Mark Gorkin, perched ramrod straight in his ergonomically correct chair, gazed out the window at Mad City Coffee to the parking lot beyond. The licensed social worker breezes into the independently owned Columbia coffee house a lot, he said, rubbing the stubble on his chin. It's his sanctuary; a haven where he crafts flowing verses of rhyme on his well-worn Toshiba laptop. To huddle with old friends and enthusiastically reach out to new ones. To escape isolation and boredom in his apartment.
"There are a handful of people I can greet," said Gorkin, 67, a social worker and public speaker who bills himself "The Stress Doc and Motivational Psycho humorist." His loyalty to Mad City is ferocious: almost daily, he typically shows up for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. "I like the ambience," he offered with a shrug. "There's a sense of continuity."
Sitting at the table across from Gorkin was Elvis Evans, a federal contract writer and soon-to-be-published author. "Mark's my muse," he said, his smile widening. "He's brilliant. He's a genius at taking what's in his heart and putting it on paper."
Like so much of America, Howard County's robust retail landscape is becoming increasingly homogenized, with uniformity a key guidepost to profit. Big-box stores build and nurture strong logos, as product inventory and product arrangement create deep, lasting impressions in consumers' psyches. But there is still room for aggressive entrepreneurs to carve out a niche when it comes to opening small, home-style, independent coffee shops. Mad City, with more than a decade of success at its location on Cedar Lane, has solidified its brand, selling fresh-roasted coffee and pastries and presenting live music on the weekend. Its success has led to the opening of a kiosk inside nearby Howard County General Hospital.
While the big chain shops like Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks are well-entrenched and serve a vital role in helping to drive forward economic and social well-being, the family-run spots "each have their own unique personalities that cater to various needs in the community," said Leonardo McClarty, president and CEO of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. "From the pseudo-library function where people go to sip coffee, read and get away from their normal daily distractions, to those shops that host local musicians and provide a cozy gathering spot for friends."
Northeast of Columbia, the line at Bean Hollow snaked nearly out the door, as people of all ages inched closer to the counter to place their orders. Inside the historic structure, a one-time funeral home, life richly abounded, with patrons sipping java from real china cups the size of soup bowls. The biggest crowd-pleaser: the Honduran blend. The soup menu had carrot ginger and Maryland crab.
Shannon Brill, standing on the chilly sidewalk with her husband, Adam, said she likes Bean Hollow.
"I just don't like the corporate set-up" of other shops, she said flatly. "I like Mom and Pop shops."
"We brew here, we roast our beans here," said Ben Weinstein, one of the four or five employees racing around the cramped, rustic dining room to meet the Saturday demand. "This is a go-to spot," said Weinstein, 19, a philosophy student at Washington College on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "People feel a strong sense of community here."
For Alexis Sanchez, of Odenton, her first visit to Bean Hollow is a sensory delight.
"I really like it," declared the 20-year-old art student. "I like the historic atmosphere of it all. I like the vibe places like this give off."
However, there were a few detractors. One woman, a federal employee from Laurel, remarked that the high decibel level might discourage some from hunkering down with work. "It's not the place to come and do work on a laptop p— not today, anyway."
"We have stronger coffee than Starbucks," announced Zoey Gross, who works at the Little French Market, a short walk from Bean Hollow. The customer base includes those who work nearby the small, colorful shop on Hamilton Street. "We already have their drink waiting for them when they come to the counter," said Gross, a Howard Community College student who has worked "on and off" at the shop since 2011. The other crowd is those who order from the vegan menu. Finally, there are the tourists who stroll the streets and browse the shops.
"Our biggest selling coffee is Orinoco. It's pretty killer coffee. And we have really good espresso," she said. Gross credits the location of the shop, in Old Ellicott City, to its popularity. "They like the vibe."
