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A Taste of Opportunity

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Downstairs at 7 W. Preston St., the neighborhood cafe that boasts some of Baltimore's best ice cream is waking up to Latin jazz.

In many ways, the Sylvan Beach Cafe, with its blond wood, ginseng juice and chocolate soy ice cream, is a typical upscale cafe: A law student juggling a stack of books orders a medium latte to go. An English professor takes a coffee to her usual spot by the window.

The professor has a vague idea that something more than homemade ice cream is being made here. But she doesn't know the full story:

The guys dishing it out are young, high school dropouts. Old friends still try to woo them back into Baltimore's drug trade with the promise of big cash. They hope for something else, though. They want in on the big plan, the plan to go wholesale, open franchises and sell stock. The plan announced modestly on a sign taped to the front door: "Sylvan Beach Cafe: The next Ben & Jerry's starts here." The dream of the guy living upstairs.

Sean Smeeton is working the phones in the apartment above the cafe, chatting up restaurants, shops and institutions to buy his ice cream wholesale.

Naive? Smeeton will you give that -- he was naive when he set up this nonprofit foundation nine years ago to help men in trouble with the law run their own business, live together and change their lives. Even its name was romantic -- Sylvan Beach, after the vacation spot on Lake Michigan where he summered as a child and families passed down their cottages one generation to the next.

Naive, maybe, but bold, too. Smeeton was a 28-year-old middle-class guy on a promising career track at an accounting firm. And it might not have happened if he hadn't volunteered to coach a basketball team at Francis Scott Key Middle School in a mentoring program sponsored by his employer, Coopers & Lybrand.

Picking up a bunch of 13-year-olds from the Lexington Terrace public high-rise apartments, he had seen gang members with guns patrolling the hallway, and he was shocked. Growing up in Fairfax, Va., he'd never been exposed to anything like that. It was no wonder, given the ready market and the money that changed hands, that kids who lived at Lexington Terrace were dealing drugs.

The day a kid on his team was shot, he was putting the final touches on a major accounting report. For weeks, he had been besieged by frantic bosses. Driving to deliver the report, he realized his worry could never compare to the worry of a kid in Baltimore, a kid the same age as his younger brother: that, today, he might be killed.

After the shooting, it was hard for Smeeton to go back to being just an accountant. He became a mentor to Carroll Skipwith, the boy who was shot, visiting him at home twice a week. And he read with interest an article in Parade magazine about the founder of Delancy House in San Francisco, a nonprofit residential and commercial complex built and run by 500 ex-cons. The Delancy House businesses grossed $35 million annually. The program made perfect sense to Smeeton.

Within two years, he and a colleague at Coopers quit to start their own version of Delancy House. Skipwith, who had scored 1,000 on his SAT and was bound for college, mowed lawns with them the summer of 1993 to raise money for the project. The Sylvan Beach Foundation opened in April 1994 with five recovering heroin addicts referred by the courts. They lived quietly with Smeeton, his business partner and the partner's husband in their house in Homeland. They started their Lawn-care business with clients from the neighborhood and nearby Roland Park. Smeeton didn't tell anybody who the crew was -- for fear the stigma would cost them business.

The first year was rougher than Smeeton ever imagined. There were tensions in the house. His colleague quit. And he scrambled for money and to find another place for the five guys. A low-interest state loan and $7,000 from the Abell Foundation bought the 19th-century rowhouse on West Preston Street.

Before Smeeton moved, he learned that Carroll Skipwith, an honors student in his senior year and a likely starter on the Southwestern High School basketball team, was leading a double life. A police raid of his Lexington Terrace home turned up cocaine, thousands of dollars and guns under his bed.

Smeeton tried to have Skipwith released to his care but ultimately could only try to comfort his mother. The teen-ager was tried as an adult and convicted.

All that promise wasted -- it made Smeeton work harder in the lawn business.

Some nights he worked until 8 before returning to Preston Street for hours of self-esteem sessions with the guys. The landscaping business expanded to include customers in Baltimore County, big private landowners. The guys were supposed to run the business by themselves, but they couldn't. When anybody quit, Smeeton worried the business would fall apart. New recruits showed up at 7 W. Preston St., miraculously. But there was no time for them to study or learn the business.

New line of business

Smeeton started searching for other business opportunities. When his bid for a Ben & Jerry's franchise was rejected, he decided to open a cafe in the house, creating his own homemade ice cream that could also sell nationally.

With a lawn employee who would become his right-hand man, Smeeton learned ice cream the way he learned landscaping, by reading and talking to experts. A lawn customer, Peter Nobel, then owner of the Coffee Cafe on York Road, taught them about coffee beans. Smeeton and the guys demolished the first floor and basement of 7 W. Preston themselves.

Two years later, in April 1999, the Sylvan Beach Cafe opened to rave reviews. Twice, its ice cream was voted Best of Baltimore in the City Paper's annual contest.

"Nobody does it better," Marvin Hamlisch, composer of a song by that name, wrote on an autographed photo for the cafe. "Really," he added.

Members of the Baltimore Symphony and University of Baltimore faculty who liked their espresso straight up formed lines at the counter.

Then came kosher bagels and a mostly cold lunch menu. Space doubled. Law students studied together in the new back room. Kendra Kopelke, the professor who took the corner window every morning to write poetry, hired the cafe to prepare a breakfast for 500.

But summer came, and the students went home and the Baltimore Symphony shut down. Two cafe employees didn't work out, and Smeeton had to ask them to leave. Sylvan Beach residents could no longer be referred by the courts. They had to live by the house rules and work for low salaries to build their futures. And Smeeton found few willing to try.

