The interior of Dovecote Cafe in Baltimore. (Photo: Courtesy of Dovecote Cafe)
When Aisha Pew and her partner decided to escape the super-gentrification and “Brooklynization” of Oakland, California, they headed to Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood to shop for houses. While there they passed an empty space for lease that caught their attention. That day proved fruitful.
Pew and her partner found their dream house and the future location of their dream café in the same neighborhood and on the same day.
Today, their creation — Dovecote Café — is a runaway success. And it has achieved its success by putting the community first.
“The nuance with our café is to make sure we are responsive to our community,” Pew said. “We are not just a service. We like to hear from our community members and then respond to their needs.”
Dovecote Café is the type of space that locals show off to out-of-town friends. That’s because it embodies the very best of Baltimore — its food, culture and diversity. When Pew opened the café in 2016, her goal was to build a business that put community first, which is reflected in the Dovecote’s motto: community first, café second.
Pew, who runs the café with her partner, Cole, and her mother, injects the feeling of community into everything — even into the café’s name. A “dovecote, pronounced duhv-koht, is a medieval birdhouse or a place where a harmonious group comes to settle,” explains Dovecote’s website.
“The name itself had to evoke that sense of curiosity,” said Pew, who loves birdcages.
The sun-filled space, decorated with busy wallpaper, wooden tables and couches, feels more like a sun parlor in someone’s home than a commercial business. The café’s walls are covered with artwork from artists who participate in its “Artists Shouldn’t Starve” series.
“I want people to know that it’s meant to be a place that feels like home,” Pew said.
Foodwise, the café serves baked goods, breakfast and a light lunch. Pew’s mother created the baked goods: Peach upside-down cake, corn muffins and sticky buns are on deck. Multiple chefs create the menu items ranging from a frittata to barbecue chicken flatbread.
Small-batch coffee is sourced from all over the country. Thanks to one of the café’s original chefs, Dovecote now promotes local Baltimore chefs in a series called “Chef Takeover.” Once a month Pew allows local chefs to take over her café and serve a multi-course meal — the chefs get to keep all the profits.
Dovecote Café values personal interaction over transactions. At one point Pew avoided printing a menu because she wanted customers and her staff, a multigenerational and gender-diverse group of people, to talk about the food and coffee.
They talked so much that each transaction was taking about 26 minutes. So the café introduced a printed menu. But this doesn’t prevent staff from sitting down and chatting with customers, which is what keeps bringing them back.
“The culture and dynamics of the restaurant, food and everything else are what keeps me coming back,” said Regan Farley, a Baltimore native who moved back to the city last fall from New York City.
Dovecote’s greatest community program is simply providing free food to the community, which, despite gentrification, sits in a food desert. Every Thursday locals can pick up free, fresh vegetables and fruits in front of the café.
For Pew, Dovecote doesn’t feel like a runaway success yet. She still worries about the operations and programming when she goes to bed every night. But she remembers one event that made her happy.
Last August, just eight months after its opening, the café threw an artist industry night. Pew welcomed artists to come to the café for a meet and greet. They responded to her call. During that night, a DJ played music on the terrace, drummers jammed in a drum circle, children created chalk artwork on the sidewalk. Some of Baltimore’s most famous musicians appeared.
“This is the first time people knew who we aspired to be as a space,” Pew said. “It was absolutely incredible.”
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