When Brenda Wolf Smith ‘93 opened the Chameleon Cafe with her husband Jeff eight years ago, she had never had experience with bartending, hosting or cooking in an industrial kitchen -- not to mention bookkeeping and marketing. Today, they are listed in Zagat Guide to the top restaurants in the world. The secret to her success? “The menu is seasonal,” Brenda said. “Whenever possible, we buy from the local Farmer’s Markets. We have an excellent team in the kitchen, all of whom have creative input in the menu, our wine list is reasonable and our service good.” The atmosphere is so warm and relaxing that many people have commented that they feel like they’re in a restaurant in France and forget that they’re on Harford Road in Baltimore! It wasn’t always that way.
“When we opened, one of our greatest challenges was learning how to run a business,” Brenda said. “We had great food and service, were relatively busy, but had $150 dollars (after payroll) after being open for nine months. We were doing something wrong.” Brenda got a hold of a textbook The Principles of Beverage, Food, and Labor Cost Control, read it from cover to cover and did all the homework. “We made changes, and are still in business after eight years,” Brenda added. Now some of her challenges include maintaining the restaurant in the face of the recession, trying to find a sense of balance in their lives, and raising their two daughters.
“My husband Jeff had been cooking for 16 years and talked about opening his own restaurant,” Brenda said. “An opportunity came along to buy, and I suggested he should go for it." Just three weeks before opening, Brenda realized that she was going to have to throw herself into it full-time as well if they were going to make it. “During the first year I learned a lot,” Brenda said. “We’ve had many successes along the way -- we’ve gotten excellent reviews, developed a loyal clientele, and have extremely low turnover of staff, but I think our greatest success was pioneering the revitalization of our neighborhood business district.” After a number of years, new businesses have opened. There is a weekly Farmer’s Market across the street, two coffee shops, a bookstore, a yarn shop, a hair salon with spa services, acupuncture, and a number of other things.
Like a chameleon, change was part of Brenda’s motto. They went from a cafe-style menu with muffins, quiche and sandwiches, to a more formal dinner service. The menu changes seasonally. “We learned that for the most part chameleons’ colors change with their moods and to attract mates rather than to blend in,” Brenda said. “We don’t aim to have the restaurant blend in, but to stand out in people’s memories and to have them come to dine!”
Brenda’s siblings also attended Kimberton Waldorf School: Roger ‘94; Francis ‘96; Stephanie ‘98; and Christopher ‘06.