Mazed and Confused

Latest young adult film covers much familiar ground

The Maze Runner, the latest post-apocalyptic young adult best-selling fiction series to be transferred to a cinematic counterpart, has many of the features that seem to be required of the genre. There is the dystopian landscape, the unknown and deadly peril, and the youthful hero with the character to meet and defeat that peril… after overcoming several forbidding obstacles and violently losing some companions along the way, of course.

Our hero, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), awakes one day to find himself in a place called The Glade, joining an assemblage of boys who don’t remember their pasts and are uncertain of what they are doing here. They have learned how to survive and create a semblance of community, but they are surrounded by a forbidding maze that keeps them isolated and fearful. The maze is filled with giant and fierce creatures called greavers, and if that weren’t bad enough, the structure remakes itself every night, defying their attempts to find a route through it to safety.

The problem with this movie version of the tale is that it feels way too familiar, a mishmash of themes and characters from other, far better books and films.
Using The Maze Runner as an example, how does one construct a successful post-apocalyptic young adult book series and translate it to the silver screen?

Start with an assemblage of traumatized teenage boys under stress in an unfamiliar landscape (The Lord of the Flies, check). Sort them into groups based on their skills or personalities (Divergent, got it). Give them a life-threatening obstacle that requires them to work cooperatively and/or compete to survive (OK, The Hunger Games). Add into this stew of adolescent rivalries an individual with compelling personal traits that set him apart as special (Hello, Harry Potter). And top it all off with an adult society where the reality is deliberately manipulated with language to hide true intentions (1984—perfect).

Neophyte director Wes Ball displays the skills he has learned in a long career of film art direction. The world of The Maze Runner is visually striking, and Ball keeps the action moving. But the screenplay, by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin, does neither the director nor the appealing cast any favors. Aside from the derivative flaws described above, the script offers no compelling characters, just stereotypical teenage types (the calm leader, the order-obsessed adversary, the wise sidekick, and the valiant, rule-breaking hero), so the viewer struggles to be invested in their plight.

I appreciate the appeal of these post-apocalyptic thrillers for young adults. In a modern teenage world filled with cyberbullying, sexting, and body-shaming, it’s probably perversely reassuring to see kids facing far worse life-or-death threats. It’s even better to see them overcome those threats, using their own resourcefulness and grit, especially without the hovering ministrations of mom and dad.

But, to transcend the limitations of the genre (as The Hunger Games clearly has done), you need to bring more to the party than a box of tired conventions and characters that are little more than ciphers.

The Maze Runner stumbles when you want it to race.

** out of *****

Happy Hours Worth Trying

Happy Hour suggestions from contributors and Facebook fans

World Cafe Live at the Queen
Wednesday through Friday, 4 – 6 pm

It’s great to pop in for a quick end-of-workday sip and nosh, and they always give me the “Queen treatment.” A very affordable and yummy food and drink menu (think $3 and $4 beers and wines with a $5 white pizza and $3 eggplant fries) is the perfect pairing to the cozy upstairs, and you may even get a free live music bonus. To top it off, there’s Chef Joe’s Happier Hour Pairing—a daily delectable sandwich-and-drink combo that’s out of this world (e.g., burger and bourbon; grilled cheese & beer).
—Michelle Kramer-Fitzgerald, Contributing Writer

Harry’s Seafood Grill
Monday through Friday, 5 – 7 pm

Best happy hour in town for food, for value, for bartenders, the whole package, hands down. All signature cocktails are $5 (including, right now, the fig and Asian pear margarita, usually $13). Draft beers? Half price. House wine? $5. Need food? Bar munchies are $4-$7 and full of tasty surprises. Oysters are half price Tuesday and Thursday. Happiness abounds.
—Matt Sullivan, Contributing Writer

From our Facebook fans:

“Apps at Blue Crab Grill are great, and the bar always has interesting cocktails and decent selection of craft beers.”
—Bill Rhoades

“Two Stones Pub Naamans has great prices on apps and has great cocktails along with beer. Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant is also great, especially when happy hour is outside on the upstairs deck.”
—Erika Strasser

“The $4.95 specials at Chelsea Tavern are awesome. Their mixed French fries with an aioli were so delicious! And they even had a hamburger with it.”
—Mary Ann Christy Kabatt

“Love the cocktails at Capers and Lemons!”
—Abby Wiley Frelich

“Love Redfire Grill. Great bartenders and awesome coconut martini.
—Sue Deutsch DeNardo

Quake Hits California Vintners

August event expected to have little effect on prices

Shake, rattle and roll: that’s what makes an earthquake, especially in wine country. Buildings collapse, barrels shift and are thrown, glass breaks and people get hurt. That happened in Napa Valley on Aug. 24 at 3:30 a.m., when a 6.1 earthquake interrupted a peaceful night.

Napa, Sonoma, and Solano counties sustained the brunt of the damages, with repair estimates totaling more than $400 million. USGA research geophysicist Annmarie Boltay describes an earthquake as being like a bowl of Jell-O, “once shaken and continues to shake for a long time.” The Napa event was no exception, and it seemed unusually long. Some people thought it lasted close to a minute.

Preliminary reports have about 120 wineries suffering approximately $80 million in damages. Most occurred in the Sonoma Valley, Carneros, Oak Knoll and the Rutherford Bench appellations of Sonoma and Napa counties.

Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros, locally owned by Gerret and Tatiana Copeland, sustained damages to 30 barrels. A barrel contains the equivalent of 25 cases or about 60 gallons. That’s a lot of wine down the drain.

Jeff McBride, head winemaker for Benziger Winery in Glen Ellen, Sonoma Valley, told me, “There were no issues, and we were extremely grateful.” Unfortunately, down the road from Benziger, B.R. Cohn Winery was not as fortunate. Cracked barrels spewed their 2013 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon all over the winery, potentially losing the entire vintage.
Napa winery Trefethen in the Oak Knoll district suffered structural damage to its historic barrel room. That’s a beautiful building; I hope it can be repaired.

Silver Oak Cellars had multiple wine racks collapse and hundreds of bottles broken. Saintsbury, in the Carneros appellation, lost many archival library wines. Doug Shafer, Shafer Winery, and Michael Honig, Honig Winery, both texted me: “All ok! We were lucky.”

There is a great sense of camaraderie in the wine industry, as exhibited by Burgess Cellars offering storage space.

All in all, larger producers will probably absorb the losses and maintain normal prices. Small wineries will not be as lucky. They will have trouble making ends meet and will have to increase prices.

My gut feeling is that some wines may increase in price, but there will still be many great wines available with no increase. Don’t panic. Buy, be smart, trust your tastes, and most of all, enjoy!

John Murray is the owner of State Line Liquors.

Three Tasteful Endeavors

These craft beer events also help their communities

The craft craze continues as three more major craft beer events are scheduled for October. And that doesn’t include the fourth annual Wilmington Beer Week, which will feature the best craft beer destinations in Greater Wilmington Nov. 1-8.

These events not only give attendees the opportunity to taste great beer, proceeds from all three will help support the host community. So get out your calendar (or your iPad or smart phone), and make a note of these dates. Oh, and all events are rain or shine.

