Baltimore high school students open 'pop up' restaurant in Remington

A dozen Baltimore high school students have transformed an empty kitchen at a Remington food hall into a bustling burger restaurant with a line of customers.

After months of planning — writing a concept proposal, designing logos and creating recipes and a menu — the Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School class is serving customers from a "pop-up" space at R. House.

Seventeen-year-old Noah Wortham sees the experience as a chance to try a future career. When he graduates in June, he plans to attend community college and settle on a course of study: computer programming, astronomy or culinary arts.

"As far as being a chef, it's not just about the food," he said. "It's being able to connect with people on a cultural level. When we're making the food and they actually taste it, they can feel the love that's put into it.

"You want to turn a burger into something that's more than just a burger. You want it to be something everyone's talking about."

The students' restaurant, Noisy Burger, will be open through Tuesday. It is the first project of its kind for the city school system's modern culinary arts program. The students are staffing the restaurant, rotating as cooks, cashiers and managers.

Nearly 500 city students receive training in the culinary arts and commercial baking programs that are offered at five high schools, including Mervo, Edmondson-Westside and Carver Vocational Technical.

Michael D. Thomas, director of college and career readiness for Baltimore City Public Schools, said students are trained in commercial-grade kitchens and cafes, earn industry certifications and get real life experience. They cater events for the mayor's office and host sorority functions, student events and government luncheons at their school cafes, he said.

"It goes to show that not only is the education working, but it's benefiting our students and the community," Thomas said. "Our students are able to get the training they need in high school and take it to the next level when they enter the industry."

The district asks graduates of the program to report back on their success finding work in the field, Thomas said. Of last year's graduates, more than 85 percent in the food and beverage management program reported landing jobs, as did about 75 percent of those in the baking program.

Thomas said the temporary restaurant at R. House, located at 301 West 29th St., puts the students' training to the test.

"They have to plan from A to Z," he said. "This isn't something they show up and participate in. They have to plan the venue, the menu, the design and the concept.

"They have to do the inventory and food prep and serve a good meal. The students are ready and they're well prepared."

The restaurant grew out of a new collaboration between the students' teacher, Chef Natasha Blake-McDowell, Mervo and the community group Noisy Tenants. Ten percent of the burger sales will go toward stocking a refrigerator at a Greenmount West community center. The rest of the money will go toward covering costs.

Nicholas Mitchel, co-founder of Noisy Tenants, said the restaurant's menu was chosen after a student competition. They submitted proposals featuring foods including pasta, chicken or burgers. Noisy Tenants, founded five years ago, works to connect businesses, schools and neighborhood leaders on projects that can create positive change.

"Everything you need to open up a business, they were directly involved in," Mitchel said. "We talked through a lot of brainstorming sessions. It was about teaching them that you're not going to know all of the answers, so how do you think in a way that allows you to get the answers and execute your vision."

The Mervo students began developing the restaurant in January. They settled on burgers, and are offering locally bought beef patties, turkey burgers, fries and milkshakes. One recipe with "bleu and gold" for the school colors features bleu cheese crumble and Carolina-style gold barbecue sauce.

Amy Langrehr, a consultant and Charm City Cook food blogger, ordered the "classic" burger topped with cheddar cheese and traditional fixings when she stopped by the restaurant Wednesday. (Her take: the patty was flavorful, the toppings fresh and the bun warmed to just the right temperature.)

"These kids are hardworking," Langrehr said. "They're energetic. They're having fun. They're learning great skills and they're making great food."

Stephanie Hsu, marketing and events manager at R. House, said Noisy Burger will be the fifth restaurant to use the "pop up" stall since the trendy food hall opened in December. The kitchen offers appliances, counter space, outlets and pots and pans. Guest chefs must bring ingredients and staff "to bring the space to life," she said.

"When you speak with the students, their eyes just absolutely light up," Hsu said. "To be in the position to provide the opportunity to them is one we couldn't pass up."

Dave Sherman, who owns a nearby kiosk, the Ground & Griddled, ordered a couple of burgers and offered some advice to the newbies: "Just keep grinding. Don't get your head down. Just keep plugging away. If you do things the right way, things will probably work out for you."

Senior Tajah Williams, 18, helped the student kitchen keep pace, calling out order details to the cooks, sliding boxes to customers and greeting passersby with a broad smile.

She said should would lean on her experience working at Burger King, but was feeling anxious about the pressure of turning around orders at R. House in about five minutes and ensuring customers have a good experience.

"We had to think everything out," Williams said. "Just because we're students, or young adults, we can run a restaurant just as well as someone older can."

Blake-McDowell said she hopes the experience gives the students a taste of working in the field and sparks an interest in future entrepreneurship.

"It prepared them to say, 'I could open up my own restaurant in the future," she said. "'If I did this in the twelfth grade, imagine what I can do two or three years from now.'

"Sometimes our students don't think beyond Mergenthaler high school, and I wanted them to get the opportunity to see what can happen when you allow your mind to open and be creative."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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