Full Moon Pub and Grill As Featured In The Jeffersonian
Reputation Produces Success Over the years, Bitner – or Mr. Cal, as long time patrons call him – has bought, owned, operated and sold restaurants on Harford Road in Baltimore, in Randallstown (Cal Bitner’s Place), Hanover (Cal Bitner’s Red Barn), Ocean City and Federal Hill, where not long ago he bought, remodeled and previously owned what is now called Crazy Lil’s. For nearly two decades, he ran Cal Bitner’s next to Rudy’s 2900 Restaurant on US Route 140 in Finksburg, just a mile or so over the Baltimore County line.
He renamed the popular Carroll County watering hole/eatery Cal Bitner’s Encore when he bought it back from someone who was unable to make a go of it. He’s since sold it, taken it back, and resold it yet again. That eatery was also known for the miniature Statue of Liberty that seemed to signify safe harbor from the parking lot. After being kidnapped last year, the statue was recovered. It has since been mothballed, leaving the mall/sprawl of South Carroll County with one less landmark. Last December, Bitner got back in the restaurant business.
Today he owns and operates The Full Moon Pub & Grill. He launched his latest venture in Baltimore County, just a hop, skip and jump down the US 140 from his old haunt in Finksburg. The Full Moon Pub & Grill is in the lovely old stone mansion that used to be the Forest Inn. “I buy a place and I work night and day,” says Bitner, who often begins work at 7 am and won’t leave until long after closing. In the course of a day he’ll do everything from greeting customers to installing an exhaust fan in the kitchen. “Then after I’ve had a place for a while, I get disgusted and say I’m gonna sell it, and every time I sell a place I say this is gonna be the last one,” he adds with a shrug. “Then about three months later I could cry – every place I’ve sold, I’ve been sorry I sold it! I get bored and don’t know what to do with myself. Then I run around looking for another place to buy.”
The Full Moon Grill is located on a particularly congested and treacherous stretch of US 140, a mile or so north of the terminus of I-795 north. Getting in or out of the restaurant’s parking lot during rush hour can be a time-consuming and harrowing maneuver. “When I bought this place at auction a reporter asked me what I was gonna do about all the traffic,” Bitner laughs as he stares out at the near bumper-to-bumper early evening traffic that whizzes by on the dual-lane highway. “I told him I was gonna increase traffic!
My feeling has always been that if you give people what they want, they’ll come.”
Bitner is tight-mouthed about how much he paid for the old Forest Inn.
“Let’s just say I’ve already had an offer to sell it,” he grins. “A friend of mine offered me $700,000. I said, ‘What’s that? The downpayment!?'”
But the Full Moon Pub & Grill is the first restaurant Bitner has owned for quite a while that doesn’t have his name on the marquee. He says he unwittingly sold the rights to use his own name when he sold Cal Bitner’s the second time.
“They wanted $100,000 for me to buy it back,” he scoffs. “I told them it doesn’t matter. People are gonna know I’m here, not up there.” He seems to be right. The establishment formerly known as Cal Bitner’s Encore is not presently in business. Meanwhile Bitner is packing them in just across the county line.
Bitner proudly points to the nearly full dining room and bar, which grows more crowded as the night goes on. “It’s only 6 o’clock and look how crowded it is” His reasons for selling the Finksburg tavern after so many years were the same reason he’s bought and sold more than a dozen other establishments over the years. He was just tired and needed a change.
“I was workin’ seven days a week, and I got sick of it. But three months after I sold it, I wanted to cry! I really like this business. I like the people.” So naturally, he bought another restaurant.
Despite his four- or five- decade- long track record, Bitner says even he was surprised at the reception he got when he applied for a loan to purchase this new place.
“I got a 100% loan! I asked my banker why. He said that because of my reputation I was a shoo-in. They approved the loan in two hours.” Bitner turns suddently toward the bar. “Here!,” he barks witha grin. “You oughta talk to my banker! He’ll tell you!” Turns out his banker is also a customer on this particular evening.
“Nobody likes to do restaurant loans. It’s a high-risk business and they are the riskiest of loans,” says Mike Brown, a senior vice president at Regal Bank & Trust in nearby Owings Mills.
“And this place had already sold several times and had a bad reputation.
“But I used to stop in at Cal’s old place. I knew his reputation,” adds Brown. “So, to me, it was a no-brainer. I knew Cal could make it here, even if nobody else could.”
Bitner, whose wife and daughter help him run the Full Moon Grill and manage its 38 full- and part-time employees, may indeed have the Midas touch when it comes to running road houses. But he’s no stranger to hard times.
In 1980, on a quiet afternoon on then sleepy Route 32 in Carroll County, near Westminster, his car was hit head-on by a truck. Bitner spent nine days at Shock Trauma and a year in a body cast under 24-hour nurse’s care.
“Then six years ago I was hit in the back by a Jetski when I was jetskiing in the inlet at Ocean City,” he recalls. “I was flat on my back for 13 days. The doctors said I was lucky I wasn’t paralyzed.”
But even the run-in with the Jetski didn’t knock him off his busy seven-day-a-week pace for long. Though he walks with a slight limp from the auto accident, he seems as robust as ever.
“I’ve never had a bouncer at any of my places; I’ve always taken care of that myself. I’ve never had any trouble with people.” “This may be my last stop,” Bitner says softly as he stands in the darkness on the deck (which he plans to open as an outside cafe by St. Patrick’s Day) and glances in the window at the lively scene unfolding in the Full Moon. “But I still love doing this,” he grins. “It’s fun!”