The River Towns Craft Beer Festival is part of the River Towns Ride & Festival, taking place in Historic Delaware City and Historic New Castle from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 4. There is no admission fee; it will be a pay-as-you go event with more than 16 craft beers or ciders featured including: Brooklyn Brewery, Lagunitas, Oskar Blues, Twin Lakes, Third Wave, 16 Mile,Weyerbacher and Six Point. A complimentary shuttle will be running between the two towns and live music will be provided by four bands: Special Delivery and Lyric Drive (New Castle); The Bullets and Buffalo Chip & The Heard (Delaware City). Aside from the craft beer component, there will be plenty of family activities (hay rides, pony rides, pumpkin decorating, games, exhibitions) and a recreational bike ride between the two towns that starts at 12:30 p.m. For details, visit rivertownsfestival.com.

The Kennett Brewfest is set for Saturday, Oct. 11, from 2 to 6 p.m. on South Broad Street in Kennett Square. Tickets are $50 for general admission, $70 for Connoisseur tickets, and $15 for designated driver tickets. The Connoisseur pass includes a two-hour early admission, plus tastings of select beers with food pairings. “We should be featuring close to 100 breweries for the regular festival and featuring 34 of them in our hugely popular Connoisseur session,” says event chairman Jeff Norman. The designated driver ticket includes non-alcoholic beverages and prohibits the ticket-holder from purchasing alcoholic drinks. Part of the profits will go toward the Historic Kennett Square organization. The event is for 21 and over only. For more information, visit kennettbrewfest.com.

The Delaware Wine & Beer Festival is from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 11, at the 19th Century Farm Village on Dupont Highway in Dover. Tickets are $60 for general admission, $75 for VIP passes, and $10 for designated driver. The VIP pass includes additional tastings, the chance to vote on a favorite, a complimentary beer glass, and giveaways. The designated driver ticket grants admission to the event but restricts purchasing of any alcoholic beverages. The event is 21 and older, except for designated drivers. Activities include a keg tossing competition, corn hole tournament, and a merchandise store. “We like to offer something out of the ordinary for our festival-goers,” says executive director Cindy Small. This event was one of the 2014 “Top 100 USA Events” chosen by the American Bus Association. The festival is 21 and over except for designated drivers. More information is available at delawarewineandbeerfestival.com.

Tapping Into A New Scene

 Trolley Tap House feels the neighborhood is ready for its first craft beer-focused restaurant

The new Trolley Tap House, managed by former Two Stones Pub employee Patrick Jones, is the first strictly-craft-beer bar in that Wilmington neighborhood. Jones sat down at the tap house recently with his former boss, Michael Stiglitz, to exchange a few good-natured jibes, discuss black ops and talk about what community means to members of the craft beer culture.

Patrick Jones’ and Michael Stiglitz’s friendship began in 2007 when they worked at Pig & Fish Restaurant in Rehoboth, shouting to each other over the din in the busy kitchen. Stiglitz was the chef and Jones was the expo (the link between kitchen and front-of-house service).

The two continued to work together at various other area restaurants, where Jones was a dedicated bartender or line cook. In 2011, Stiglitz decided to open a place in Newark called Two Stones Pub—now with locations in Wilmington and Kennett Square—and he asked Jones for help.

“Having him contributed to our success,” says Stiglitz. “He was there at the beginning and was a big part of everything that started at Two Stones.”

Jones left the restaurant-bar industry last year to try his hand at sales, first for a car dealer and then, a few months later, as a salesman at Comcast.

Then this past spring, Joe McCoy, owner of Catherine Rooney’s in Wilmington and Newark and Hummingbird to Mars and C.R. Hooligan’s in Wilmington, asked Jones to be a consultant in a craft beer bar start-up in Trolley Square, where C.R. Hooligan’s was formerly located. It would be called Trolley Tap House.

“I know you were a part of the success at Two Stones,” McCoy told Jones. “They’re obviously incredibly successful and on their third location now. What are they doing right?”

By the end of July, Jones was back in the business and onboard fulltime as general manager of the Trolley Tap House, which opened Sept. 15 with 31 craft beer taps and pub fare.

“I’m here because I’ve been treating it as my own special project, and it felt better to keep it than to let it go,” Jones says.

As they sit down to begin the interview, Jones and Stiglitz reflect on their long friendship.
“He and I had our blowouts at times, [but] we’re hugging now and it’s all that matters,” says Jones. “We could always kiss and make up and get something cold to drink afterwards – but all great relationships are that way, right?”

“Yeah, it’s like a good marriage,” says Stiglitz.

When I found out about the tap house, I had to sit by myself alone and think: do I help him? Do I not?

—Michael Stiglitz

 O&A: Mike, what was the first thought that went through your mind when you heard about Trolley Tap House?

Stiglitz: (Laughs) The first thing I thought was Patrick is crazy. This industry picks up people, chews them up and spits them out, so I was happy for Patrick because he had gotten out of the industry intact and had moved on. But he proved that when you love what you do you can’t stay away. When I found out about the tap house, I had to sit by myself alone and think: Do I help him? Do I not? They’re going to be my competition in a sense, because they’re a craft brew beer bar. But Two Stones hasn’t done anything no one else has done; I can tell you where I got all my core ideas.
I’ve never hung out in Trolley Square, but I think it’s time that the neighborhood, the people, are elevated. It’s not cheap to live down here, so there’s no reason why bars shouldn’t elevate their game as well. There’s other corners people can hide and drink their Miller Lite. There are craft brews here, but it’s time for someone to do it correctly. Craft beer people are smart, and they care, and they know if you care and get it. And if you don’t—you’re done.

O&A: Pat, what did you learn from Stigz during your time at Two Stones?

Jones: I’ve learned how to look at everybody else and combine all the best things that I’ve seen in the world into one spot. How to pace myself.

Stiglitz: What about goals? I set goals.

Jones: Yes.

Stiglitz: Yeah, he’s golden, people in the area restaurant industry agree. And now everybody’s been calling this place “Two Jones Pub.”

Jones: Seriously?

Stiglitz: Yeah, it’s ridiculous.

O&A: What’s your prediction for Trolley Tap House’s impact on the area?

Stigz: There are people here that want this.

Jones: My prediction is that we are going to bring an entirely new clientele. Just like Stigz said, the people that live around here—and it’s not cheap to live around here—actually leave to go spend time in Kennett Square, or apparently there’s a craft beer bar up at the corner of Naamans and Foulk roads that people drive to [Two Stones Wilmington]. We want to create something for that community.

O&A: What’s on the menu?

Jones confers with Donovan Brown, executive chef at the Tap House. (Photo by Tim Hawk)
Jones confers with Donovan Brown, executive chef at the Tap House. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Jones: The tap house’s chef is Donovan Brown, who used to be chef at Two Stones in Newark. He’ll try all kinds of different stuff. I’ve been around Stigz and Donovan enough to know what people will want to eat with beer. You could put 20 entrees on there and people will still ask “Where the hell are the burgers?” That’s why we have three sections of sandwiches, dogs and burgers, and six awesome entrees, too: seared ahi tuna, mac and cheese, herbed chicken breasts, and more.

