By May Wildman
Not only does he live within walking distance of his iconic, self-titled restaurant, Mike Franklin has lived in Hyattsville for more than 20 years, raising his two daughters here. He is the chairman of the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation and his wife, Debra, works as a math lecturer just down the street at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“My business and my personal life are all kind of intertwined because I’m the guy with the two-block commute who knows everybody in town,” he said.
Franklin, 53, graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis with a degree in classics. He intended to eventually go to graduate school, but ended up traveling around the region as a toy salesman for 19 years. He and his wife moved to Hyattsville after they got married because the city’s location accommodated both of their jobs—she was a teacher at the National Cathedral School in Washington at the time.
He started Franklin’s as a deli and general store in 1992, in a building that was formerly a hardware store. Back then, Franklin stocked convenience store items and beer and sold sandwiches. What he found surprising during this time was that of the beers, craft beers were the ones that were selling, not mainstream brands.
“There weren’t any other retailers selling that type of beer in this whole area,” he said. “So if you wanted a craft beer six-pack, you came here.”
So when he wanted to expand his business, he decided he would center the expansion around a microbrewery, spawning the two-story building that's associated with Franklin’s today. He figured if he catered to those who wanted craft beer, it would succeed.
Yet Franklin said there was great risk in expanding the business.
“It’s very hard, unless you lived here for a very long time, to understand what a bad reputation this area had and how hard it would be to get a loan and how skeptical people were that a big restaurant would work in this location,” he said.
The new addition was completed in 2002. Today, the brewery at Franklin’s is still the main draw for many. The microbrewery has won several awards, including most recently, seven medals at this year’s 15th Annual Great International Beer Festival in Providence, R.I., in November.
Franklin's Success Due to Craft Beers and Eco-Friendly Food
The food at the restaurant is also worth a mention, according to Councilwoman Paula Perry.
“You will not find onion rings anywhere like he makes them," Perry said.
The fare is mostly twists on standard American favorites; sample grabs from the menu include a grilled chicken sandwich topped with buffalo sauce and bleu cheese and a vegetarian cottage pie.
In the general store, one can find toys, jewelry, funny cards, candy and popular craft beers.
Although Franklin’s restaurant seems like a firmly established Hyattsville stomping ground, he is still on his toes about whether it’ll always be that way.
His restaurant is already facing steep competition with the newly-built Busboys and Poets down the street along with the other restaurants that are part of the Hyattsville Gateway Arts District, and with new establishments looming in the Cafritz development, he is afraid even more businesses will eat away at his niche.
While Busboys and Poets, makes it clear on its menu that the restaurant uses organic and local food offerings, Franklin argues that his restaurant is even more in touch with the eco-food movement, but “brags about it” less.
“We’ve been doing organic coffee for the last five years,” he said. “We buy from local farms, we just don’t shout it…its hard when you’re competing with Mahatma Gandhi.”
He points to his current favorite item on the menu, the "Day after Thanksgiving" sandwich. Franklin said he drives up to a Scaggsville, Md. farm and buys local turkeys, brings them back and roasts them in-house.
“All we do on the menu in terms of bragging about it is say Maple Lawn Farms,” he said.
Building The Fabric of the Community
Franklin’s restaurant is an embedded part of the community. Every three months the Hyattsville Community Arts Alliance displays a gallery of work by local artists. Franklin likes it because it gets him décor on the walls that he doesn’t have to jury, while supporting the creative efforts of Hyattsville.
“It builds up the fabric of the community,” he said.
Franklin is very willing to work with organizations to host fundraisers, according to Perry. He is also known to be generous to those in need of financial assistance for a cause.
“Whenever anybody’s having an event, the first one they go to is Mike Franklin, because he donates,” Councilwoman Ruth Ann Frazier said.
Of the many factors that contributed to Franklin’s business success, perhaps it was his experience traveling as a toy salesman that pushed him to make Franklin’s what it is today.
“I had been a successful toy salesman for a long time, seeing businesses do well in what other people thought were quirky, weird areas,” he said. “I really felt strongly that if I could pull it off, that is building it, and opening it, that we would be successful.”