“How are you?”
Elegant in his grey, collarless Trachtenanzug suit, Charles Sekula is equally charismatic as he welcomes diners into the warm charms of Schmankerl Stube, a Hagerstown dining destination known for its authentic Bavarian cuisine.
Taking customers under his wing, as he likes to say, the 66-year-old Sekula leads a couple to a candlelit table blanketed with a red-and-white-checkered cloth.
Servers attired in traditional dirndls glide in and out of three small dining rooms with liter mugs of bier vom fass—draughts of Spaten Märzen and Hacker-Pschorr Hefe-Weisse. Accordions and tubas, the sounds of volksmusik softly piped through a stereo, accentuate the ambience.
Translated, stube is a “cozy room”; schmankerl is a “delicacy.” Tucked in for a feast at the Washington County icon, it doesn’t take long before you feel as though you’ve departed Hub City for an evening in the Alps.
Although Sekula has called the United States home for more than four decades, hints of his native Bavarian accent still frame his words.
“Food is there to fill your stomach,” he says matter-of-factly, adding that a meal is always better “if it tastes good.”
Raised near Munich, Sekula arrived in New York in 1967. He worked power line construction in Ohio and West Virginia before moving to Hagerstown in 1970, where he took a job with Mack Truck. In 1976, as the nation celebrated its bicentennial, he earned his U.S. citizenship.
“The rest is history. Now, if you’ve got a couple hours…” says Sekula, sipping a glass of Märzen in the Wesel Room, a dining room honoring Hagerstown’s German sister city.
One of Hagerstown’s first revitalization projects, Schmankerl Stube, located at Antietam and South Potomac streets, opened under less-than-ideal circumstances.
“We were given three months to be out of business, [but] I wouldn’t give in,” recalls Sekula.
“This was the worst corner in Hagerstown: prostitution, drugs, beer joints, fights. I had my hands full every night and I kept my storefront clean. I went out four, five, six times an evening and chased them off. I was still crazy myself. Had to be.
“Three months went by, six months went by, and thank god I was still young. We are now in our 24th year and we’re still here.”
Today, the restaurant enjoys a diverse clientele, drawing repeat business locally and from the Baltimore/Washington corridor. Sekula’s philosophy is simple: atmosphere, food, and service.
“If we can get 90 percent of each, we were going to do real well,” he says.
As Executive Chef Dieter Blosel explains, pork is the centerpiece of Bavarian cooking. The Nuernberg native also points to the several traditional spices—among them, bay leaves, juniper berries, nutmeg, marjoram, and thyme—that give the entrées their distinct flavor.
“In Bavaria, you have a kind of heavy cuisine,” Blosel says. “It’s heavy and hearty.”
Much sought-after is Knusperige Schweinshaxe, a massive—and tender—roasted pork shank rubbed with caraway, thyme, garlic, and other seasonings, marinated overnight, and then slow cooked in an oven for four hours.
With the exception of Wednesday night (when it’s the weekly special), the dish—served with hot mustard, sauerkraut, apple-flavored red cabbage, and grilled bread dumpling—needs to be ordered 24 hours in advance.
And, of course, there’s beer. Schmankerl Stube features five Bavarian draughts and an array of bottled beers.
“Beer is part of the food group, if you will. You can be on the beer diet back home,” Sekula says.
In 2011, the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce and the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission named Sekula Business Person of the Year. That same year, at the 57th Annual McCormick & Company Stars of the Industry Awards Gala, the Restaurant Association of Maryland inducted Schmankerl Stube into the Maryland Hall of Honor.