One of the mentalities that I want to maintain in this space is to stay true to the community. This is a bar for the neighborhood of Trolley Square—I’m bringing the craft beer culture into Trolley Square. Produce is sourced from local farms, and everything will be either composted or recycled. Globally and regionally we will get as close as we can to being a zero-waste facility. Our plate-ware is a product from India made from fallen palm leaves, which fall naturally. It is an expensive product for being disposable. However, it’s great, durable, you can heat it, and it looks great too. It’s not filling the landfill up. It’ll be taken to the composting plant in Wilmington and turned over to local farmers for the state of Delaware, so that stays true to my mentality of maintaining a sense of community.
It’s not just a craft beer bar, it’s a place that’s building craft beer culture, and to me part of craft beer culture is community.

O&A: Will you go to each other’s bars?

Stiglitz: I personally banned him because I don’t like him when he’s drinking. Just kidding. He is very dedicated to his family. If I don’t see him at Two Stones, it’s not because he doesn’t want to be there or doesn’t have good ideas, it’s because he’s home spending time with his family [wife and 2-year-old daughter] which is what everybody should do.

Jones just prior to opening in September. Customers can choose from 31 craft taps as well as pub fare. (Photo by Tim Hawk)
Jones just prior to opening in September. Customers can choose from 31 craft taps as well as pub fare. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Jones: I’ll send black ops. Instead of me going to Two Stones, I’ll send people in to observe and take notes.

Stiglitz: I can send you the security video and you can watch Two Stones from your phone like I do.

Jones: It’s too broad. I want fine details. I know what those cameras can see and can’t see.

Stiglitz: There’s a term you can put at the end of this article, and it’s called “sociopath.”

Stiglitz: What’s your long-term plan? What’s your five-year plan?

Jones: Probably a food truck. We’re going to make a food truck that looks like a trolley. Also, there is a decent amount of space between Rooney’s and the tap house that we might utilize for something.

O&A: Mike, any advice for Patrick?

Stiglitz: Just be consistent. If you’re consistent, you can win. McDonald’s has crap food, but look at them. If there’s ever an issue with how the restaurant goes, it won’t be because of Patrick. It’s the same mentality from when I created Two Stones at Brookside in Newark. People looked at me like I was crazy. But if you build it, they will come—if you do it right. We proved that in Newark, and this should be much easier. If it doesn’t come together here, it’s not because of what they put out there, it’s pretty much just because the gods are against him—that’s all it could be.

The Devil Is in the Details

Entrepreneur Dean Vilone has hit his stride with El Diablo Burritos, set to open a third site next year

The face of El Diablo Burritos is a black bean with devil horns and a tail. He’s carrying a pitchfork with a burrito impaled on the tines—no easy feat since he has no discernable arms. (He does have nice legs, however.) All you can see of his face are a pair of wide, round eyes. “He’s saying, ‘Oh, no. You caught me eating another burrito,’” says artist Shannon Stevens, who created the logo. “He’s loveable, approachable, and unassuming.”

You might say the same about El Diablo’s founder, Dean Vilone, a native of Brandywine Hundred, who’s kept a low profile since the first El Diablo opened in April 2010 in Trolley Square. A location in Branmar Shopping Center followed in 2012, and by early 2015 there will be a third site on Newark’s Main Street.

Vilone seems happy to let the impish black bean hog the limelight. “The issue of humility is important to us,” says Vilone, sitting in a booth in the Branmar location one recent afternoon. “We’re trying to take one step at a time, and our continued success is due to a fantastic team.”

Yet that fantastic team is largely due to Vilone, says partner Roger Andrews, the restaurant’s chef. “He has the ability to pull the best out of everybody—it’s one of his strongest qualities.”

Some of that talent stems from industry experience, and more than a little was acquired in the school of hard knocks. And you could also say that entrepreneurialism is in Vilone’s DNA.

His grandfather, Alfred Vilone Sr., developed the Fairfax community and shopping center. Vilone’s father, Richard, developed the Penn Oaks Racquet Club in West Chester and townhomes in Kings Grant in Fenwick Island. Richard followed his interests. A hobby restoring and selling vintage Corvettes led to a wholesale car business. He later opened an Oriental rug store on Concord Pike. “He was buying rugs for his own house and liked the process of researching them—he never bought retail,” his son recalls. “He liked to crack the supply lines.”

Vilone grew up in Edenridge, went to Salesianum High School, earned a degree in finance from Boston College in 1989, then helped his father develop Kings Grant. At that time, he says, the beach was desolate in winter.

By 1991 he was ready for the big city, so he headed to New York to be a photographer. “I just did my own thing, had odd jobs and had fun,” he says.

He and two friends found a bar owner willing to sell the business at favorable terms; each partner only had to initially ante up $5,000. That was followed by a second bar. During this time he was also married—briefly. (“We played well together,” he says.)
Tired of the bar business, the peripatetic Vilone moved to Miami, where he worked in restaurant dining rooms. “That was out of the frying pan and into the fire,” he says of the hard-partying crowds that populated the city in the 1990s. By 2000, the fast life had caught up to him, and he came home and went into recovery.

Back on his feet, Vilone in 2001 opened The Gremlin, a breakfast-lunch spot on Orange Street. All was well until Sugarfoot Fine Food opened nearby. The Gremlin closed in 2003.
Undaunted, the next year Vilone opened National, a restaurant at 902 N. Market St. in the Residences at Rodney Square. His ex-wife, an interior designer, helped create a sleek South Beach-like décor that stood out in Wilmington, which at that time was dominated by Brandywine Valley conservatism.

Vilone opened the Trolley Square location in 2010, followed in 2012 by the Branmar site, shown here. (Photo by Tim Hawk)
Vilone opened the Trolley Square location in 2010, followed in 2012 by the Branmar site, shown here.

Vilone acknowledges that fine dining was not his strength, and the location has proved problematic over the years. Result: National closed in 2006, and three other restaurants have occupied the space since. It’s currently empty.

Feeling that he’d experienced a public failure—although not an uncommon one in the restaurant industry—Vilone started drinking again, then went back into recovery. Never at a loss for an idea, he “storyboarded” concepts for a new restaurant while selling crab cakes at the Wilmington Farmers Market on Wednesdays.

He felt Delaware was an untapped territory for Mission burritos —which became popular in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1960s. The colossal tortilla-wrapped packages include rice and beans; they’re a burrito that eats like a meal.

When the recession hit and commercial space opened in Trolley Square, Vilone saw his chance. Unfortunately, his top choice for a chef, who’d worked with him at National, was unavailable.

He shared his vision with Roger Andrews, whom he’d sat next to in recovery classes. The Hockessin native had worked at 821, The Back Burner and Dome. Would he be interested in quick-casual dining?

“It was a low point in my life and it was something different,” Andrews says. “We just wanted to do something from the heart, not anything pretentious—just great food at an affordable price.”

Still, it was a challenging adjustment for the chef. He was used to braising, reducing and saucing. Dishes in his world were painstakingly “finished” with butter or clever garnishes just before serving. But at El Diablo, the recipes had to be “tasty, fast and efficient,” he says.

Accustomed to being a hands-on chef, he’s learned to become a teacher. Employees must know what to do when tomatoes and avocados vary from day to day. If pineapple isn’t sweet enough, more sugar is needed in a recipe.

Perhaps not surprising, given their one-day-at-time approach, the partners started slowly with little advertising. To be sure, little is needed. Although they have a great website ready to go, Vilone says, they’ve yet to fine-tune and launch it. Facebook is a primary way to get the word out. For months, the Branmar site didn’t even have its own phone number. Word-of-mouth has given the restaurant a cult-like appeal among foodies.

