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Something to call her own: Baltimore baker still launching her business, despite pandemic

Amanda Mack reminisces with her grandmother Yvonne Roy, during a stop at the homestead at McCulloh Homes Tue., February 25, 2020.

Five seconds after walking inside the bakery she planned to open soon, Amanda Mack spread her arms on the white countertop like a pilgrim hugging a sacred stone. She had arrived.

Days later, she got the news. Developers were again postponing the opening of Whitehall Market, the gleaming new food hall in a refurbished Jones Falls mill where Mack planned to launch her long-dreamed-of business. Originally set for early spring, the date had been pushed back several times in part because of the coronavirus.

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The Baltimore baker, 32, grew up learning to cook at the side of her grandmother in the McCulloh Homes housing project. After spending years volunteering on community farms, managing a cafe and selling baked goods to classmates, Mack was ready to open Crust by Mack, selling homemade pies and other goodies.

“This is going to be difficult to navigate, especially if I don't have any revenue,” Mack said. “It’s very frustrating.”

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Restaurants have been among the businesses hardest hit by the government-mandated shutdowns meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with some eateries in Baltimore already announcing they won’t be coming back. Others are moving their dining rooms outdoors and applying for permits to close streets. Against this daunting backdrop, Mack and a few other restaurant owners are preparing to actually open new ones, modifying their businesses to suit a world that suddenly looks so different than a few months ago.

She’s reworked her menu to offer cookie dough and boxes of treats that she hopes will be more suited to quarantined customers. And she’s praying that people will want to eat them.

The virus also pushed back the hotly anticipated opening of NiHao, a new Canton restaurant from Lydia Chang and pastry chef Pichet Ong. Now, Ong is exploring a possible meal kit option, or supersized cocktails to go.

In Little Italy, baker Keiller Kyle has added online ordering and a pickup window to his Ovenbird Bakery so customers will be able to safely purchase his freshly made sourdough.

Across the city, 47 new food facilities have opened in Baltimore since the pandemic began, according to Adam Abadir, director of communications for the city’s health department.

Some believe that the tedium of quarantine will help spur demand for new places to eat.

David Tufaro, developer of Whitehall Market, hopes the timing will actually be “ideal” for vendors like Mack and others at the food hall. Most of the concepts that are coming are carryout-friendly — they include a cheese shop and a taco stand — and vendors are able to offer options like curbside pickup. “People are anxious to get out.”

Mack’s grandmother, Yvonne Roy, is worried about her. It’s far from the picture-perfect opening they’d envisioned. Mack tries to reassure her, and to keep herself calm in the process. “It’s something you’ve just got to take one day at a time.”

Mack grew up less than 3 miles away but worlds away, in McCulloh Homes. From the outside, it was a rough place. The HBO series “The Wire” was filmed here — Mack says she was an extra on the show six times.

But on the inside, Mack says, McCulloh Homes was the safest place she could be, a loving and nurturing environment, site of cookouts and family gatherings. From her grandmother, Roy, who still lives in the homes, she learned to bake, budget and hustle. Mack hopes to bring that familial passion for food to her business.

Amanda Mack reacts to seeing her newly completed stall, Crust by Mack, in the renovated Whitehall Market.

Money has often been tight; the family learned creative ways to get by. As a teen, Mack helped her mom, who ran a small catering company. When she was graduating from City College and needed a way to pay for her graduation gown and class ring, Roy encouraged her to sell baked goods to her classmates.

From the closet came a dark blue and gray suitcase with wheels and a pole handle. It was “pretty beat up,” Mack remembers.

In those days, before Mack was much of a baker herself, she and Roy wheeled the suitcase to Lexington Market to buy doughnuts, hundreds of them. She’d load them in the suitcase, take them to school in a taxi, and sell them all in a day. Roy gave her advice on how much to put aside for the next day’s purchase.

Mack got that class ring and went off to her freshman year of college at Frostburg State University. But after getting pregnant, she moved back to Baltimore and finished up at Coppin State University.

