Even before the project at the long-vacant tin can factory at 2601 N. Howard St. (Miller’s Court) in the Remington neighborhood started to come together in 2007, we began talking with community members about what else they would like to see in redevelopment there. This was their building after all. We had already heard from teachers and nonprofits that collaborative and affordable space to live and work would help them do their jobs better, but neighbors quickly pointed out something crucial that we had so far overlooked: if we simply did teacher housing and nonprofit office space, community members would have no way to interact with the finished building unless they had an apartment or office inside of it. In the same breath, they told us that there was no place in Remington where they could hang out over a good cup of coffee and have baked goods and sandwiches. The community challenged us to replace the plans for a 1,000-square-foot apartment on the corner of Howard and 26th Streets with an open and airy space for a cafe. With that powerful observation and thoughtful idea to remedy it, our course was chosen for us.We scrapped the apartment plans and set out, somewhat apprehensively, to find the right coffee shop owners. As we interviewed potential operators, it was clear that each of them was almost solely focused on how to maximize profits out of the space. That’s when we met what would become the Charmington’s crew, and we knew that we had lucked into something pretty special. They were a group of eight friends and coworkers who had all worked together at another coffee shop in Baltimore before the recession of 2008 caused many local businesses to close their doors. The Charmington’s team was different – they liked the idea of being in Remington because they wanted to be a part of the solution for a community, not join an already buzzing place. They envisioned an employee-owned cafe that would be a vital part of Remington and pay a fair wage to employees while allowing for paid time off (something that’s not often done in the service industry). Since opening its doors, Charmington’s has become all that its imaginative founders believed it could be and more. It’s been an anchor in the Remington community for nearly 10 years and has pulled many incredible owners, employees, and guests into its orbit, including President Barack Obama, who in 2015 came to Charmington’s to launch his proposal for paid sick leave for federal workers. No big deal, Charmington’s, no big deal.
We really like doing things the right way, even if we’re not making crazy profits. We are responsible for the livelihoods of all of our employees, and it can be stressful at times, but we love being there for them.
Charmington’s wouldn’t exist without Seawall. We named it Charmington’s after our location in two communities, but also because it started out as a pipe dream, dreamt up by idealists, and Seawall believed in us. I don’t think we would have found people who saw our potential and wanted to help develop our vision like they did.
When Charmington’s opened its doors in 2010, it was a small, passionate group of owner-employees who worked in the cafe day in and day out, cementing the shop as the community anchor that everyone now knows and loves in Remington. Amanda Rothschild was on that original team, thinking about how a small coffee shop could make a difference in the lives of their employees and community.
How did you get involved with Charmington’s and the space in Miller’s Court?
I was involved with the group of people who ended up starting Charmington’s after many of us worked together at another coffee shop in Baltimore. It had unfortunately had to close following the economic downturn in 2008, but it was one of the first places I’d ever worked where I felt valued and fairly compensated. So we started to think about a new venture where every employee would start out with equal ownership in the business, and we would operate it in the same values-driven way that we had at the previous shop.
So you start looking for spaces, and how did you come across the space at Miller’s Court? What was your initial impression of the space and the project happening there?
We heard about the space after a number of people saw the “cafe space for rent” sign in the window - truly! When we saw the space, it really reminded us of the prior coffee shop we had all worked at together, with high ceilings and green window sills. And as we started talking to Seawall, we fell in love with the way they were doing things. They had never had a restaurant tenant before and let us be the experts of what we needed for our business. Looking at other spaces, we had really felt like we weren’t being listened to about the needs we had for our business.
As you started to build the business and decided you would sign a lease in the Miller’s Court space, what did the mission of the business evolve to be?
It’s truly a two-part core mission. One, run a worker-owned business that treats its employees very well. For us, that means paying a living wage, offering health insurance that is partially subsidized by the company, giving accrued leave for all employees, and paid time off. And second, from the beginning, our role in the neighborhood, both in Remington and Charles Village, was extremely important. Seawall had set the stage for a great neighborhood cafe, because the community had really been asking for one. So we made sure we engaged with all of the neighborhood associations and understood how to make this place accessible and useful to them.
That’s where your name came from, right? How you’re situated in the neighborhood?
Yes! Charmington’s is a combination of “Remington” and “Charles Village,” the two neighborhoods that we sit in between.
Now, almost ten years into the business, how do you think Charmington’s is seen in the community?
Charmington’s is seen as an anchor to the community because it really was the first new business there in a long time. We took the connection to the community very seriously from the beginning, and I think that shows.
Charmington’s got to host a pretty special visitor back in 2015. Can you tell us more about how that came to be?
Of course. I don’t think any of us will forget that. So, we had been involved with lots of advocacy at the state level for paying a fair minimum wage and giving paid sick leave. I guess it hadn’t occurred to us that it would be unusual for a business owner to lobby for better employee prospects, and through an advocacy group I had been involved in, we found out that someone from the White House wanted to come visit Charmington’s to launch a paid sick leave initiative. We didn’t know who the person coming would be, and on the day of the event, they took me and a couple of other advocates aside in the morning to tell us that President Barack Obama would be coming that day to talk with our staff and to launch his executive order that all federal employees would accrue paid sick leave.
Yes. I went into the basement of my house after they told us just to scream; I was so overwhelmed and excited. And on that cold, January day, President Obama spent a few hours with us at Charmington’s, talking with employees and advocates and then shaking the hands of the huge crowd that had gathered outside.
Amazing. So Charmington’s is coming up on 10 years in business, can you speak about what it has meant to you to be involved with the shop over the years?
When we started, we really wanted to go outside the boundaries of a business and be involved in the long range plans of a community. Baltimore has its share of difficulties, and small business is such a big player in the building the solutions and changing communities. We’ve gotten to do that in a small way with Charmington’s, and it’s very special.