Stevens, a partner, designed the look of the restaurant as well as the logo. He purposefully configured the room so waiting lines wouldn’t crowd diners. Good thing. It’s not unusual for lines to snake out the door in Trolley Square—the restaurant only has 18 seats. (Newark will have 22; Branmar has more like 70 and it also serves as the catering kitchen.)
Stevens credits El Diablo’s success in part to the need for affordable but good cuisine after the recession hit. But he also notes that food is made from scratch, and customers can taste the fresh difference. There is no freezer, and everything but the tortillas and cheese are made on site, Vilone says.

The partners often talk about ideas for other concepts. Vilone is inspired by trips into cities such as Philadelphia, where he walks the streets, listens to self-help and spiritual audio books and admires the architecture. If he had the skills, he says, he would have been an architect or involved in cultural studies in some fashion. “I’m an appreciator with an artistic soul,” he says.

No doubt he’s also appreciating El Diablo’s success, but in his characteristic manner these days, he practically squirms when discussing it, as though he might jinx it.
As Vilone talks, the devils on the logo-patterned wallpaper seem to look down approvingly. Vilone gives one a glance. “He’s a friendly little bean,” he says. “He’s a kinder, gentler guy: he’s changing his story and cleaning up his act.”

Santa Fe Restaurants Now Number Quatro

Under the savvy guidance of Javier Acuna, cinco and seis may soon be added

There’s a reason Javier Acuna named his business the Hakuna Hospitality Group. And, yes, it is a subtle play on his surname.

More important, the Swahili word, which means “no worries,” accurately describes the approach Acuna has taken to putting his Santa Fe restaurants on a steady growth track, and poising the business for another round of expansion.

Hakuna is a positive word, he says, “one that puts a smile on people’s faces.”

Acuna, 38, got a modest start in restaurant ownership, buying the old Picnic Mexitacos on Newark’s Main Street in 2003 when it was a four-table operation focusing mainly on takeout orders with a menu of both Mexican and Latin American dishes. He renamed it Santa Fe and built it into a 150-seat restaurant.

It was a logical first step for the native of Bogota, Colombia, who had come to the United States less than four years earlier, hoping to continue the study of industrial engineering he had begun in his homeland.

While taking classes at Delaware Technical Community College and Wesley College, Acuna, like many students, found the hospitality industry offered the opportunity to earn the money he needed to pay his tuition and other bills. Working in several restaurants, he gradually moved up the ranks, from waiting on tables, to expediter, to cocktail server, bartender and assistant manager. Along the way, he studied the trade carefully, deciding what features he liked, or didn’t like, about every place in which he worked.

Acuna, who grew up in a family whose members took great pride in their cooking, chose to emphasize Mexican food in his restaurants because of his love for that country’s history and culture. “The Mayans and the Aztecs, they were two of the most wonderful cultures that ever walked the earth,” he says.

And, he adds, Mexico’s geographical diversity, with its Gulf and Pacific coasts and plateaus and mountains in between, is reflected in regional variations in its cuisine. “Mexican food is one of the richest food [cultures] in the world, and every region has a different technique,” he says.

Besides, he adds with a smile, although he appreciates the cuisine of his native Colombia, “nobody knows what it is.”

Whatever he has learned, Acuna has applied successfully.

He opened a second Santa Fe grill in Wilmington in 2010, and then launched the La Bodega catering and events operation at the same location on Pennsylvania Avenue, just west of Union Street.

In July, Acuna added another restaurant on Main Street in Newark, Del Pez Sea Mex, focusing on fresh and sustainable caught seafood, local and organic produce, all served with a tropical Mexican flair.

The Wilmington grill is the largest in the group, with seating for 250, while Del Pez is the smallest, with 76 seats.

By early October, he will have opened La Taqueria Santa Fe at Wilmington’s Riverfront Market, giving the lunch hour crowd a chance to get a quick sample of the main courses offered at the Newark and Wilmington restaurants.

His next step, he says, is to try to open two new Santa Fe locations a year. He’s not sure where the expansion will take him, but says he is looking both north and south—at the Philadelphia area and Sussex County.

Rachael Richardson makes a diamond margarita at Santa Fe in Wilmington. (Photo by Tim Hawk)
Rachael Richardson makes a diamond margarita at Santa Fe in Wilmington. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Acuna won’t discuss revenue figures for his privately owned company, but he says the three locations now open are serving about 9,000 customers a week.

His talk of expansion may sound as though he wants Hakuna Hospitality to build Santa Fe into a restaurant chain, but one of his most important tactics is to make each of his restaurants a little different from the others.

The restaurants’ logos use the same typeface, but each one is branded with the image of a different animal, drawn in a native Mexican style. The Newark logo features a jaguar—“aggressive and strong,” Acuna says—while Wilmington’s image is a fun-loving monkey. For Del Pez, the three brightly colored fish are a natural, while a frog—“small and quick-thinking,” he says—captures the vibe he’s seeking at La Taqueria.

When restaurant chains open new locations, “they are looking for a specific type of demographic,” Acuna says. “We don’t go for the demographic. We want to be part of the communities we go into, and we adapt to it.”

As an example, he describes the differences between the Santa Fe locations and clientele in Newark and Wilmington.

“Newark draws a younger crowd, and a little of everything—professionals, young people, University of Delaware students and faculty—while Wilmington has a more professional crowd,” he says.

Interestingly, the difference in the customer profile has not triggered a parallel variation in the menus. While about 90 percent of the menu is identical at both locations, where there are differences, the selections in Wilmington tend to be more diverse, more aggressive, than in Newark, and they often cost a dollar or two more.

In Newark, he explains, to satisfy a broader audience in an environment that is faster paced, the menu has to stay more middle of the road. In Wilmington, the pace is a little slower, the diners somewhat more adventurous.

While Acuna does not say Santa Fe patrons in Wilmington are more sophisticated than those in Newark, the implication is clear. “In Wilmington, we experiment with different types of ingredients. In Wilmington, we can add different dishes. In Wilmington, we have scallops. In Newark, it’s harder to sell scallops,” he says.

At each of his restaurants, Acuna makes a commitment to use locally grown produce as often as possible. Among his suppliers are Vincent Farms in Laurel and Fifer Orchards in Wyoming.

Running three restaurants, preparing to open a fourth and exploring two more sites is enough to keep Acuna running six days a week. He has been spending two days a week at each location, keeping Sundays as family time with his wife, Sarah, and his son, Mateo, who was born in March.

Having known success throughout his career, Acuna has learned that careful management is the best way to prevent failure.

“I don’t worry about failure,” he says. “I worry about not taking the right steps, about modifying things that aren’t working at the right moment.”

Failure, he says, “is the absence of doing the right thing. It is not something that happens overnight. It comes when you neglect to make the right changes over time.”

Adhering to that philosophy means that Hakuna Hospitality and its more than 130 employees must be innovative and flexible.

Acuna wants to keep his menus “edgy,” with meals prepared by “chefs who are willing to experiment.” Most important, he wants all his employees to be passionate about the company and to appreciate the meals they serve every day.

“We are about change,” he says. “We are about improving. We are about bringing people back day after day.”