Finding their niche

That first year brought another blow: A deal to supply ice cream to Ruth's Chris steakhouses -- won with a presentation by a customer studying marketing at UB -- fell through. The foundation didn't know it needed a wholesale license to supply the ice cream; nor did it have the money needed to make the renovations to get the license.

For a year-and a-half, Smeeton, now 37, and Felton Barney, his right-hand man, ran the place themselves while they discussed what to do: Maybe younger guys with less baggage stood a better chance of running a business?

They talked with people at Living Classrooms, a nonprofit foundation in Baltimore that runs a rigorous 40-week job training program for juveniles. Would any of the "Fresh Start" graduates want to forgo their old neighborhoods to live at the Sylvan Beach Cafe?

The first group of 18-and 19-year-olds quit after four months. Only one new recruit arrived. Smeeton held on.

By August, the foundation's debt had climbed to an untenable $75,000, double what it was two years earlier. For nine years Smeeton had worked to realize his idea without taking a salary. For the first time, he considered quitting.

Stop, stop, stop, Smeeton's mother urged.

Are you sure you want to quit? his father asked.

The concept had worked in San Francisco, Smeeton told himself. And it had worked in Yonkers, N.Y., where a bakery run by the hard-to-employ supplies many of the city's gourmet restaurants and even fills orders from the White House.

The idea was so good, he wondered why no one else had done it in Baltimore. Then there were the teens who quit school and hang on street corners. They really do die, Smeeton reminded himself. Only one kid on the Barclay Middle School basketball team the guys at the house had coached went to college. Three are dead.

If he could just hold on.

At the end of the summer, a law student who had studied for her bar exam at the cafe offered to try to raise money for Sylvan Beach. Then, two guys who used an office in the house to develop their own business handed Smeeton $10,000.

The Sylvan Beach Cafe was a go-again.

By then, Chris McArdle, 25, a chef who had worked at Joy America, the restaurant in the Visionary Art Museum, had knocked on the door. He had tutored and cooked for the homeless at a Dorothy Day House in San Francisco. McArdle agreed to join the program, working without pay for a while and helped overhaul the menu and cut costs.

And there was Ronnie Davis, 20, who embodied the promise of Sylvan Beach.

When Davis started 10 months ago, Smeeton was making sandwiches and ice cream in the basement kitchen. The first few weeks, Davis would run to the stairs and yell down: "Mocha?" and Smeeton would yell up the recipe: cocoa, espresso and steamed milk.

Smeeton no longer works the kitchen; he finally has time to recruit wholesale customers. Davis is running the counter.

"Somebody needs to wake up," Davis tells a woman who orders the "biggest coffee you have." The customer, Cynthia, laughs. Her first time back to Sylvan Beach Cafe in weeks and with a new class schedule, she explains, "I won't see you guys as much."

A paperback book lies open next to the cash register, the title upside down: To Kill a Mockingbird.

"Who's reading that book?" Cynthia asks. "It's great isn't it?"

Davis reads an hour before he comes downstairs -- a house requirement. He forces himself to put away the book. It's not a good example for the intern he is supervising this week.

With his cafe hat ripped across the rim and his affable manner with customers, he has become the face of Sylvan Beach and the emblem of its friendly atmosphere.

Smeeton has watched Davis interact with the regulars, many of them UB faculty and students. One student lifts weights with him at the gym. Two have made him a CD. Another tried to discuss the film To Kill a Mockingbird. "Don't ruin it for me," Davis begged.

By now, Davis could have moved into his own apartment and continued working here. He's staying at the Preston Street house as long as he can.

"I'm waiting for this place to blow up, so I can be manager," Davis says.

Smeeton is working on the expansion plan.

He needs a few catered breakfasts each week for the cafe to break even and pay himself and the chef. He wants 30 wholesale contracts before he approaches potential sponsors again. He has three -- Fleming's, the steakhouse at the downtown Marriott, Mugavero's Confectionary in Little Italy, and the Hollywood Diner near City Hall.

Two more graduates from Living Classrooms have moved in -- Melvin Conaway, 20, and Harry Vinson, 19. Vinson has always loved to cook. Only now he's trying recipes from the Le Cordon Bleu cookbook,borrowed from chef and tutor McArdle.

Smeeton eats with the guys every night at 6 p.m., when the cafe closes. One recent night in the upstairs kitchen, Davis led grace. The table talk rambled from Mike Tyson's troubles to a comparison of Kmart and Target.

With McArdle in the house now, Smeeton knows the guys face hour-long quizzes on their reading material. Next is Ernest Hemingway's, The Sun Also Rises.

The transition is starting, Smeeton can see.

Delivering sandwiches from the downstairs kitchen, the guys get to talk with their customers, college students and professionals, and imagine what it's like to be one. At Smeeton's invitation, they have been to university lectures and symphony performances. Vinson got his paperwork in last week to start community college. Davis is getting his GED. They all have to work toward a high school equivalency diploma or be in college to keep the job. And they have to save $50 of their $190 weekly salaries.

"Don't expect to be scooping ice cream the rest of your life," Smeeton has told them.

Every night, he teaches them the business. From 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., the clicks of computer keyboards fill the upstairs conference room. Davis hums as Smeeton moves from computer to computer explaining the Excel program.

The Sylvan Beach crew already knows what a cafe sandwich costs to make, what it sells for, and how many the team needs to sell every day to make money.

Except for the week in December when Smeeton closed the cafe and took everybody to Disney World, they have been trying to run the show.

And, for the first time, Smeeton is thinking of moving out, to a place of his own.

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