BALTIMORE (WMAR) — Walking through Cross Street Market in Federal Hill, you can see the toll COVID took on the restaurant business. Redevelopment finished just months before the pandemic and businesses there have really struggled, leaving high vacancy rates. But with new vendors signing leases, managers are hopeful this will be the push the market needs to make a comeback.
“I feel very confident in the market going forward,” said Arsh Mirmiran.
Mirmiran, with Caves Valley Partners, was approached by Councilman Eric Costello back in 2015 to redevelop the market, since they had other projects going on close by. After they were the only ones to show any interest, they entered into a deal with the city and the Baltimore Public Markets Corporation, which owns the market, to develop and manage it.
“That was the genesis of trying to create this amenity in the middle of the neighborhood that had fallen on tough times,” said Mirmiran. “There were some significant pest issues in here. We have all new water, all new sewer, all new electrical. Essentially all we used was the cinder block walls.”
Redevelopment took about four years and Mirmiran thought by January 2020, about six months since most businesses opened up, that they had achieved their goal.
“I looked around and you had strollers in here and little kids running around. You had older couples sitting around, enjoying food and beverage and you had everything in between. We had achieved what we had set out to do which was to create a place for a cross section of Baltimore to come and hang out and then the pandemic hit and it’s been a real challenge to get us back to that point,” said Mirmiran.
They saw food sales drop significantly and vendors were struggling to make ends meet. Management worked to keep rent as low as possible: first, by not charging anything and then basing it off a percentage of rent for a year.
“We tried everything we could to keep the vendors at the market. That was our philosophy going into the pandemic is we want to come out of this with our team intact. Obviously that didn’t happen,” said Mirmiran.
In 18 months, half of the tenants left: Royal Farms, Bullhead Pit Beef, Phubs, Old Line, Cans, Rooster and Hen, Annoula’s, Ono Poke, The Sweet Shoppe and Rice Crook.
Other Baltimore public markets did not see the same turnover, which they attribute to having a lot more long-term merchants.
WMAR-2 News reached out to all the vendors who left and either did not hear back, or they declined to comment.
“All the back rent that tenants owed, we deferred a bunch of the rent and they were supposed to pay it back over time,” said Mirmiran. “Even those tenants who ended up leaving, we reached settlement agreements with them and didn’t enforce a single personal guarantee.”
But there are owners who have stuck it out and are excited by the promise of revitalization.
Gangster Vegan Organics is one of the few businesses that were open before the pandemic and survived through.
“I think we are on plan xyz of our contingency plan at this point. We are still making them but we know we’re gonna stick it out,” said owner Taneea Yarborough.
She created the business after having to change her diet because of a cancer diagnosis and seeing how exclusive the health and wellness food industry felt.
“A lot of health and wellness spaces aren’t curated for people of color, aren’t curated for low income people, so creating a space where this is obviously a place where certain people are welcome right? You'll feel that in the titles of the items, who is serving you and all of that,” said Yarborough.
The idea of a market was very appealing to her because people didn’t have to specifically seek out a healthy or vegan meal to find her.
“When you’re in a market, it’s like ‘Hey I came to get chicken but that vegan dessert looks good.’ ‘Oh I came to get stir fry but the fresh pressed juice looks bright and exciting,’ so for us, to catch people who are walking through a market and to win over customers that way feels great to us,” said Yarborough.
As they were gearing up to open in the summer of 2019, she was getting ready for a double mastectomy. They opened with a bang but just a few months later, COVID shut them, and every other restaurant, down. She watched heartbreakingly as fellow small businesses had to give up their dreams.
“These are people who I got to know well; who when the pandemic hit were calling to check on my family, I was calling to check on their families,” said Yarborough.
Now, sales are almost back to pre-pandemic numbers. With 9 open stalls, management is optimistic that some big new vendors will be the final push the market needs.
“It feels great for me to see new people in the market. For one, it’s important for people to see the restaurant business is alive and well,” said Yarborough. “And then it’s important for us as a business to have this market be fuller with more people seeing more businesses and then happening to cross by my business.”
Tonight at 11 p.m. on WMAR-2 News, get an exclusive look at the six new vendors coming to Cross Street Market by the fall.