Nestled in the heart of St. Michaels, The Fool’s Lantern stands as the town’s first and only self-serve wine and taproom. Named in homage to the town’s historical commemoration of the resilience and ingenuity of its residents during the War of 1812, it is a vibrant and welcoming new addition for locals and visitors looking for a unique experience of exploration and discovery.
The concept was inspired when husband and wife Mike and Kristin Hannon and their close friend Michele Conti visited a wine bar in Italy. Captivated by the lively atmosphere and the camaraderie it fostered, the trio saw an opportunity to create a similar concept of that magic in their own community. “At first, we decided to offer just wine,” said Mike, then a simple menu, then we agreed on beer. It eventually grew into what it is today—a full-service restaurant.”
They formed a partnership based on their diverse backgrounds and shared entrepreneurial spirit. Mike understood restaurants. He had started in a large corporate environment in Baltimore and then went to work for a startup business. “Then I got the startup bug,” he said, “and worked in various other startup businesses in various industries. One was food tech, and the other was fast casual dining.”
Kristin also had her own success story–as a veterinarian. She was so successful that for several years Baltimore Magazine voted her clinic ‘Best Veterinary Practice in Baltimore.’ Said Kristin, “Although you may think starting a restaurant is a different business than the one I was used to, it’s actually kind of similar. You’re starting from scratch, building a client base, managing inventory and employees, and trying to create a good product. So pretty much the same thing, just a different industry. Veterinary work is a physically and emotionally taxing profession, and I enjoy it, but I was ready to do something new.”
Meanwhile, Conti brought her business savvy, which both Hannons found irreplaceable. “Michele is very resourceful and always willing to pitch in, and we approached the idea with her about being a partner with us. She agreed,” said Mike.
The final component was adding Gretchen Gordon, as General Manager, to the team. Gordon, who had been part owner of the much-loved Latitude 38 in Oxford, knew the restaurant business very well. Said Mike, “Having someone who is truly experienced like Gretchen, who knows what they’re doing in the kitchen, was important. She is somebody that I can hand the keys over to and say, ‘Okay, I built it, now you go and run it.’”
For her part, Gordon was willing to take on the challenge. “When I met them, their concepts were amazing. They had every detail worked out. I came in on their great ideas and threw out some of my own, and we just worked out a great menu.”
On April 1, Fool’s Lantern opened its doors on Talbot Street, unveiling an impressive selection of 24 wines and 12 beers.
The centerpiece of the establishment is the ‘Drink Wall,’ which dispenses wine or beer beverages of choice through the push of a button. The system allows patrons to buy a drink card (linked to their credit card) and then explore the extensive assortment of wines and beers at their leisure. Guests can choose between a sip (2 ounces), a taste (4 ounces), or a glass (6 ounces) of wine, while beer is dispensed by the ounce. For those who may want to try various options before committing, Fool’s Lantern even offers a pour-your-own flight option, allowing people to sample and compare a selection of four wines or beers. The available variety provided by the restaurant is curated and rotated with meticulous care by the owners.
So does an ever-changing Drink Wall mean you may not find your favorite wine next time you visit Fool’s Lantern? Not necessarily, said Mike: “If we find a popular wine or a popular beer, we’re going to have it stick around for a bit. One of the things I’m looking to do, especially with our wine program, is to feature certain wines for some time and then hold back a couple of bottles and make them only available for purchase by the full bottle. We can then expand our portfolio beyond the 24 on the wine machines.”
Besides the wide assortment of beverages, a carefully crafted menu is designed for sharing and savoring, including charcuterie, tapas, breadboards, sandwiches, dips, and desserts (think house-made chocolate fondue!). Like the wines and beer, the restaurant’s commitment is to produce an experience that will be shared and talked about.
Perhaps one of the talking points will be how technology is used to streamline the ordering process. Through QR codes available at each table, guests can effortlessly place their food orders, eliminating the need for interaction with the wait staff. Prefer the more traditional method? Servers are also available, as is a beverage wall person, to guide patrons through the self-serve experience, providing recommendations and answering any inquiries.
Technology is also in use to ensure conscientious consumption (and prevent underage drinking). Fool’s Lantern has implemented a “responsibility meter” connected to the self-serve system. This feature regulates the number of servings a card can access. After reaching the meter’s limit, patrons will undergo a sobriety analysis if they wish to continue pouring beverages. This thoughtful approach enhances safety and reduces the risk of overindulgence. “I think it’s better than a traditional bartender,” says Mike, “because the software is systematized and keeps track of what’s being poured, vs. relying on someone’s memory.”
As Fool’s Lantern continues to evolve, the team remains willing to try new and innovative ideas. They recently added a breakfast menu, complete with a build-your-own Bloody Mary/Maria bar. Guests can select a vodka or tequila option from the wall and add it to the tomato blend, which according to Conti, is a secret recipe created by Gordon. It can be finished with one of over 20 toppings, including pickled green beans, celery, pickles, and cucumbers, and then various hot sauces and spices.
Response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. Fool’s Lantern is positioning itself as an alternative to the places people can visit in St. Michaels. “Come to our place,” said Mike, “have a drink, have an appetizer, and then go and enjoy the Bistro, Theos, or the music at Carpenter Street Saloon. Or visit us after you enjoy them and hang out in our informal environment that is more conducive to conversations. Or spend the evening with us. We think we’re filling the void in the marketplace.”
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