Seeing Green

Could Delaware eventually legalize recreational marijuana? If so, there may be some lessons the First State could learn from one of the two states that have passed such legislation.

Every day, people in certain areas of Colorado are casually walking into stores and purchasing marijuana: easily, openly, legally, and purely for recreational use.
What’s more, they are growing cannabis plants—also legally.

In the General Election of November, 2012, a majority of Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, which legalized the recreational use of marijuana. (Washington also voted for legalization, but Colorado has been much quicker to implement the legislation.) “Fifty-five-percent of the voters said, ‘We want to try this social experiment: We think we should regulate and tax marijuana,’” says Rachel K. Gillette, a Colorado attorney and executive director of Colorado NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.

According to the new law, any resident over the age of 21 can purchase marijuana at a licensed store, travel within the state with as much as an ounce of pot, and grow up to three immature and three mature cannabis plants privately in a locked space.
“It’s a bold move,” Gillette says. “But I do think it’s the right way to go.”

In terms of regulating and taxing marijuana, the “Colorado experiment” has generated some promising results, giving the Centennial State a much-needed economic lift.
According to the Colorado Department of Revenue, since Jan. 1 of this year (when stores were first allowed to sell recreational marijuana) through July, sales generated more than $37.5 million in taxes, licenses and fees.

Of course those figures also include this year’s sales of medical marijuana, a practice that became legal in 2000 but only began happening in earnest in 2008, after a five-patient limit that the Colorado Department of Health initially imposed on caregivers was challenged and overturned in court.
Medical marijuana dispensaries were the first outlets in the state allowed to apply for licenses to sell recreational (otherwise known as “retail”) marijuana. For those that did, it was a good move: In just eight months, retail marijuana sales have already begun to eclipse medical marijuana sales. Starting this month, other non-marijuana businesses can begin to apply for the retail marijuana license.

Creating Jobs

Along with the revenues to the state, there are other economic benefits, as pointed out by Mason Tvert, co-director of the campaign supporting Amendment 64 and an advocate for legalization since 2005.

“Not only are the state and its localities generating millions of dollars in new revenues, [but] we’ve seen the creation of thousands of jobs,” says Tvert, who is director of communication for the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest financial backer of the legalization initiative.

According to Tvert, as of August, the Marijuana Enforcement Division had issued more than 13,000 employee badges—certifications required for all employees in Colorado’s marijuana industry.

“Whether it’s cultivation or working at a store or a testing facility, that’s a lot of jobs,” Tvert says.

His enthusiasm is shared by others, including Denver lawyer and entrepreneur Brian Ruden, who owns Starbuds Dispensary, a marijuana store open seven days a week on the north side of town, not far from the Denver Coliseum.

“If we are looking at the financial benefit of having a regulated marijuana system, it’s not just the sales taxes,” Ruden says. “It’s the licensing fees. It’s the bigger-picture impact on the economy because now all the people that work in the industry are earning wages, and payroll taxes are being paid. Architects are hired to build out store fronts. Licensed contractors are used, electricians and HVAC [installers]. Real estate owners now have a whole new market of people [to whom] they can lease space. Real estate itself has been going up. And, of course, tourism. Having marijuana in Colorado is something that attracts people.”

Starbuds Dispensary Manager Anthony Butler, pictured with budtender Amber Tolchin, says tourists make up nearly 80 percent of the store's customers. (Photo courtesy of Starbuds Dispensary)
Starbuds Dispensary Manager Anthony Butler, pictured with budtender Amber Tolchin, says tourists make up nearly 80 percent of the store’s customers. (Photo courtesy of Starbuds Dispensary)

Reasonable Prices

At Starbuds, a staff of “budtenders” help customers choose from 16 varieties of marijuana for both medical and recreational use.

Prices are consistent and reasonable, with a gram of any variety costing $20 and an ounce $380, for Colorado ID-carrying residents over 21 only (out-of-state visitors can only buy up to seven grams).

“Our budtenders, [are] very, very knowledgeable and they can walk people through exactly what the products are, how to use them, and how to be safe with them,” Ruden says.

In addition to the sage advice, there are other assurances. “All the marijuana here has been lab-tested so we know there are no molds or funguses on it,” Ruden says. “We know there’s no residual pesticide on it. We know that it’s clean [and not contaminated with other substances]. We also have the potency tested so that people know exactly how strong the marijuana is that they are getting.

“It’s also a very safe environment: You take the criminal element out of it. We also only sell to adults who are 21 or older. Every single person gets ID’d. Whereas on the black market, an illicit-drug dealer isn’t going to check someone’s ID.”

This is a major benefit, according to Gillette, who feels that one of the biggest advantages to legalization is consumer protection.

“I’m not going to say there doesn’t still exist some amount of black market in Colorado,” Gillette says. “But I do think we are transitioning to getting people into the legal market and we’re going to see the benefits of that, including a safer product that is overseen by regulatory agencies and tested in certified laboratories, which is just better for the consumer. You don’t see the benefit of any of that when all the control is with drug cartels, black market drug dealers, and street-level drug gangs.”

There’s another inherent danger to letting the black market set policy, Ruden points out. It relates to why many consider marijuana a “gateway drug.”

“A marijuana store that’s regulated by the state will only ever sell marijuana,” Ruden says. “The illicit-drug dealer may sell you marijuana today and may offer you [a harder drug] in the future.”

Gillette believes regulation will eventually lead to the demise of the black market for marijuana, which, she says, will lead to less crime overall. Tvert tends to agree, but points to the potential of misleading data.

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Inside the grow room at Starbuds Dispensary. (Photo courtesy of Starbuds Dispensary)

“The issue is that crime reporting is all over the place, in terms of the federal government’s reporting through the FBI [and] issues with localities reporting accurately,” he says. “What is clear is that [crime] is not going up as a result of these laws.”

In fact, the opposite may be true in Denver. According to the Denver Police Department, homicide, robbery, burglary and motor vehicle theft—crimes typically related to the drug trade—are all down this year compared to the same period in 2013 (January through August). Homicides are down by a whopping 30 percent.

Where There’s Smoke…

Critics point out that while the bump in taxes from recreational drug sales might be promising, tax revenues are still 45 percent below estimates that the non-partisan Colorado Legislative Council submitted to the General Assembly before legalization.
Proponents point to two factors to consider when addressing these discrepancies:
First, revenue from taxes has increased each month in 2014, and figures for the month of July were more than double those of January, indicating a strong potential for growth.
Second, several municipalities—including Colorado Springs, the state’s second largest city—have banned retail marijuana sales despite the state’s approval of Amendment 64. Without full participation from municipalities, the new law’s true impact can’t be accurately measured.

Tvert sees the bans as merely a temporary set-back, saying, “I have no doubt that we will see many of those communities shift toward allowing [retail marijuana] businesses.”
Among those supporting the bans and battling against the recent legalization are groups such as the Drug Free America Foundation, who argue that the gains in taxes, jobs and tourism will never compensate for the risks and losses they believe will eventually result from increased use of marijuana.

“If you look at alcohol and tobacco, at a national level, we are not raising enough in tax revenues to cover the societal cost related to those two drugs,” said DFDA Executive Director Calvina Fay in a recent Huffington Post article.

Likewise, in a USA Today editorial, former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy lashed out at Amendment 64 supporters for similar reasons.

