Ned Atwater owns six restaurants in the Baltimore region — from Canton to Towson to Falls Road near Lake Roland — but the one nearest to him, and that holds a special place in his heart, is in his hometown of Catonsville, right on the main drag of Frederick Road.
In the years since the Atwater’s Catonsville opened in 2008, first as a bakery, now as a full-service restaurant, the business has become the unofficial community hub.
“In some restaurants, you’re pressured to turn over tables, but this doesn’t have that feel, this is a relaxed feel,” Atwater said during an interview seated at a table on the second floor of the Catonsville cafe. “Right off the bat, we knew it would be that place. We don’t care if somebody sits up here for fours hours [with a cup of coffee].”
He said he’s proud to have created a restaurant in the community in which the public can be comfortable.
“You want to create a space where people can feel like they can come in and, like, sit across from their neighbor because they recognize them,” he said.
The Catonsville restaurant — like all the Atwater’s locations — serves food and sells bread that’s prepared at the “Big Kitchen” on Whittington Avenue in Baltimore. Guests in Catonsville order food or coffee at the counter before grabbing a seat at a large wooden table downstairs or a smaller table upstairs. The lunch and breakfast menus include kale, lettuce, rosemary and other greens that are grown locally.
On any given day in Atwater’s, located at 815 Frederick Road, a visitor is likely to see a student with a cup of coffee working over her laptop, old neighbors reconnecting or members of a nonprofit board holding a meeting upstairs, all amid rustic, farmhouse decor and a gentle playlist playing over a few speakers.
When flooding devastated Ellicott City earlier this year, for example, Lindsey Baker, executive director of the Patapsco Heritage Greenway, said she and others in her organization met at Atwater’s.
The open nature of the restaurant, and that so many people come and go on a given day, was a good thing, she said. It allowed her to be introduced to individuals from the Catonsville area she had not yet met since starting her job with the Greenway in January.
“It was kind of interesting, because the norm when you’re in a coffee shop is like you’re just picking a spot; sometimes at Atwater’s you end up sharing a table,” Baker said.
Because of its atmosphere and location — and, according at least one candidate for state office, its coffee — Atwater’s Catonsville has become an important meeting spot for politicians of both parties.
State Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat who represents the Maryland House’s 12th District, which covers parts of Howard County and Baltimore County, including Catonsville, uses Atwater’s to interact with constituents in the area.
“I decided early on that I was not going to rent a district office space, that that would be a waste of state money,” Ebersole said.
Instead, when people want to meet, Ebersole likely finds a coffee shop like Atwater’s. He said the cafe is “comfortable” and “terribly convenient” for him as a Catonsville resident.
“You’ll invariably run into people there, it’s fun,” Ebersole said.
The cafe isn’t just a popular hot spot for incumbents. Melanie Harris, of Arbutus, is a Republican looking to win one of the three House seats that represent Maryland’s 12th Legislative District. She opened a campaign office in Catonsville, on Newburg Avenue.
“I was really excited to not only invest in the community but to be in somewhere that is such a thriving part of the community. [Being near Atwater’s] is definitely good for meeting people,” Harris said.
Harris said she has “a vision” for Arbutus, that it becomes as pedestrian-friendly as Frederick Road in Catonsville.
“Not that it’s not, it’s just not on the same level right now,” she said.
The candidate was a fan of Atwater’s before the election, too. In August 2017, she had her baby shower on the second floor of the cafe.
“I am there all the time,” Harris said. “They recognize me, even if I’m not wearing the campaign shirt.”
Restaurant owner Atwater said he thinks it’s “great for the community” that politicians take meetings at the location.
“I think just by being there, they know they might be approached by someone in the community with a question,” he said.
Atwater said he does not want to change the restaurant’s feel, because a business’ comfortable atmosphere can naturally take a long time to develop.
“We don’t want to change that, that’s a good thing,” he said.
Instead, Atwater wants to take small steps to refine what the Catonsville restaurant offers. He said all the Atwater’s locations are taking measures this year to improve efficiency and save money — some of the operations lost money last year, he said.
All around, his business broke even last year, Atwater said. But for the first time since opening, the Catonsville location was profitable last year.
This year is “doing better, we’ve made some changes to make it so we can do better across the board,” Atwater said. “The ones that are struggling are struggling a little bit less. The ones that did well are doing a little bit better.”
One bigger change coming to the Catonsville location is a dinner menu. Atwater’s Catonsville has been closing at 6 p.m., but after Oct. 26, the restaurant will offer dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, from 5 to 9:30 p.m.
The menu will feature large and small plates, Atwater said. Other locations — the first opened in 2003 — operate later in the evening than 6 p.m. but do not offer different menus for dinner.
“We’re not going to get a liquor license,” Atwater said. “If we had a liquor license, I think it would change the feel of the business during the day.”
For customers ordering dinner, though, Atwater said the restaurant will stock some wine glasses so folks could bring in bottles — without paying a corkage fee.
Regardless of a dinner menu, Atwater said he’s glad that the cafe has become “a place for people.”
“Our mission is to make people’s day every day here,” he said. “People can come in and feel like they can really relax, sit down and meet a neighbor or, you know, do some homework. That's really a success.”