Women's Industrial Exchange

Marguerite Schertle, age 94, still quick on her feet after 50 years as a waitress at The Woman's Industrial Exchange. (Baltimore Sun photo/Amy Davis / November 2, 1995)

The storied Woman's Industrial Exchange will reopen in November as the Woman's Industrial Kitchen, according to Irene Smith.

The Downtown luncheon room, famous for its chicken salad, tomato aspic and no-nonsense waitresses, will reopen on Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving. The operator will be Smith, whose Souper Freak truck has gained a loyal following.

Smith will be returning the luncheon room, which she is calling the Woman's Industrial Kitchen, to the way old Baltimoreans remember it, with a menu of simple homemade favorites like meatloaf, chicken salad and, of course, the famous tomato aspic. Fans of the Souper Freak shouldn't panic, though; it will be operated by Smith's trusty sidekick, Louise Thomas.

The Woman's Industrial Exchange stopped operating the lunch room in 2005 2002 (see update) when a succession of outside operators came in with fresh lunch concepts that never gained widespread approval, at least not from Downtown diners with sentimental attachments to the old ways. For some hardcore fans of the lunchroom, things were never the same after a 2003 renovation.

"This will be a living history museum celebrating Maryland women," says Smith, who is planning menu items honoring Maryland women like Barbara Mikulksi and Nancy Pelosi. Smith is confident she will able to recruit the kind of waitress that will fit into the program -- "they have to be sassy and motherly." Asked whether a man would qualify for the job, Smith said, "as long as he's sassy and motherly, yes."

Since 1880, the mission of the Woman's Industrial Exchange has been to "provided opportunities for local craft artists to refine, market, and sell their handmade goods to supplement their income." The gift store, which operates on a consignment basis, has remained in operation. The Exchange moved into the building at 333 N. Charles St. in 1887 and purchased it in 1889.

UPDATE, Oct. 18, 8 p.m. The lunchroom's recent history is complicated. It shut down in 2002, and reopened 18 month later, in December 2003, after an extensive renovation with an outside operator named Rozz DuPree who ran it as a close facsimile of the orginal. The lunchroom closed again in January 2005 only to reopen that same October with a new operator, Jerry Edwards, a new name, Chef's Express, and a new concept - at this pont, there was no longer table service. Bridget and Galen Sampson of The Dogwood assumed the lunchroom's operations in late 2008 and lasted there just about a year.

Meanwhile, a Sofi's Crepes operated on the lower level for several years until recently, when Ann Costlow moved began a relocation to Belvedere Square. The Exchange’s board is very close to naming a new operation to go into that space.