Bloomingdale gets sweeter
Grassroots Gourmet brings cupcakes and conscience to an empty storefront
by Jacquelyn Bengfort
“Our contractor promised us we’re going to laugh,” said Jamilyah Smith-Kanze, speaking of the labyrinthine process of establishing a business in the District three weeks before the opening of the new Grassroots Gourmet bakery on Rhode Island Avenue in Bloomingdale. “So, we’re looking forward to that.”
While it may not yet have been quite time for laughter on November 21, Smith-Kanze and Sara Fatell, one of the original founders of Grassroots Gourmet in 2009, were all smiles as they opened their doors for the first time.
As they served rugelach, crumb cake, and cookies to a constant stream of friends and neighbors, both of the wormen—who are cousins as well as business partners—seemed in a celebratory mood. Despite a last-minute problem with their health inspection (they had failed to install a food disposal unit in their gorgeous and pristine new kitchen), they succeeded in their goal of opening before Thanksgiving, thanks in part to a steel cutter who “rolled up to the sidewalk at 9 [p.m.] in a truck like it could get anything done,” said Smith-Kanze with a grin.
Baking, and beyond
Fatell founded Grassroots Gourmet as a catering service, providing baked goods to non-profit groups around the city. “I never wanted a storefront,” she confessed, but eventually realized that if she wanted to stop borrowing kitchens to fulfill orders she would need to commit to establishing a bakery.
While Fatell and Smith-Kanze looked all over the city for a suitable location, they were thrilled to see a “For Lease” sign go up in the window of a defunct laundromat in their own neighborhood.
The space, which was made over by Lauren Winter, the architect responsible for neighboring Boundary Stone, is “a kitchen to grow into,” said Fatell.
Catering remains the cornerstone of their business model. Cupcakes and miniature pies may tempt in passersby, but once they are inside they can order from a much larger menu of items that can be baked fresh on request.
An affair of the heart
The wall of family photographs immediately signals customers that they have entered a business that is more than just a money-making venture to its owners. Fatell and Smith-Kanze celebrate their shared roots with recipes passed down by aunts and grandmothers, and their enthusiasm infuses the storefront with an atmosphere of authenticity.
It’s all evidence of a business plan that places social responsibility and neighborliness on equal footing with revenue. Like many of DC’s young entrepreneurs, the women want to be more than simply profitable.
“We want to know our customers,” said Fatell. “We want to bake the cake for your wedding, for your child’s first birthday.” In a nod to the many pet owners in Bloomingdale, they plan to put out a water dish and add baked dog treats to the menu.
They also strive to source their ingredients and other business items from local vendors whenever possible. They hope to partner with local farmers now that they have the space to freeze locally produced produce in season. Their caramel comes from Baltimore, and their marshmallows are made in small batches by a local husband-and-wife team. “We want to build a vendor list [that’s] like a community,” said the women in an email. They actively look to partner with women- and minority-owned and family-run businesses.
Plans for the future
On opening day, one customer inquires about bread. “Not yet,” said Fatell. “Maybe one day.”
Smith-Kanze admits to a dream scenario: “Maybe one day we’ll take a vacation.”
For now, though, both Fatell and Smith-Kanze are clearly thrilled to be open for business in their new location, as Fatell greets customers with a booming “Morning, neighbors!”
With a note of triumph, she adds, “This is not a pop-up, friends. We will be here.”
104 Rhode Island Avenue NW
Tuesday-Friday 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Jacquelyn Bengfort is a freelance and fiction writer working in Bloomingdale. You can read more of her work at www.jacib.com.