In the kitchen of the old Woman’s Industrial Exchange, three generations of LaShauna Jones’ family are making a hot dog.
Jones, her blue hair in curls, keeps an eye on the vegan hot dog and strawberries that her daughter, Daejonne Bennett, 26, is searing on the stove. Jones reaches behind her to turn down the flame before they scorch. Just feet away, Bennett’s 7-year-old daughter squirts condiments into plastic ramekins.
“I have my own pretend cafe,” Daniyah Awkward announces. It’s called “Happy days.” She even has a slogan: “If you taste a bite of my food it will make you happy forever.”
With an occasional assist from the 7-year-old, Jones and Bennett and their hot dog company, Sporty Dog Creations, are injecting new life into the partially vacant building at 333 N. Charles St. previously occupied by the Woman’s Industrial Exchange. For now, they’re just using the kitchen and operating a carryout business. But they have plans for more. Jones is raising money to renovate the old-fashioned lunch counter downstairs, most recently Jack and Zach Food.
It’s a fitting next chapter for a building that has offered support to generations of Baltimore women.
The Woman’s Industrial Exchange was started to provide women a means of supporting themselves. At the shop on Charles Street Baltimore’s craftswomen sold homemade goods: pickles, preserves and needlework. The Exchange took a 10-cent commission on every item. By 1882, two years after it was founded, a Sun column called the Exchange “among the most practical and important of our benevolent agencies.”
By the 20th century, the Exchange was famous for the restaurant behind the shop, where uniformed waitresses served plates of chicken salad with tomato aspic and an array of pies. Guests often picked up handcrafted gifts in the storefront. After years of decline, the Woman’s Industrial Exchange ceased operations last year. The Exchange donated the historic building to another woman-focused institution, Baltimore’s Marian House, a Catholic-run organization that helps women, many with children, transitioning from jails, rehab centers and homelessness.
Marian House is still figuring out what exactly to do with the five-story building and has formed a task force to come up with ideas that help advance the organization’s goal of moving women “from dependence to independence,” as their slogan goes. The Maryland Women’s Heritage Center is currently leasing the old gift shop area. Just behind it, the former restaurant remains eerily intact — its tables and furniture ready for guests who haven’t walked in in years.
Peter McIver, deputy director of Marian House, said the organization is “taking a little gamble” on Jones and her business, Sporty Dog Creations, who plan to serve customers at the downstairs lunch counter in coming months. As of now, there are no plans for the much larger restaurant.
Jones is working on raising $25,000 through a crowdfunding effort that invites individuals to become investors in the business. “We want to support her. We want to help her to succeed,” McIver said. “We admire her enthusiasm and vision. … We think she’s through the worst of it and good things are going to come down the road.”
For Jones and Bennett, starting a business together has been more than about just making money. It’s allowed them to make up for lost time. As a single mom, Jones said, she often raced out the door to work before her kids were awake, returning home sometimes just before bedtime. As a business partner, Jones is mom all over again — pushing her sometimes-introverted daughter to be more outgoing with customers, to persevere over obstacles and to keep an open mind.
To work — and to work hard — had always been second nature to Jones, who grew up in Turner Station, a Black neighborhood in the shadow of Sparrows Point in Baltimore County. She went on to play basketball at Dunbar High School, and to coach high school basketball as an adult. Her stern steelworker father — who made the Colts practice squad — encouraged in her a love of sports and die-hard work ethic.
Bennett said seeing her mom made her want a little more balance in her own life. “I try not to overwork,” she said. In 2017, Bennett had been in and out of jobs as a prep cook, and Jones said she was starting to worry that her daughter, then 22, lacked direction in life. “I wanted her to have something of her own,” Jones said. She needed “something to reach for.” Jones wanted to inspire her own kid the way she’d coached players through the years.
At the same time, Jones was restless for a career change of her own after leaving behind a job as an organizational design consultant for the federal government. While volunteering with Greenmount West Community Association, she learned the group would be opening a farmer’s market for the summer. She turned to her daughter: “You love food,” she said. Jones envisioned a small stand that would provide some income.
Customers at the farmer’s market became a focus group, providing feedback in real time. After hearing that many people didn’t eat meat, they decided to create a vegan dog to serve along with their beef and chicken versions. One time, a woman approached them wanting to know why they had a hot dog called “The Greek” on the menu, and one named after the Ravens, but they didn’t have a hot dog representing Black history and culture. Jones decided to name a dog for the Baltimore Black Sox, the Negro leagues team, and top it with black-eyed pea chili and onions.
“We pretty much started from almost nothing,” Bennett said. Jones used her savings to get started.
Though her daughter is grown up and a mother herself, Jones offers Bennett plenty of maternal guidance as they work — pushing her to engage more with customers when she’d prefer to work anonymously at the grill.
“I’m learning how to be more social,” Bennett said. “That wasn’t me at the beginning.”
One roadblock has been physical injury — Bennett was hit by a car in 2016 while walking home from work, and the event has had lasting repercussions. She has suffered back spasms and pains that get worse when she is on her feet for long hours. Jones makes sure she’s not on her feet as much these days; Bennett has switched to prepping for now. “The end goal is to push her into more of a managing and training role,” Jones says.
Jones has felt her training as a coach and athlete kick in numerous times, for example when they were struggling to formulate the recipe for their from-scratch sausages. “I told her, ‘We’re gonna fail a couple of times, this is new to us,’” Jones said. “We’re not gonna get it right away.”
Soon after they’d first set up at the farmer’s market, Jones was scoping out the other stands and caught sight of some gorgeous strawberries. They’d go great on hot dogs, she thought.
Bennett thought she was nuts, but Jones was undeterred. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna find a way to do this. This is going to come together.’” Jones won out on the strawberry debate: A sausage topped with berries, arugula and balsamic vinegar reduction is now one of their specialties.
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Jones in turn is also finding out new things about her daughter. For example, she recently learned that Bennett doesn’t eat strawberries.