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In Baltimore, ‘meals with meaning’ from a new restaurant with a mission | COMMENTARY

The main dining room at Groundwork Kitchen, a new restaurant with a mission to train entry-level workers in food services. Established by the nonprofit Paul's Place in Pigtown, Groundwork opens July 20 for carryout and delivery, eventually moving to catering and full service by late summer or fall.
The main dining room at Groundwork Kitchen, a new restaurant with a mission to train entry-level workers in food services. Established by the nonprofit Paul's Place in Pigtown, Groundwork opens July 20 for carryout and delivery, eventually moving to catering and full service by late summer or fall. (Baltimore Sun staff)

There are two purposes for today’s column: To tell you about a new Baltimore restaurant that promises to serve “meals with meaning,” and to tell squeegee guys (or anyone looking to land a new job) about a training program in food service that starts in the fall.

Squeegee guys come to mind because I’ve seen a lot of them this summer. They might like washing car windshields at busy intersections, but they might also like to hear about an opportunity to get off the streets, face less hostility on the job, maybe make better money and start a career.

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So, here’s the deal.

Groundwork Kitchen opens next week in a big, attractive space at 925 Washington Boulevard in Pigtown. There’s a bright, airy, 100-seat dining room; a carryout shop and space for private gatherings. The restaurant, under executive chef Kimberly Triplett, plans to open slowly, starting with daytime hours (Tuesdays to Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.) for carryout orders and delivery, then moving into catering and eventually a full-service restaurant.

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The credo is “meals with meaning” because Groundwork Kitchen is a restaurant with a mission: to train men and women who want to learn how to work in a restaurant, front of the house or back. Twelve-week training sessions start in a few months. They will be free to adults whose income levels are low enough to qualify them for food stamps. Students will have case managers and get life-skills training. They’ll be expected to seek employment once they graduate, and they’ll get help with that, too.

I thought this might be of interest to squeegee guys or anyone who needs help finding a new job in food service — learning how to cook and work a line, how to serve diners, how to operate a cash register.

Groundwork Kitchen is a $10 million project funded by the generous donors of Paul’s Place, the nonprofit that started as a soup kitchen and has served the poor in southwest Baltimore since the 1980s.

“My dream is to see a successful restaurant to help fund the culinary arts program to provide training and jobs and economic activity in the city of Baltimore,” says Bill McLennan, executive director of Paul’s Place. “My dream is to bring about long-term and sustainable economic stability for our students.”

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Sounds brilliant. But is this the right moment for a new Baltimore restaurant and an entry-level culinary training program?

The Restaurant Association of Maryland estimates that 2,000 restaurants have closed across the state since the start of the pandemic. That’s 20% of those that operated in early 2020.

Before the pandemic, restaurants had grown into a significant sector of local economies and the center of cultural life in most American cities. Our conversations were more often about food than art or music. We still mostly talk about either things to see (at the movies or streaming at home) or things to eat. If the American zeitgeist of the last 30 years was consumerism, the foody thing was a central part of it. And we were lucky. We experienced what has been described as a golden age of American dining. Baltimore received outstanding grades for the quality, diversity and abundance of its restaurants.

But will the golden age come back?

Even before the pandemic, a lot of independent restaurants were seeing lackluster sales and getting by on razor-thin margins.

In Baltimore, you have to factor into the answer not only the lingering effects of the pandemic but the lingering effects of the Freddie Gray unrest in 2015 — I still hear people blame the loss of suburban customers on that — and the city’s incessant violence.

So it’s hard to see a quick recovery to pre-pandemic staffing levels.

And yet, it’s hard to imagine that Baltimore, Our City of Perpetual Recovery, won’t again have a robust restaurant scene. People wanted it before. They’ll want it again.

As we emerge from the pandemic, surviving restaurants, cafes and hotels will need more workers. Some of them already do; their owners are complaining about a shortage of help.

Food establishments will need line cooks and dishwashers, wait staff, cashiers and people to keep their kitchens and dining rooms clean. We’re hearing that restaurants are paying more — or will be paying more — and I think there’s a sense among greater numbers of diners that those of us on the eating side of food service will need to pony up a little more for it.

So, yes, Groundwork Kitchen makes sense.

There’s another factor, and it gets back to the theme of “meals with meaning.” While that theme is specific to Groundwork’s mission — it’s perfect and worthy of copyright — it could also be applied to any Baltimore restaurant that weathered the pandemic and desperately hopes to continue. The customer base is open to seeing it that way, and I’ll tell you why.

The Baltimore region is dominated by Democrats, and I only bring up political affiliation because, judging by their vaccination rates, Democrats appear to be more eager to see economic recovery than vaccination-shunning Republicans. Democrats also are far more sympathetic to urban struggles and, therefore, more inclined to embrace a “meal with meaning” at a city restaurant to support the local economy. City or suburban, most people around here agree that Baltimore can’t be allowed to wither and die. Am I saying that eating out is a civic responsibility? Yes, something like that, and especially right now.

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