Meet the Locals: Erin McNaboe
Erin McNaboe has an easy smile, an openness that make people who first meet her feel immediately comfortable, and an ever-so-slight Southern accent—which suggests that she’s not from around here. And, indeed, she grew up primarily in the South. But the thirty-something president of the Rams Head Group is so entrenched in the Annapolis ‘scene’—not just its thriving music scene but also the vibrant cultural, tourism, and philanthropic fabric that runs through the town—that she’s more than earned the title of ‘local’.
We caught up with Erin just after she’d wrapped up a successful 25th anniversary celebration of Rams Head Tavern and hours before she was due to show up at an event celebrating the start of the new legislative session in Annapolis. She talked about the persistence that landed her a job at Rams Head, how she started the now flourishing Restaurant Week in Annapolis, her brave plunge into her favorite charitable cause, her favorite places in Annapolis, and more.
You’ve worked for the Rams Head Group, first as Director of Marketing and now as President, since 2002. What made you want to work for this organization?
Well, they have the World Beer Club here at Rams Head, and isn’t this a challenge everyone should take up—drinking 100 beers from around the world? (Hearty laugh). So I played lacrosse (Hero’s Lacrosse, it’s a local rec league), and would come to Rams Head afterwards to work on my ‘club’. At the time, I was crunching numbers all day as a merchandise analyst. I said to myself: I really want to work with these people. So I reached out and I said: I think you need a marketing person. At the time they had just two restaurants: Rams Head Tavern here and one in Savage Mill, and they were getting ready to open one in Rehoboth. I came in on a Saturday for an interview around 11 or 12 in the afternoon. They offered me a Fordham beer. We had a nice exchange. I thought it would be so great having my job be about promoting parties, beer releases, food. I called every Monday four weeks in a row. They finally gave me the job. I had to teach myself how to design things. I was the only marketing and design person for two to three years. Now we have a team of five.
You came on board as the Director of Marketing in 2002 and are now the President for the Rams Head Group. Talk about how the Rams Head Group has evolved since you’ve been on board, and how you’ve been a part of that evolution.
One thing I can look back and take credit for is the word branding. Each of our locations, three when I started [now Rams Head operates four dining locations, four concert venues, and one brewing company], each had different looks and feels for the beer releases, for example. I said: We need to be coherent in our branding.
We’ve always been a family-owned and -operated business. There can be growing pains associated with that. I was the first person hired who hadn’t gone through the ranks, who didn’t start as a server. That was a real transition. I opened the door for other people. It showed the organization they don’t always have to look from within to hire. Now Rams Head has 400 employees. When I started, they had about 150.
You also are involved in planning some pretty large-scale events for Rams Head, correct? Talk a little about what that’s like.
It’s amazing when you have that blank piece of paper and a date, and you are building all the way up from there. This past year our big event was Silopanna, a local music festival with three stages, 19 acts, and about 5,000 attendees. In the planning phases, our team thinks as if we’re attendees: What do we love and what will we expose people to? We went after local retailers and food purveyors. If we can expose guests to some of our favorite things in Annapolis, it’s a win for everybody.
What’s the best part about your job?
Definitely the people. I have a great team of really positive, hard-working individuals. Every day is something new. In the concert world, one day you can be thinking about country, the next rock.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
Every day is something different. We have so many events going on all the time, it’s a moving target.
The Rams Head Tavern just celebrated 25 years of business. You’ve been a part of the Rams Head Group for much of that time. Does it feel like Rams Head has become part of the fabric of Annapolis, if you will?
I definitely think so. It’s hard to imagine and it’s before my time, but the Muehlhauser family bought the Rams Head Tavern 26 years ago, and they talk about how West Street at the time was not somewhere you’d go after dark. Not only has the Muehlhauser family and Rams Head changed the fabric of the arts in Annapolis, they were the pioneers of the fun, vibrant West Street as we know it today. Rams Head and the Loews Annapolis Hotel are often credited for being the two anchors that kept things going here. Some of our early restaurant managers went on to open other successful local restaurants, like Tsunami, Lemongrass, and Metropolitan. We’re still neighbors.
What do music lovers have to look forward to this year at Rams Head?
We’re always evolving, looking for new music coming up. Our booking agents are wonderful. Kris Stevens has been with us for nearly 17 years. She always has her eyes set on hard to get artists – she doesn’t take no for an answer. She’s been able to pull some amazing wins for us like Lyle Lovett or Gregg Allman. We’re always trying to get new music mixed in there. We’re continuing to expand. We’ve done shows at Maryland Hall—the Indigo Girls, Michael Bolton. Right now, we’ve booked our first celebrity chef event. Chef Robert Irvine, host of the TV show Restaurant: Impossible, will be coming to the Hippodrome in February.
