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Bill Muehlhauser

Jan 29, 2014 10:47AM ● Published by Arden Haley

Call it “a devotion to a dream” and you’d have hit the nail on the head for the secret of Rams Head Group founder Bill Muehlhauser’s success. It’s an ethos that’s been ingrained in son Kyle Muehlhauser, too, who now heads the multifaceted restaurant-and-entertainment group (with six bustling locations) that also produces some of the region’s top grossing concerts. There’s no shortage of anecdotes when recalling the Rams Head story, as both Bill and Kyle demonstrated during my casual conversations with each, where good humor and laymen’s language ruled. As Bill recounts his early career endeavors in a number of different pursuits, particularly as a car salesman, you get the sense that you’re about to hear a story of the American dream. And so it begins.

A year after moving the family from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Anne Arundel County in 1988, Bill and wife Paula were not enjoying the type of success for which they had hoped. Bill steadily sold cars at Phipps Buick, but wasn’t breaking sales records, and Paula was just establishing herself in the real estate market. “We were both sort of struggling back then,” Bill says, “So I asked Paula if she could find a little bar or restaurant to buy.

“We looked at a bunch, but they were either very run down or unaffordable in Annapolis. One day Paula called me to have lunch at this little downstairs pub on West Street. We had sandwiches and my first piece of quiche that I ever had in my life…and that was it. We fell in love and ended up buying it.”

The Rams Head Group, as it eventually came to be known under the Muehlhausers’ ownership, was established in 1989. Kyle recalls the early days, when he was just 12 years old. “One of the things I learned from my father is being a ‘seven days a week guy,’” Kyle says. “He’d take me there, even on weekend mornings prior to opening, to check on everything. What I ended up learning were the ins and outs of the business.”

Rams Head’s growth developed slowly but surely—room by room, restaurant by restaurant, and venue by venue. That cozy little pub would become the flagship location of a dining and entertainment dynamo, and an anchor to the revitalization of the West Street corridor in Annapolis. Each year, Bill would negotiate the expansion of the restaurant into a neighboring property and then another, and another, until his all-in-one dream brew-pub, restaurant, and entertainment venue was complete. And he’s got a good story about that, as well. “I always preach this, even when I was in the automotive business,” he says. “I would try to sit down during each New Year’s Eve, usually alone, and, over a beer or two, figure out what I was going to do the following year that would excite me, grow the business, and try to make it a goal. One year, it was acquiring the little tea room in the back. Another year, the drycleaner—now the upper bar area. And then it was the barbershop.

“The city was very accommodating at that time. We had quite a bit of support from Mayor Hopkins and Chief Ellis. They knew the West Street corridor was in need of serious investment. And the addition of Gotts Garage [across the street from Rams Head] really helped solidify the plan.” For 10 years, the Annapolis location flourished (as it continues to today). Kyle would graduate from Severna Park High School and eventually the University of Maryland. Then on one Sunday morning in 1999, Bill took Kyle to Rudy’s Tavern off General’s Highway for eggs and a couple brews. “I looked at him and asked ‘Well, what are you going to do now?’” Bill recalls. “He said he’d like to work with me in the business. And I knew at that moment that we were going to have to grow. And so that’s also how all of this developed.”

The “all of this” is now six successful locations, including Rudy’s, aka Rams Head Roadhouse. The opening of their second location, Rams Head Tavern at Savage Mill, in 1999 kicked off a period of rapid expansion into markets outside Annapolis. Within five years, the Roadhouse and Rams Head Live! opened their doors. Two years later, Rams Head Shore House was born. Most recently, Rams Head Center Stage opened at Maryland Live! Casino. The music and entertainment arm of business soared to boot, with On Stage (part of the Annapolis location), Live!, and, now Center Stage, having hosted top grossing headliners and local performers. Altogether, Kyle estimates the Rams Head Group now employs about 400 staff, excluding the brewery side of the business.

Oh yes, and there’s the beer. The popular Fordham brands that flank bar taps and retailer shelves throughout the Mid-Atlantic were revived in 1995 by Bill, who caught the wave of the West Coast brewpub concept and married it to Annapolitan history by establishing Fordham Brewing—in the old savings and loan bank that adjoined the original Rams Head—named in honor of Benjamin Fordham, who was given a charter in 1703 by Queen Anne to establish a brewery in the heart of the bustling port city. “We went out to Portland and throughout the country exploring brewpubs, which were virtually unheard of here back in ’95. And that’s how we decided to make that investment,” Bill says. Within 10 years, Fordham moved its full-time brewing operations to Dover, Delaware, expanding production. (In 2007, the brand would merge with Old Dominion Brewing Company, creating a delicious and successful craft brewing partnership.)

Today, Bill is semi-retired and living the good life in Key West, Florida. Kyle took the company reins from his father about four years ago. Both are still involved with the philanthropic endeavors of the group, namely as a chief sponsor of Special Olympics of Maryland and the National Aquarium in Baltimore. And though things have seemed slow and steady for the past several years, both men hint of things to come.

“Right now we’re aggressively exploring out-of-state opportunities,” Kyle says. “The On Stage room is a very unique experience and a concept that we’re looking to expand.”

“Kyle is looking to expand north, which I support, but I don’t want anything to do with the cold weather,” Bill says while laughing. “I sure do miss the day-to-day work though,” he continues. “I’d say, you’re probably going to see a Rams Head down here soon…very soon.”

“Back to seven days a week?” I ask him half-jokingly.

“Well, more like six,” Bill replies. “Paula’s approved me for that at least.” We’ll soon see just how far the next dream will take them.

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