“There has been a lot of talk about pot lately,” Kennedy wrote. “Discussions of tax revenue, health benefits, violence reduction, and individual liberty. But one issue got completely lost: the developing brains of our children.

“It’s about time we start focusing on the rights of our kids, not pot smokers…I don’t want another massive, heavily commercialized drug industry targeting them. Because addiction is a disease that starts in adolescence, industries know they have to focus on young people for profits. After all, if you don’t start using any drug by age 21, you are unlikely ever to do so.”

Counter to the predictions of some opponents of Amendment 64, recent studies indicate that marijuana use among Colorado teens has not gone up in the past nine months. In fact, if anything, it appears use has been going down gradually since the first medical marijuana stores opened in 2008.

“It’s too early to determine any sort of causal relationship between the shift in policy and the rate of use [among teens],” Tvert admits. “Although it’s certainly worth noting that use started going down… [When medical marijuana stores opened in 2008], we incurred supporters of marijuana prohibition saying [the new law] would inevitably result in an increase in teen marijuana use. And clearly it did not.

“We then heard that if we expand the system for all adults to use marijuana legally that it would result in increased teen use. Marijuana officially became legal in Colorado at the beginning of December 2012. From 2011 to 2013, it went down again at a statistically significant amount, and again, it clearly did not go up.”

Gillette sees the issue from another perspective.

“Personally, as a parent of teen-agers, I love the fact that I can talk to my children and say, ‘In our state, you have to be 21 before you can go buy marijuana.’” Gillette says. “And I love the fact that now we have a system in place whereby you have to show an ID before you can purchase it.”

While retail marijuana is now legal, it certainly has not been accepted throughout the state. Which raises the question: when Gillette’s daughter reaches the age of 21, will the law still be in force? Or will opponents have convinced residents to repeal it?
Advocates such as Tvert and Gillette think their state’s example will be emulated.

“I do think that Colorado is setting an example for the rest of the country,” Gillette says. “And I think more and more politicians will be more likely to embrace that sort of approach.”

A Growing Debate

Will Delaware be the next state to decriminalize marijuana? Legislation will be introduced and debated—once again—in January.

Since 1973, 19 states have done it, from as far north as Alaska, west to Oregon, and south to Mississippi.

A little closer to home, New York and the District of Columbia have done it.

This month, neighboring areas like Philadelphia and Maryland are doing it.

Across the country, states and municipalities are decriminalizing marijuana—minimizing the penalties for possession, removing criminal charges and prison sentences. Instead, those caught with small amounts of pot are given citations for fines, much like a parking or speeding ticket.

Will Delaware be the next state to decriminalize marijuana?


Two years ago, the state legalized medicinal marijuana, and the first of three medical marijuana dispensaries is set to open in 2015. In May of this year, Representative Helene M. Keeley (D-Wilmington), along with 14 other legislators, submitted a bill to lessen the penalties under Title 16 of the Delaware Code. (Title 16 views possession of any amount of marijuana as a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by incarceration of up to six months and a maximum fine of $1,150.) Though the legislation never came up for a vote, Keeley and her group plan to submit a similar proposal in January at the 148th General Assembly in Dover.

Keeley’s proposal calls for a $250 civil penalty for anyone found in possession of one ounce or less of marijuana in public. Offenders under the age of 21 will also be fined $250 and charged with an unclassified misdemeanor, but it will not be recorded in any criminal history database.

“For me, it comes down to the barriers set in place when someone is caught with a small amount of marijuana,” Keeley said. “On a job application, for instance, you are asked if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime or drug offense, many times without the opportunity to explain what the circumstances were.”

“Additionally, when you really start to think about people at the high school or college age experimenting with drugs and alcohol, their futures can really be put into jeopardy with a criminal record,” Keeley said. “I’m not saying that [experimentation] is right, but it happens at that age. Do we really want to kick those kids out of college or take away their scholarships? That would only change lives for the worse.”

Senator Bryan Townsend (D-Newark), who supported Keeley’s legislation in May and will do so again in January, says he has spoken with constituents of all ages who have been arrested for minimal quantities of marijuana.

“I’ve met people who have been arrested and detained for a joint found in their car during a routine traffic stop,” Townsend says. “The next day they miss work due to being detained, then they’re suddenly out of a job, and so begins a cycle where it’s very difficult to keep momentum going to put them in a good place with work and their own livelihood.”
Not everyone, of course, is for decriminalization. Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson (R-Milford) is one of the more vocal opponents. In The News Journal of May 30, Simpson said, “I don’t believe we need to legalize marijuana,” and referred to it as a “pathway to greater drug use.”

…as far as recreational marijuana, I just don’t think we need to go down that path right now.

—Senator Gary Simpson

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“There was some merit, I thought, to marijuana for medical use for people that are sick,” Simpson went on. “But as far as recreational marijuana, I just don’t think we need to go down that path right now. I think my caucus members would feel the same way.”

Despite Simpson’s views, fellow Republican Michael Ramone (R-Middle Run Valley) sees the laws relating to the use and possession of a limited amount of marijuana as “overzealous.”

“I do support decriminalization if it is done the right way,” Ramone says. “Three major issues that need to be identified are the cost of processing offenders versus ticketing them, policing marijuana charges versus true addiction issues, and overcrowding of our prisons with violators awaiting trials.”

“Marijuana laws as they are currently written… create more issues than we are solving,” Ramone says. “When that happens, my duty is to try and fix it.”

I feel pretty confident that more and more people want to see something done on this issue.

—Representative Helene M. Keeley

KeeleyWebKeeley is hopeful she can get the decriminalization bill passed by June. With nearly six months between her official submission in January and the General Assembly’s recess in June, legislators will have plenty of time to debate the issue and see the merits of her plan.

“I feel pretty confident that more and more people want to see something done on this issue,” Keeley says. “Some of my fellow legislators probably didn’t want to vote on such a big issue in an election year, and progressive ideas like this take time.”

Jonathan Dworkin, spokesperson for Gov. Markell, had this to say about decriminalization: “The Governor has expressed interest in ongoing dialogue regarding changing the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. He looks forward to conversations with members of the General Assembly about opportunities to do so.”

Delaware’s Neighbors Decriminalize

When Keeley’s proposal reaches the General Assembly in January, legislators and their constituents can look to nearby states for examples of how decriminalization may or may not be working.

On Oct. 1, Maryland joined the 19 other states in decriminalizing marijuana, lowering the current penalty for possession of less than 10 grams from a fine of up to $500, up to 90 days in jail, or both, to a civil crime of up to $100 for a first offense, with no jail time. Maryland thus joined neighboring Washington, D.C. in the decriminalization movement.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed similar legislation in September, after members of City Council approved a decriminalization bill in May. Councilman Jim Kenney (D-Philadelphia) championed the legislation, which calls for a $25 fine for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, and a $100 fine for public consumption.

“This is a huge deal for the city,” Kenney told Out & About soon after Nutter signed the legislation. “Everything should be in effect by Oct. 20, and it’s going to save the city a lot of money. We have so many people locked up. If we were to put that money into education and treatment, we’d be a lot better off.”