A longtime coffee shop, Touché Touchét, enjoys steady business in the Atholton Shopping Center on Shaker Drive in MacGill's Common. On a Sunday morning, customers padded past the wind chimes blowing in the breeze to eye the red velvet, lemon drop and key lime cupcakes. Quaint miniature lamps add a nice touch to the modest assortment of small round tables. Munching on a sausage egg croissant, Akhila Chandrain, who lives with her son on Cedar Lane, declared she "likes it very much. You get a homey atmosphere and people are very helpful. I find their sandwiches much healthier. I find them a little too greasy at Dunkin Donuts."
Farther west, in Glenwood, Casual Gourmet has been in business for eight years, according to Dana Carroll. The eight-table shop attracts customers from two nearby public schools, the Glenwood Branch library and the Gary J. Arthur Community Center, she said, adding "and we're right off Route 97, so there's a lot of traffic in and out of Montgomery County." The shop, which serves a Fair Trade brew, also offers items such as candy and Yankee candles.
On another afternoon, at the peak of the lunch hour, the soft strains of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 wafted through Ruthie's Deli in Clarksville. The shop, tucked away in a small strip center on Ten Oaks Road, across the street from St. Louis Roman Catholic Church, sports a functional, minimalist motif. As students from the church school frolicked on the rear playground, customers came and went at a brisk pace. Laughter-laced conversations ranged from what's going on at Orioles spring training in Florida to the high cost of caring and feeding Arabian horses.
Like she does on many other days, Jasmine Hartsfield, made the short dash a few doors down from her job as a dental assistant. She likes Ruthie's, she declared, "because the staff treats you like family." She's also been able to overcome the language barrier with owner Grace Chung, a native of China.
Hartsfield, 26, said she avoids places like McDonald's. "They're always pushing you along," she said.
As a native North Carolinian, she has little interest in Dunkin', where Krispy Crème is the reigning icon in the Tar Heel State.
When you add them all up, the U.S. has nearly 29,000 Starbucks, McDonald's, Panera and Dunkin' Donuts outlets, according to information provided online. And that staggering figure doesn't include the untold stock of diners, dives and drive-ins. With numbers like that in mind, one prominent owner, Andrew Bowen, who co-authored a book, "Daily Grind: How to Operate and Run a Coffee shop and Make Money," laid out several factors that contribute to the failure of these small enterprises. High on the list is poor service. Other killers include "arrogant owners" who won't take advice from patrons and staff; bad budgeting; space that's too small; and strange names. He said, "don't expect everyone to flock to a business called "Eat Dirt," which, he added, was the actual name of one shop that has since gone belly up.
Nineteen years and counting. That's how long Bonaparte Bread has been operating at Historic Savage Mill, on a bluff overlooking the Little Patuxent River. While there's no evidence the narcissistic, shrewd Napoleon was a coffee drinker as he seized power in a wide swath of Europe, there is the unmistakable Franco connection pulsating from the colorful display case. Croissants, which, like the shop's breads, are baked daily on the premises, include tempting flavors like chocolate almond, lemon rosemary and bouclé Bonaparte. "All products are made from scratch using organic flour," said owner Nacir Assaadi.
At a table by the door, Maryella Green was enjoying a quiet lunch with her daughter, Anna Green, and Anna's 5-month-old granddaughter, Alia. Along with a cup of coffee, "we're getting the chicken salad," said Maryella GreenGreen, who is visiting from her home in Green Cover Springs, Fla., said she likes how Bonaparte feels. "It's not … so rushed. The atmosphere in here is really cute." Although she hasn't written off the chains, "Starbucks has kind of gotten overpriced," she said.
Anna Green, who lives in Savage, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco for two years with her husband. Now, she tutors ESOL students in Bethesda and does online tutoring, via Skype, to students in China.
"We were looking for something casual so we could bring the baby in," she said. I brought my in-laws in here. They loved the Bonaparte theme!"
When asked to identify the main ingredient that goes into the recipe for a successful independent coffee shop, Maryella Green said, "It's tough, isn't it? You've got to have something different."
As far as Gorkin is concerned, smaller entities like Mad City occupy an important place in the caffeinated carnival.
"I've been to some Starbucks," he said, "and you feel like you're in a more confined space, on top of each other. This is lighter. I'm connected, but I'm in my own space."
Then he went back to fashioning the last poem of the day.