'Cheers' for the Coffee Set Changes Hands in Annapolis

Steve Duffy, holding the door, and his sister tried to create a
Steve Duffy, holding the door, and his sister tried to create a "Cheers" mentality at the City Dock Cafe in Annapolis, attempting to know most of their customers' names and coffee drink choices. (2003 Photo By Craig Herndon For The Washington Post)
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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

For years, folks about town have called it the "Cheers" of Annapolis, but few knew that the image of that iconic television show was written into the employee handbook.

"It's right in there," said Steve Duffy, "the Cheers mentality and the seventy-seventy rule. We're going to know the names of 70 percent of our customers or what 70 percent of them drink."

Only they're drinking coffee or espresso or lattes, not beer.

Duffy and his sister, Kerry Duffy Doyle, sent a buzz through Maryland's capital city yesterday with news that they had sold the City Dock Cafe, the home away from home for legislators, runners, rowers, retirees and college students who pass through in waves every day after the doors open at 6 a.m.

Born in a shop that once sold burgers and hot dogs, it came into being before a Starbucks seemed to sprout on every corner and before laptops replaced newspapers as the companion to morning coffee.

"Most coffee in those days was sold in restaurants. There really was nobody else around in the coffee business," said Web Chamberlin, who founded the place in 1993 with a partner as Cafe Northwest, a tip of the hat to Seattle, where coffee shops were the rage.

"We told people we were going to let you come in and feel comfortable and stay and not have to move on quickly, like some restaurants that want to turn over tables," Chamberlin said.

Later that year, the name was changed to City Dock Cafe, and a decade ago, Chamberlin, who now is 78, sold to the Duffy siblings. Steve Duffy, who got into the coffee business at 22 on the strength of a $15,000 loan from his parents, solidified the concept with rule number one: "We are a local watering hole."

"We did not build this business to serve the tourists. They are the icing on the cake," Duffy said, sitting in the shop, which is tucked in a corner near the City Dock in downtown Annapolis. "Our manual has five pages on coffee, five pages on espresso and about 25 pages on customer service."

From every appearance, and the testimony of customers, creating the "Cheers mentality" has worked. And what is that? The handbook's rule number three dictates that "interaction between staff and customer [should be] more like a friend than a business transaction."

"They were really the perfect family store, loved by employees and customers alike," said John Hartnett, a General Motors retiree who first entered the shop as a customer and later became an occasional employee. "It was inviting. When you walk into a Starbucks, everything is just perfect. They were the flip side of that. It was a more friendly environment."

There is a certain order to the day at City Dock, as nearly everyone calls it. Doors open at 6 a.m. When the runners begin arriving about 7, the first set of regulars, often including Hartnett and his wife, Joyce, is in place. The women rowers arrive next. Between then and the opening of state offices, Sen. John C. Astle (D-Anne Arundel), who lives only a few steps away, and his cronies arrive to debate the issues of the day at the back corner table as the headed-to-work crowd rushes through.

Midmorning come the tourists, who meld into the lunch-hour soup-and-sandwich folks, and then the St. John's College kids arrive with their laptops, hanging around as the late-night bar exodus passes through for a final cup of coffee.

It felt like a lot of places, except that familiar faces outnumber the strangers.

"It's really emotional to do this," Duffy Doyle said of the sale. "But the timing was right."

The new owners, Grover Gedney and his wife, Karen Johnson-Gedney, have lived in Annapolis for years and say they know better than to meddle with success.

"Steve has built a legacy," Gedney said.

"They're a family," Johnson-Gedney said. "We want to stay true to what Steve and Kerry have built."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company