BY BILL HOLLAND – If you lived in Hyattsville in 1992, and you had something to celebrate – like say, the Redskins winning Super Bowl XXVI or a young Arkansas governor winning the presidential election – your options for where to spend the evening were, to say the least, limited.
That was when new Hyattsville resident Mike Franklin entered the picture. And Route 1 has never been the same.
The atmosphere for the store’s 20th anniversary on November 24 was celebratory indeed. Well-wishers crowded both the restaurant and store, where everything was 20 percent off. A great opportunity, as one shopper noted, “to stock up on stocking stuffers.”
Franklin’s employees offered samples of champagne and hot chocolate, and encouraged shoppers to take advantage of the sale to buy something for the Toys for Tots box prominently displayed.
It all began in 1991, soon after Mike and Debbie Franklin moved to Hyattsville. At the time, he was a veteran toy salesman, with dreams of opening his own business. He envisioned a deli and a shop that would sell not only top-shelf toys, but funky gifts.
He wasn’t a likely candidate to make a go of it. Instead of an MBA, he had a liberal arts degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis. He had all the business chops of a student who’d studied Plato and Aristotle and the other Great Authors: Zip.
He shrugs, marveling at his progress: “From Aristotle to toys, then toys to a restaurant and a brewery.”
It took 20 years to put it together, but he pulled it off.
In a first step, Franklin bought the ages-old Hyattsville Hardware Co. from its equally aging owners. The store, first opened in 1910, was a period piece with creaking wood floors, tin ceilings, sliding wooden ladders on casters that reached to ceiling-high wooden drawers full of nuts, bolts and heaven-only-knows. Franklin was enamored by its down-home, retro quality. After months-long negotiations, he bought it in 1991.
After extensive restoration, the first iteration of Franklin’s opened 20 years ago on December 3, 1992, as a soup-and-sandwiches deli and toy/gifts store. He recalls he had six employees. In the first of many canny business moves, he hired Leni Lewis as manager. She is still the manager, and has added wine merchant to her title. “Actually,” she says with a grin, “on the current menu’s staff listing, I’ve been promoted to “Retail Goddess.’ “
The first iteration of Franklin’s was an immediate hit, but a mini-hit.
So after 12 years of okay success in that mode, Franklin, by then the father of two daughters, had bigger plans: to build a two-story family restaurant and bar with food that would now be called New American Casual – somewhere between sports-bar grub and hauté cuisine. A place where singles and young couples from Hyattsville and the surrounding neighborhoods might want to congregate. Oh, did we mention he also envisioned a craft brewery onsite?
But first he had to build another building. For architectural guidance, he eventually turned to a young Hyattsville architect with a now-familiar name: Marc Tartaro. (That’s Mayor Tartaro to you.)
Both of them liked the idea of a clean, modern space, with the brick wall of the old building serving to balance full windows on the other three sides. The main dining area would be downstairs; the brewery, bar and other dining tables would be on the second floor.
Tartaro drew up the plans pro bono. Another local architect, Mark Ferguson, stepped in as construction manager. Local artists Barbara Bancroft and Greta Mosher, who are still neighbors on Crittenden Street, suggested the interior color scheme.
Franklin would change the place from a deli to a full-menu restaurant. He would turn the original deli “side” into a gift shop “general store,” with, oh, let’s just look around now: fine wine, imported beers, candies, gift cards, toys, rubber chickens, hot sauces and funny magnet signs for the refrigerator.
Then there was the brewery. “I couldn’t afford to buy new equipment,” he admits. That would have cost about $200,000.
So he traveled to his hometown of Cleveland and placed a winning auction bid on the hardware of a failed brew pub for about one-fourth the cost.
“It all arrived in trucks,” Franklin recalled.
To build the restaurant, he had to re-mortgage his properties to borrow the money necessary. Even today, there is a momentary look that crosses his face that might reflect how he felt at the time, an “Am I barking mad?” look.
Well, he wasn’t. The building got built, the brewery got installed, and Franklin endured what must have been a kazillion meetings with city, county and state authorities. The newly named Franklins Restaurant, Brewery and General Store opened in February of 2002. It was an immediate success. This time, a bigger success.
The exterior of the new building was mod-rad for Hyattsville, even today: vertical metal sheathing, “which was way less expensive than brick,” he said. The Franklin’s vertical neon sign, you might have noticed, is enclosed in an exclamation mark. (That was his wife’s idea.)
Inside, there was an open feeling, with exposed ductwork and lighting.
He tried music briefly, but music groups, even at moderate volume, were too much. (Full disclosure: My band, Rent’s Due, had a CD release party there in 2002. Although the “upstairs” audience enjoyed the two sets, some fusion jazz – with added congas! – apparently wasn’t what the downstairs family crowd had in mind.)
Downstairs and upstairs there’s a capacity of 110 customers each. He now has 40 full-time and 20 part-time employees for both the restaurant and adjacent gift shop. It is a busy place.
The chef de cuisine, Mark Heckrotte, has been on board six years. His menu is seasonal; many of his providers are local. Says regular diner Mac Cridlin, “He’s achieved a balance between offering family-style food, like burgers and salads, and [more exotic things], like hanger steaks or finding ways to sneak duck on the menu.”
The on-tap craft beers offered by Franklin’s are now well-known throughout the Washington metro area. Twisted Turtle Pale Ale and Rubber Chicken Red have entered the local beer drinkers’ lexicon. Brewmaster Mike Roy came to Franklin’s with 10 years experience, and is now well into his second year at Franklin’s. There are currently 11 regular and special offerings, including an autumnal Pumpkin Pie Stout.
Franklin said he has begun to “export” his own brands of beer to three well-respected brew pubs downtown: Meridian Pint, in Columbia Heights; Boundary Stone, in the trendy Bloomingdale neighborhood; and Granville Moore’s, on the H Street corridor.
“And there’s more to come, more on the way,” he adds. For one thing, “we’ve begun the enlargement of the retail store. We’ll expand into the old Hanley’s Jewelry Store next door.”
As for future plans?
“I’m not sure. I’m still thinking,” he says with a grin.
Perhaps classically educated Mike Franklin, who was willing to open a restaurant in an old hardware store, at a time when today’s Route 1 development would have been impossible to imagine, personifies the saying on a magnet for sale at his store now. It’s a quote by Mark Twain: “To succeed in life you need two things: ignorance and confidence.”
All of Hyattsville is grateful.