Would you say Rams Head welcomes an even mix of tourists and locals?
We’re a great combination. For me personally, if I have visitors coming to town, I’ll look at the calendar and find a show they’d enjoy. Locals choose to bring visitors to Rams Head because it is a special gem. Plus, we do a lot of outreach for the hotels and try to welcome visitors to town that way.
Ultimately, I would say the audiences are primarily locals just because of the fact that when the tickets go on sale, they tend to go fast. It’s a small, intimate space; we only have room for 300.
You’ve just been named the new chairperson for Visit Annapolis and Anne Arundel County (VAAAC). Why have you made this commitment to the bureau?
I have been an active member of the Bureau since I’ve been with Rams Head. I’ve loved Annapolis a lot longer than that. My first job was scooping ice cream in Annapolis at what was then called Green Street Ice Cream. Now, it’s Kilwins. I would ride my bike 45 minutes to work there. I have a real joy for the locally-owned shops and restaurants. I want everyone to do well.
What do you hope to accomplish as chair of VAAAC?
In recent years, I’ve definitely seen the Bureau transition to a full-on, powerhouse destination marketing organization. What a great time to be able to get involved and be a part of marketing the county. Connie and her team have done such an amazing job. I’m hoping to continue to support them and amplify their message. They’re on a very positive trajectory. I want to continue to help support that trajectory. I also want to continue to find ways to further embrace the international traveler.
A big part of tourism is dining. You started Restaurant Week in Annapolis. Talk a little about that.
I was on the Annapolis Business Association board, I believe the first year was 2009. I had the privilege of seeing how other restaurant weeks in other cities were run, and said to myself: We can do this. I figured out how to spend the marketing budget; basically, we had no middle man. It was just about getting people in the doors.
In the first year of the Annapolis Restaurant Week, we were just shy of 30 participating restaurants. The participating restaurants loved it. They were so happy with it. Since that time, I’ve passed it off to the Annapolis Business Association, and it’s grown in scope. VAAAC has added additional support.
During Restaurant Week, you get people trying out new places or somewhere they felt like they couldn’t normally afford. Our restaurants are very unique. A lot of them are locally owned and operated. It’s about getting people in the door for the first time.
You’re also a big supporter of the Annual Maryland State Police Polar Bear Plunge. How did you get involved in this event, which benefits people with intellectual disabilities, and what do you do to support it?
What a ride it has been with our friends at Special Olympics of Maryland! Rams Head’s involvement with the plunge began in 2008 when we hosted the kick-off party for the Plunge season at Rams Head Live. Since that time, our involvement has grown. Over the last five years we’ve hosted the Rams Head Ice Lodge at the Polar Bear Plunge. We work with our year-round partners to donate product (beer, wine, liquor & food), our restaurant and venue staff volunteer their time to work the event, we line-up the bands and we throw a big, frigid party—100 percent of the proceeds goes to Special Olympics.
Additionally, we plunge. The last two years some of us working the event all day Saturday have chosen to plunge at the Corporate Plunge on Friday and another team of folks plunge on Saturday. And I’m proud to say I earned the title ‘Super Plunger’ when I plunged 24 times in 24 hours in 2011.
The Polar Bear Plunge IS the winter event in the county. It supports a wonderful and meaningful cause and we love the extended family we have gained with the Special Olympics.
I’m sure your work schedule is hectic. But when you do get a chance to relax, what are some of your go-to hangouts in and around Annapolis?
I love Vin 909 for their very farm-fresh approach to dining. I like the small neighborhood feel of it. My kids and I like to feed the ducks. So when we get out on the weekends, we spend a lot of time feeding ducks—at the City Dock and Acton Cove Park, and getting coffee or ice cream. I love the Eastport Lights Parade, and shopping on Maryland Avenue. For gifts, I love Lilac Bijoux on Main Street and Annapolis Pottery. I like going into Wine Cellars, where Navy grads are selling you wine, beer, and champagne. My wedding ring is from Zacharys. I have so many different connections to Annapolis.
Where do you take friends when they visit?
Brunch and happy hour at Rams Head. Our Jazz Brunch is great. I also love to send friends on a sunset sail aboard the Schooner Woodwind. Middleton’s for an Oyster shooter. A tour of the Naval Academy. Cantler’s for crabs. I also love the waterfront and fireside bar at Chart House in Eastport for dessert or happy hour, especially in the winter. Lewnes’ Steakhouse is my special occasion choice.