When he was in high school, Dennis Royster Jr. had an unusual daily routine. I’ll let him describe it for you: “I came home from school and did my homework. Then I had something to eat and took a nap. Then I’d get up and start baking. I’d bake until about 11 o’clock.”
He baked cookies and cake — dozens of cookies and enough cake to cut into dozens of wrapped slices. He baked snickerdoodles and chocolate chip cookies. He baked apple cake and Oreo cake. At 11 p.m., his sales force started arriving at the door of his mother’s house on Belair Road to pick up their orders — teenagers who sold Royster’s goodies during lunch hour the following day.
They sold the cookies and cakes in the cafeterias at Randallstown High School, at Milford Mill High and at Woodlawn High, at Catonsville High and at Northwestern before it merged with Forest Park. They sold cookies to classmates at Overlea High and to fellow students at the vocational-technical schools, Mervo and Carver.
Did anyone in authority, the principals or cafeteria managers, object to this enterprise?
“No,” Royster says, “because the teachers were buying the cookies, too.”
All of this happened just a few years ago. In fact, Royster only recently turned 20 years old. He’s not baking cookies at his mother’s house anymore. He’s now whipping up shrimp-and-grits and other delicious meals in the kitchen of his own corner carryout in southwest Baltimore. I’m guessing this makes Dennis Royster Jr. the youngest restaurateur in the city, and an example of the entrepreneurship and energy that Baltimore constantly needs.
His place is called Hey Daddy’s, at the corner of McHenry and South Mount, in what until last year was an Asian carryout. All those cookies and cakes, baked and sold from the time Royster was 14 until he graduated from Overlea High in 2017, made his purchase of the restaurant possible.
“He saved his money,” his mother, Angela Royster, tells me. “That’s how he managed to do it. He always wanted to have his own restaurant. He’s always been something of an entrepreneur, always wanted to make his own money. He was carrying a briefcase when he was eight.”
And, his mother says, Royster was baking and cooking at 12. “We come from a long line of cooks,” Angela Royster tells me. “If we had a party or a cookout or something, Dennis would cook. Once he got into high school, his dad showed him how to make snickerdoodles and he started selling them, two for a dollar.”
His dad helped him open Hey Daddy’s last January, when the junior Royster was 19. The renovated carryout, with a black-and-yellow exterior, is open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The fare is billed as “good American food with a Caribbean twist,” and the menu is as ambitious as its young chef-owner.
Breakfast includes Royster’s shrimp-and-grits as well as salmon and grits, banana-batter waffles and French toast, and a Tuscan chicken omelet. The lunch and dinner menus offer subs, wraps, salads and platters. The shrimp platter comes with rice and grilled vegetables. The most expensive item ($14) is what Royster calls Chicken Chesapeake, a sub with chopped and slightly charred chicken breast topped generously with crab meat. I found it pretty damn delicious. Of the four items we sampled, his chicken wings were the only disappointment; they were flavorful but small, and not one included a drumette.
I did not mean this to be a restaurant review — that’s Christina Tkacik’s enviable assignment here at The Sun — but I also did not want you to think Dennis Royster Jr. got my attention because of his age and his snickerdoodle odyssey. His food is interesting and good. He learned a lot of what he does, he says, from jobs on the line at Cafe 1137 in Windsor Mill and at Taste This Baltimore, under the mentorship of chef Craig Curbean.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention that part. Back when Royster was baking cakes and cookies on school nights, he was also working part-time. “Craig Curbean, at Taste This, I learned a lot from him about how to run a kitchen,” Royster says. He picked up some soul food influences from his mother, he says, and his dad provided the Caribbean touches. I found his dad, Dennis Royster Sr., spooning banana pudding into containers at Hey Daddy’s. I bought one on my way out, sampled it at the next traffic light, and the next, and the next, and pretty much all the way up Fulton Avenue.
While on the foodie side of things, let’s throw a congratulatory bouquet to Chef Nancy Longo at Pierpoint Restaurant on her 30th anniversary. Saturday marks three full decades since Longo opened Pierpoint in what had been a tavern at 1822 Aliceanna Street in Fells Point. I dropped by the other day and recorded a conversation with Longo in the Pierpoint kitchen for the Roughly Speaking podcast. I got her to reveal secrets of a great crab cake and to bring her expertise to my evolving recipe for a Crab Corn Coddie. You can find the conversation this weekend on your podcast app or at baltimoresun.com/roughlyspeaking.