Kenney’s staff estimated that 17,000 police hours were spent on more than 4,200 arrests for marijuana possession in 2013. Coupled with court and prison costs, marijuana arrests cost Philadelphia close to $4 million, according to calculations by Kenney’s staff and the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Of the 23,000 records of those currently incarcerated in Delaware prisons, only 140 are for drug possession under the parameters of Title 16, according to Deputy Bureau Chief Christopher Klein, of the Delaware Department of Corrections. Klein also says that because Philadelphia has city jails to maintain, the cost to arrest and incarcerate an offender costs much more than it does in Wilmington or Newark.

“In Delaware, we do not have county lock-up or city jails,” Klein says “so the financial burden of incarceration within the DOC falls on the state, rather than, say, the city of Wilmington or Newark.”

Wilmington Chief of Police Bobby L. Cummings and Newark Chief Paul M. Tiernan were not readily available for comment regarding the number of marijuana arrests and subsequent expense to their respective departments.

Black and White

Statistics show that decriminalizing marijuana will have a significantly larger impact on the black community than on the white population. According to a study released in 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union, marijuana use among blacks and whites is nearly equal. In 2010, 14 percent of blacks and 12 percent of whites reported using marijuana.

However, when it comes to arrest rates for marijuana possession, according to the same study, blacks were 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested, on a national average. The largest disparity—5.19—took place in Pennsylvania, where Councilman Kenney says 83 percent of those arrested for marijuana were African American

African Americans and young people are being targeted, and that severely cuts off any avenues of advancement, be it employment, education or financial assistance.

—Councilman Jim Kenney (Philadelphia)

472899_10150652569734962_1468811173_o“The disparity in demographics is staggering, really,” Kenney said. “African Americans and young people are being targeted, and that severely cuts off any avenues of advancement, be it employment, education or financial assistance.”

A similar disparity exists in the First State, according to Rachelle Yeung, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based group that lobbies to change marijuana laws. She says Delaware blacks are three times as likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana as whites.

“The thing is, marijuana use, according to the study, is basically equal across all races, yet blacks are much more targeted,” Yeung said. “And a lot of times this is happening in the same areas and the same neighborhoods.”

The case of Keenan Benson, a 43-year-old African American, is fairly typical. In 1997, Benson was charged with felony possession of marijuana. Almost 17 years later, during a routine traffic stop, a police search found a “blunt roach,” or less than an inch of a marijuana joint.

“County Police stopped me because they said there were reports of a Mexican man harassing people in the area I was driving,” Benson said. “Do I look Mexican to you?” Benson asks sarcastically.

“Since the arrest, I’ve shown up in court three times, but the officer has not, so the case has been extended,” says Benson, who served in the army from 1991-94. “Each time I have to go, that’s another day I can’t make work. And when you work for a temp agency, doing construction like I do, missing a day or even a few hours means you’re not likely to get called back for work the following day.”

Benson’s arrest is part of a trend. According to a report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, cannabis arrests in the United States have more than doubled in the last two decades.

In 1991, less than 300,000 cannabis arrests were made in the United States. In 2012, the number had reached close to 750,000.

Michael Ramone thinks marijuana is a “victimless crime,” and believes the cost of making pot arrests can be put to better use.

There should be some level of consideration for people who commit crimes unto themselves as opposed to crimes against others.

—Representative Michael Ramone

Ramone2web“There should be some level of consideration for people who commit crimes unto themselves as opposed to crimes against others,” Ramone says. “If we’re talking about a habitual offender, I understand there needs to be consequences. But before that person gets to their second or third offense, maybe we should be using the money invested in police hours and court costs and put it back into rehabilitation and abuse [prevention] programs.”

Medical Marijuana Awaits Its Dispensary

Even as the debate over decriminalization goes on, one form of possession is technically legal in Delaware: medical marijuana. Since the Medical Marijuana Act of 2012, those suffering from severe and chronic illnesses have had the opportunity to apply for a card that allows them to possess 6 ounces or less of marijuana.

But delays due to changes in policy have pushed the opening of a dispensary for medical marijuana in Delaware back to February of next year at the earliest. Paul Hyland, program administrator for Health Systems Protection in the Division of Public Health, calls early 2015 “realistic.”

The First State Compassion Center is set to open no later than April, Hyland says. Located at the Germay Industrial Park just off Route 4/Maryland Avenue in Wilmington, the 45,000-square-foot facility will include separate grow rooms, an area for processing, and retail space for points of sale.

“The permit to grow has not yet been issued, as security, surveillance and public safety need to be taken into account,” Hyland says. “Once that phase has concluded, it takes 107 days or so to grow, harvest, cure and display the product. Once the dispensary is open, marijuana will be available for sale.”

Medical marijuana card carriers like Buddy La Follette couldn’t be happier. The 51-year-old retired flight attendant has purchased and renewed his card for $125 annually for three years, waiting for the time when he could purchase pot legally.

While he waits for the dispensary to open, La Follette buys marijuana through friends, rather than off the street. He tends to use a vaporizer to “go easy on the lungs,” and also uses the oils from cannabis in butter and cooking, to enhance the benefits.

“I hurt my back at work for U.S. Airways, was put on disability, and later was diagnosed with skin cancer,” the Wilmington resident says. “I’m fortunate to have been awarded a $300,000 settlement from my employer, but purchasing has still been risky for me ever since I got sick.”

Under current law, La Follette is allowed to possess up to 6 ounces at a time in his home. However, if he were to be caught purchasing marijuana in public, he’d be arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law, just like any other citizen.
Even the process involved in securing a medicinal marijuana card was arduous, La Follette says. He had to obtain a physician’s certification and wait nearly three months for a background check to go through before being approved.

“Most doctors don’t even want to touch the subject, and the state of Delaware doesn’t provide you with a list of doctors that do approve [medical marijuana],” La Follette said. “Between that and having to purchase illegally, it can be a real challenge.”

La Follette is frustrated and more than ready to be able to purchase marijuana safely, without wondering what someone on the street did to enhance the drug.

“Yeah, I’m upset. It’s been three years, and the entire time I’ve been paying my annual fee, I haven’t been getting my money’s worth,” he says. “But as soon as that store opens, I’ll be the first one in line.”

By next June, depending on the fate of Keeley’s proposal, perhaps La Follette and other Delawareans who purchase marijuana—for medicinal purposes or otherwise—will have an easier time of it.

Repurposed

Delaware City seeks a brighter future by embracing a
historic past

Drive past the open gates of the intimidatingly tall chain-link fence of the former Fort DuPont. Take a turn at the state-run addiction treatment center, go past the abandoned officer’s barracks, search around a bit and that’s where you’ll find it:

The best picnic table in the state of Delaware.

It sits on a tiny peninsula jutting into the Delaware River from Fort Delaware State Park. Surrounded by water on three sides, it’s the kind of picnic table that shows up in travel brochures for faraway places where you can escape from it all.

And it’s probably the most underused picnic table in the state.

But maybe not much longer. The Fort DuPont Master Plan, developed over the past two years, and now the Fort DuPont Redevelopment and Preservation Corporation, envisions an ambitious $60 million private/public renovation of the state park, with new residences, a restored theater, office and commercial space, open spaces along the water, and a pedestrian bridge that will connect it all to downtown Delaware City.

And the Fort DuPont redevelopment is far from the only change happening inside Delaware City. New construction along the Mike Castle Trail that hugs the C&D Canal will soon connect Delaware City and Chesapeake City, Md. through a 16-mile pathway designed for hikes and bikes. Renovations on Clinton Street have attracted both new businesses and the American Birdwatching Association (ABA), which is relocating from its current headquarters in Colorado to “the premier mid-Atlantic birding area.”

