It was Marcella Dellis’ homemade crab cake that inspired her husband, Steven, and son, Michael, to open a restaurant on busy York Road across from the Maryland State Fairgrounds.
Michael’s Cafe, now 37 years old, continues to be a go-to spot for crab cakes, steak and lots of other well-loved dishes.
Michael’s son, Steve, the restaurant’s third-generation owner, said his father dreamed of having a “little neighborhood bar” that would feature his mother’s crab cakes. She went on to build a menu that would feature Cajun cream of crab soup and a crab-and-shrimp dip served with garlic toast.
Steve said the original Michael’s started out as a “dark, dingy” 60-seat bar with “really good food and service.” He wanted to create that “Cheers” kind of place, similar to the 1980s TV show bar manned by owner Sam Malone. Over the years, Michael’s Cafe has expanded to a 400-seat restaurant at the original location and a 9,900-square-foot outpost in White Marsh’s Greenleigh Town Center. Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Michael’s Cafe was serving about 6,000 guests per week at the two locations, he said.
Steve, Michael and his sisters, LoAnn and Lauren, today run the restaurants that have become mainstays in Baltimore County and continue to draw diners, despite a very tough year in which the pandemic devastated many restaurants.
“The biggest challenge we have ever faced as a family has been our last year in operations during Covid,” Steve said. “At one point, we all weren’t sure that we could make it through and still have our businesses standing. But now hopefully nearing the end of the pandemic, we are much better and stronger than we have ever been.
Steve said the restaurant has tried to give back to the community in this tough year, providing meals to first responders and those in need.
“Right now both of our restaurants are thriving given the current situation,” he added. “We are very grateful for this and are extremely fortunate that we still have our business.”
He credits the restaurant’s employees with ensuring Michael’s survived the trying times. Some of their employees have been with them for decades.
“We operate our business as an extension of our family,” Steve said. “We have watched employees that started their jobs as busboys and similar positions work their way up to general manager and other management positions.”
Like most family-owned businesses, Michael’s Cafe’s owners see both rewards and challenges in running an operation with relatives.
“There are four of us involved in the business, so the biggest challenge is trying to find common ground when we disagree on how to evolve the business,” Steve said. “Some of the examples are our different ideas and philosophies regarding menu design, marketing, staffing, renovations and decor.”
But he admits he wouldn’t want to work with anyone else.
“It’s for the most part very rewarding,” he said. “My sister and I have grown up in the business, so Michael’s is like another home for us. It’s nice to be able to see your family on an almost daily basis, especially when we all agree on something.”
Read about the rest of the winners of our 2021 Family-Owned Business Awards.