Meanwhile, her cooking education at her grandmother’s side went on: She watched Roy in the early mornings, as she prepared buttermilk biscuits from scratch. And after the birth of her son, when Mack moved with her husband, Jarrod, to White Marsh, the lessons happened over the phone.

From her grandmother, Mack learned how to cook with all her senses. “Don’t wait until it’s too late. Taste it over and over.” Mack can make apple pie spice with her eyes closed; as she’s whisking it, the aroma of ginger will tingle in her nostril. She learned to fail. “It’s OK to mess up. That’s how you learn.”

After years of practice, proof of her abilities came in the form of a pie crust, made from scratch, and served to her grandmother.

“I said, ‘Mandy, where you get this pie crust from?’” Roy said. Later, when Roy asked her granddaughter to prepare the pie crust for a family gathering, Mack teared up. She had all the validation she needed.

From her grandmother, Yvonne Roy, Amanda Mack learned how to cook with all her senses. Feb. 25, 2020
From her grandmother, Yvonne Roy, Amanda Mack learned how to cook with all her senses. Feb. 25, 2020 (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“That’s how I knew I could. I could cook. I could bake,” she said. That was three years ago.

Her life focused on food: She volunteered at community farms in Baltimore and consulted on projects to improve food access in low-income neighborhoods. She even wrote and illustrated a children’s book called “Greens Don’t Grow in Cans.” And then she managed Dovecote Cafe, a black-owned coffee shop in Reservoir Hill, publishing her signature recipe for kale salad in Food and Wine Magazine.

Then came her own small business, Crust by Mack.

In the beginning, when people asked whether she had been “classically trained,” she questioned whether she could call herself a chef. All her hard work, skills and passion: “Is it going to be enough?”

Business experts say it will be tough.

Post-pandemic, new establishments in particular may struggle to build trust with consumers, and to make the cash they need to stay in business, says Awesta Sarkash, government affairs manager for the Small Business Majority, a national advocacy group.

Without established payrolls, these new places face another barrier: None of them will qualify for loans through the federally funded Paycheck Protection Program, Sarkash said. Her organization is working to increase grants available to business owners, particularly women and minorities like Mack who are often left out of traditional funding streams.

Amanda Mack learned from her grandmother Amanda Roy how to bake, budget and hustle. Feb. 25, 2020
Amanda Mack learned from her grandmother Amanda Roy how to bake, budget and hustle. Feb. 25, 2020 (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

For Mack, the bakery in Whitehall Mill is the product of generations of hard work — and at the same time, she hopes, a better future for her own three children. On the menu: Roy’s biscuits, Mack’s pies, and a peanut butter and jelly pastry invented by her 13-year-old son.

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She’s learned to embrace imperfection; the fork marks in her crusts and slightly off-kilter shapes are a mark of authenticity. Buttery and homemade, her sweets look yummy but never too pretty to eat. “I want it to look real. I want it to feel real. I want it to taste real.”

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Weeks out from opening, she stood inside the newly renovated market, her 2-year-old daughter in her arms. “We’re trying to build a legacy,” she said. The business will be “something to call our own.”

Then, another setback.

The May 25 killing of George Floyd and triggered memories of so much injustice and danger. She felt angry and exhausted. Going into the market to prep, she felt the heaviness of being the only black vendor in a majority white space. “I had to leave.”

The week the market was set to open, Mack felt too depressed to bake. “I can’t create from a broken heart,” she wrote in an Instagram post.

Though some unfollowed her, many more offered support. She was flooded with orders.

Talks with her grandma also helped her regroup. Roy shared memories of life during the civil rights movement. “Every day was hard," Mack reflected. “They didn’t give up.”

On Thursday, she took a video of her grandma’s first-ever visit to Whitehall Market. Roy shifted her weight to a cane as she entered the glass doors. A surgical mask tucked beneath her chin, she smiled as she took in the shiny white subway tiles and the green plants her granddaughter had decorated with.

Together, they headed to the kitchen, where Grandma once again kept her on track with gentle calls of “Mandy." Side by side they chopped strawberries for the following day’s special. Little by little, Mack started to feel at home.

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