Delaware City is a small town in a small state, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and locals gather at happy hour behind the local blacksmith shop to pop open a can of beer while creating some pop art. It’s a place that embraces its history and its ghosts, unwilling to leave either behind. But in looking to the past for inspiration, Delaware City may have discovered its future.

A view of the harbor at Delaware City, adjacent to its Battery Park. The river town history of Delaware City remains an important part of its narrative today.
A view of the harbor at Delaware City, adjacent to its Battery Park. The river town history of Delaware City remains an important part of its narrative today. (Photo courtesy of the City of Delaware City)

A Master Plan

The fully developed master plan for the Fort DuPont project is available online. A three-foot-wide map of the plan sits in City Manager Richard Cathcart’s office. But to really get a sense of the changes to come, you need to drive around the property—all the better if you can do so from the passenger seat of Cathcart’s car.

“The first thing that’s going to come down is the chain-link fence,” Cathcart says.
The buildings that remain on the fort property are a mix of utilitarian warehouse spaces, beautifully designed historic homes, and other structures in various states of repair and disrepair, many left to decay after World War II, when the federal government decommissioned the fort and turned the property over to the state.

“We lost a lot of history over the years, because the state just didn’t put money into protecting those structures,” says Cathcart.

Some buildings are in use by the three state agencies that still operate on the site, and decisions will have to be made about who stays and what goes, which programs can be moved elsewhere and which buildings are too far gone to be restored. The Governor Bacon Health Center will stay, hopefully with room for additional private practice health care services, Cathcart says. The Delaware Division of Purchasing surplus warehouse? Probably not making the cut.

Among the buildings Cathcart hopes to save is the original post theater, a 400-seat movie theater built on the army base in the 1930s that could become the city’s first performing arts venue. (A similar effort to restore the Tybee Post Theater in Georgia has been underway for the past decade or so.) Waterfront property could become a marina with access to kayaking, fishing and other ecotourism businesses that Cathcart believes can lure visitors.

But ample land on the site will also give room for new construction, starting with a residential project that Cathcart estimates could increase the population of Delaware City by 20 to 30 percent. He says several developers have already expressed interest in the project, and construction may begin next summer.

Refurbishing a Historic Hotel

Megan Sterling cheerfully tends to customers at the bar at Crabby Dick’s at lunchtime on a Tuesday afternoon, serving as a one-woman welcome center for Delaware City, where she’s lived all her life.

“Have you been to the bakery?” she asks. “Have you been to the blacksmith?”
Her family roots run deep in the city, back to the days when Sterlings owned and operated a restaurant by the same name inside the Central Hotel, the nearly 200-year-old building on the south side of Clinton Street.

Delaware Ornithological Society officers Bill Stewart and Sally O'Bryne in front of The Central Hotel, the new headquarters for the American Birding Association.
Delaware Ornithological Society officers Bill Stewart and Sally O’Bryne in front of The Central Hotel, the new headquarters for the American Birding Association. (Photo by Krista Connor)

The Central is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it sat empty for more than a decade before the husband-and-wife team of Dana and Susan Renoll took ownership.
“I never walked by those windows without pressing my nose against the glass and thinking, someone needs to bring some life back to that,” says Dana.

Just as the Renolls started the historical refurbishing of the property with cooperation from the city, a potential tenant came calling. The ABA, the only national organization devoted to recreational bird-watching, will take over three stories of the converted hotel for offices, a welcome center and living quarters.

ABA President (and Delaware native) Jeffrey Gordon considers the state the heart of the vibrant birding scene in the Mid-Atlantic region, an area that a large percentage of the organization’s membership calls home.

“Don’t get me wrong, Colorado is terrific,” says Gordon. “But the board, for some years, has been wanting to move the headquarters, and the big attraction of the Mid-Atlantic is that it’s a great area for birding, along the migratory pathways. And with all the rebranding and revitalization in Delaware City, it just seemed to us to be a good fit.”

Across the street from the Central Hotel, “Merchant’s Row” is mostly full with small art galleries, antique shops and one videogame lounge. Most are open from Wednesday through Sunday, to accommodate tourists, who come to town by car or boat. And at the end of Clinton Street, Crabby Dick’s has been drawing weekend crowds to its deck since owner John Buchheit moved to town and opened the restaurant with his partner almost nine years ago.

So Much Change

Come back on Saturday night, Sterling says. That’s when the crowds come by boat from Jersey, the parking lot at Crabby Dick’s is full and The Larry Tucker Band gets everyone dancing—perhaps like it was back when Sterling’s Tavern was open.

“There’s so much change,” she says. “Big change. But I think it’s for the better.”

Across the street, blacksmith Kerry Rhoades is working in his shop, Forged Creations, putting a perfectly round eye on the iron bird that will soon adorn a railing outside the birding association. Later in the day, he’ll have lunch at Crabby Dick’s, where Sterling will wait on him and try to coax him into making her a metal bracelet that she’s seen him and Dana Renoll wearing around town.

That’s how Delaware City works. The DNA of its people is woven into the fabric of the city. Its history as a river town, as Delaware’s lookout at the mouth of the C&D canal, as protector of Wilmington and all points north—all that is still alive today.

That’s the spirit that Cathcart hopes will draw people. He has worked to promote the historic import of his city by strengthening ties with the state’s other historic river city, Old New Castle, through events like the second annual River Towns Ride & Festival on Saturday, Oct. 4. It’s a one-day bicycle race/ride between the two cities along Route 9, bookended with family activities, pony rides and craft beer tastings from 16 local breweries.

Bicyclists, birders, kayakers—these are the people that Cathcart wants to attract on weekends, to stay and to play, to visit shops and restaurants—restaurants that now include Lewinsky’s on Clinton.

With an infamous name that has made the news on NBC in Philly and among the tittering masses of the blogosphere, Lewinsky’s is owned by a five-person partnership that includes Cathcart, Buckheit and Buckheit’s partner, Dale Slotter. The name gets the publicity, but inside, a couple of blue hoodies for sale are the only hint of the establishment’s provenance.

Steampunk Chic Decor

The décor is unexpectedly steampunk chic. Hundreds of nuts and washers were brought into Rhoades’ blacksmith shop, where he created a distinct railing that leads down a few stairs to a sleek stainless steel bar (once used at Champps in the Concord Mall), and a well-stocked backbar that came from an establishment named Fast Eddy’s in Pennsylvania. Tables fill the restaurant and back outdoor patio, while on the building’s original tin walls Cathcart has hung historical pictures of Delaware City. But the menu is modern and globally inspired, with schnitzel sandwiches topped with chimichurri and flash-fried sprouts.

Here, then, is the new Delaware City, coming to terms with its own past and repurposing it, reshaping it, striking while the iron is hot, finding opportunities in places that have long gone neglected, using its assets to their full advantage while keeping people guessing about what comes next.

“I’ve seen growth in Delaware City a lot faster than the economy’s been growing,” Buckheit says. “I see us being a little New Hope, or the next Lewes. You look at Lewes 25 years ago, and there wasn’t much to talk about. Today, it’s the place to be. And I see that happening in Delaware City.”