Dovecote Café looks to create strong local bonds

Inside Dovecote Café
Inside Dovecote Café (Marie Machin/For City Paper)

Bright, sunny, and inviting, Dovecote Café (2501 Madison Ave., [443] 961-8677, dovecotecafe.com), located in Reservoir Hill, might not look revolutionary, but it is.

Since Aisha Pew, Aisha's mother Gilda Pew, and Aisha's partner Cole opened Dovecote a little over a year ago, the eatery has served as a kind of incubator for people, ideas, and talent in this city—social change with a scone on the side.


The three came to Baltimore from Oakland, California and they knew just one person—Aisha's uncle. They were beginning to feel stuck in Oakland, Aisha says, and wanted a fresh start in a new city.

"We were just watching such intense gentrification and we were becoming so angry that we couldn't see. We realized it was like quicksand, you were no longer productive. We weren't able to channel it into anything we were proud of," she says. "So we were really trying to then think about, with the resources that we do have, how do we create something that is actually inspiring and moves people past anger to then start thinking about what is possible."


The café serves breakfast and lunch, and also hosts a number of community outreach activities. One program is Brown and Healthy, which gives participants the chance to learn about yoga and fitness, or hear related lectures. Aisha describes the program as an internalized response to the Black Lives Matter movement: Whereas Black Lives Matter is an external fight against racist power structures, Brown and Healthy cares for the wellbeing of the fighters: "That's mental health, that's physical health, that's wealth building. All these things that internally we could be doing to showcase that we matter to ourselves and each other."

The people working for Dovecote are pretty revolutionary, too. Here, the staff is all black—something Aisha says isn't on purpose—and there's more to it than that.

"I think if people look at our team they'd think that it's all women and at first I was like, 'Oh, what are we modeling in terms of gender diversity,'" Aisha says. "But, we have a number of folks that are trans identified, that are masculine of center…So we do gender diversity in this amazing way that on the surface looks one way and you start scratching and it looks very different."

She says that at Dovecote, they take special care in how they acknowledge and encourage their team of chefs. One of the ways that happens is with their periodic Chef Takeover events. During each takeover, a different chef gets free reign over the space to cook a fancy meal, and gets to keep all of the profits. Not all of the participants are specially trained at a culinary school, and Aisha says that some of them have balked at being called "chef."

"What I always say is, What came first the chef or the culinary school?" Aisha asks. "For a long time black women couldn't and didn't participate, but a lot of our recipes were used. We've always been cooks, we've always been in the kitchen, and so were we not chefs then? Or were we chefs and there was no culinary school? It's really tough to hear, especially incredibly gifted culinary artists [who] feel like they're not enough because they haven't been pedigreed by a system that was never meant to proclaim them enough. But what we can do then is provide space to say just the opposite, publicly, that you are enough and you will have this restaurant and this is your restaurant and you will sell out and you will make incredible food and you will be revered."

Baltimore is not always an easy place to integrate yourself into if you're an outsider. Bonds created by the side of the city you come from, or the high school you attended, are super strong. However, in its short time, Dovecote has worked hard to build a sturdy and ever-expanding network and community here.

"Before we even opened officially we were popping up all over the neighborhood," says Cole, who is in charge of Dovecote's business development.

They partnered with Everyman Theatre to host a program called ReWINEd. Participants attend a play at Everyman followed by dinner and discussion at Dovecote. This week, they also partnered with Baltimore Free Farm to give out free fruits and vegetables just in time for Thanksgiving. A lot of the wares for sale at the café—things like artwork, books, candles, and T-shirts—are from local vendors, too.

Cole says that community is at the heart of their business, and includes pretty much everyone who walks through the doors.

"Our community is intergenerational," she says. "From small little babies all the way up to grandparents. Our community includes our baby doves who are young kids who have worked here and sweep and bring in furniture and really get to know our neighbors. They are all the amazing young artists, artists of color, who are here in the city, who have found homes in this space and place. Our community is basically the neighborhood and community and all of these amazing young entrepreneurs and innovators who've embraced us while we've been in the city."

When it comes to running the café, Gilda says that things at Dovecote tend to be more free-flowing and equitable than at most other establishments. She says that the team picks the foods they plan on selling together at meetings held once a week. The try to use locally sourced produce as often as they can.

Gilda has been cooking for years, and when the café first opened, she used to come in at 3 a.m. to bake the day's goods. Since then, she's tutored the other chefs so that she could take a step back. She has, she says, one rule when it comes to food: "It should be pretty and it has to taste good. Other than that, I think you're good."


It's around noon, the Sunday just before the election, and the crowd has descended upon Dovecote for coffee and brunch. About 10 people sit outside at the café's brightly painted tables in chairs, soaking up the sun. Inside, people chatter at the various seats and tables on either side of the tiny establishment, or wait in line to point out their order from the board on the wall that has the days' special scrawled on it, or pick out a pastry from glass serving dishes on display.

Cole slides out of the small area where food is prepped and drinks are served with a large tray filled with pie slices. The café is selling pies for the holidays and people quickly crowd around to get a sliver of sweet potato or apple pie.

Among those in the café is Abdu Ali. The local musician just held the Kahlon Mini-Fest at The Crown the night before. Ali sits with a group of mostly New York-based musicians he brought in for his party.

"I wanted them to see black Baltimore and show them that we own shit, we support each other, solidarity and just supporting black business in Baltimore," he says. "The food is good and I feel like a lot of times, the food is good because you can tell somebody put a lot of love into it and that's what I feel like with them. It's love, great hospitality here, it's just really comfortable."

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