Kimberly Ellis' new restaurant on Pigtown's main street isn't open yet, but she's already gotten hugs.
That welcome is one reason why the Baltimore native decided Washington Boulevard would be a good place to base and develop her family's catering business.
And she's not the only one. In the last seven months, at least seven new businesses have signed leases to open along the neighborhood's small commercial district, where vacancies have been the norm for years.
In addition to Ellis' Breaking Bread restaurant, two new boutiques for men have moved to the strip. Around the corner on Carroll Street, Shakers, a new wood-paneled cocktail bar, opened in May. A gourmet food market called Culinary Architecture is in the works to launch this winter. HomeFree-USA, a housing nonprofit, had its grand opening last week.
"People are starting to notice Pigtown," said Ellis, 44. "You have this whole re-emergence of life."
Pigtown has limped along in the shadow of the stadiums and Inner Harbor, frequently eyed by investors as a next frontier despite some problems with crime and violence fueled by the drug trade. And like many neighborhoods in the city, its most visible sign of struggle was the commercial corridor, where many buildings were boarded up for years.
Those in the neighborhood said the street's ongoing, albeit slow, revival reflects the broader economic upturn as well as new private investment that occurred after the city took some properties by eminent domain to try to jump-start economic development.
The recession slowed progress, disrupting the first plans for those properties, but the city asked for bids again in 2011. The winner, an affiliate of Bethesda-based Magnum Construction, finally finished many of those renovations in 2013.
Pigtown Main Street, a nonprofit that advocates for the area, also has worked to focus attention on reducing crime and keeping the streets clean, raising money for signs that mark the area and working with businesses on their plans.
"It's deliberate," said Ben Hyman, who joined Pigtown Main Street as executive director three years ago after working for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "It's not that you can just say that recovery can happen organically and it's a natural thing. It's deliberate and it's intentional."
It was easy to find people to rent the apartments on the upper floors of the buildings, said Magnum Construction President Marc Smith, who owns dozens of properties in the neighborhood. But Smith said he allowed commercial space to remain vacant rather than lease to tenants he felt didn't have strong finances and solid prospects.
"The retail was always a challenge," he said. "A lot of people didn't like me for a long time because I really tried to control what went in."
Smith said he can't quite explain the new burst of qualified tenants, many of whom are investing tens of thousands of dollars to get started. The 2 Chic Boutique, a consignment shop owned by state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh and Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, opened about two years ago and was an early high-profile new business.
Once one business demonstrates success, that brings others, said Rohan Chandra, 32, the owner of Fashion Kings, who started selling clothes in college in West Virginia and hasn't looked back. Chandra, who also moved to the neighborhood, expects to open the store this week.
"Once one person sees somebody do that, it sparks the confidence, and then the next person comes, and the next person comes," he said.
Others have followed at a faster pace, drawn by affordable rents and a central location. Today, just one space that is in a condition to be leased remains empty, Hyman said.
Sylva Lin and Piper Booher, who are renovating one of Smith's properties for the Culinary Architecture market and commercial kitchen, said they wanted to locate in Pigtown because there's a market for the kind of food they plan to sell — freshly baked goods, Australian meat pies, sausages and sauces — that hasn't been tapped.
"This area really needs some places that we can buy some prepared food or bread or get a great sandwich," said Lin, 46, a Union Square resident who previously worked as a personal chef and ran corporate catering in the region for Le Pain Quotidien. "A lot of times, [the area] gets overlooked, but there is a huge population and there is huge food demand."
For the Pigtown Main Street nonprofit, Hyman said, the next step is to make sure the businesses that have moved to the area thrive.
That may be an uphill climb.
Sales at Shakers, the cocktail bar, have been slower than ideal since May, hurt in part by the April riots and their aftermath, said Derrick E. Vaughan, one of the partners in the business, which is named for James Bond's martini catch phrase.
But Vaughan, who established the Corner Bistro & Wine Bar in Ridgely's Delight in 2011 and had considered expanding to Harbor East, said he believes that will change with time, as more business owners like him renovate properties and pay attention to safety and cleanliness.
"It's getting there … but we have to get it to the next level," said Vaughan, 46, who grew up in East Baltimore, lives in Bolton Hill and has worked in the restaurant industry since high school. "We've been saying it for 20 years, but you know what? I think we're going to do it this time."
He has no patience with people who worry about gentrification, he added.
"It's kind of a sad state because … you're saying that you want to live in a slum," he said. "This is business. Do you want to live in a nice neighborhood or do you want to live in a bad neighborhood?"
Faith Tucker, 19, opened the F.L.Y.E Boutique selling men's clothing by Baltimore designers at the end of August, encouraged in part by the presence of other local, black-owned businesses. Since then, she's learned she can't rely solely on foot traffic to drive sales. Even so, she said, she's optimistic.
"We can feed off of each other," she said. "I feel like this is just the beginning."