one of us here pretty much every day.


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