There's a new focus on food in tiny Takoma Park, as city hall's revival of the Old Town area is enriched by a fresh crop of food entrepreneurs. From the aroma of dozens of fruit pies being baked at Takoma Kitchens, in the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church, to the roasted nut fragrance of Takoma Nutworks to the specially made ice cream sandwiches at Lickety Split, a newly opened shop on Carroll Avenue, the tiny city has become a culinary center.
A Sunday morning farmer's market, begun four years ago, has so many visitors that this year vendors began selling out. Across the street from the open-air stalls, a specialty food store with its own bakery, Everyday Gourmet, opened last month.
The senior member of this food boomlet is the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-op, at the edge of town. It has expanded far beyond the bulk food and organic produce that prompted its creation five years ago and now carries "healthful" convenience foods, as well as commercially grown produce and 60 different varieties of cheese. The co-op also opened the 33-seat Takoma Cafe, which has built a loyal following for its vegetable enchiladas and sesame chicken in its 18-month existence.
"The area is very stimulated right now," said Bennie Greenan, co-owner of Lickety Split. She and her husband Jimmie owned the storefront for six years before deciding to open an ice cream shop this summer. "We've had a tremendous response. There's such community spirit."
The shop sells the Greenan's favorite flavors of four premium ice creams, Bassett's, Sedutto, Alpen Zauber and Frusen Gladje, as well as Dove Bars, ice cream cakes and "sliders," the Scottish nickname given to ice cream sandwiches made with a customer's choice of homemade ginger snaps, snickerdoodles or rich chocolate cookies.
Daniel Neal, who manages the city's housing rehabilitation and block grant programs, said the new food firms are a result of the $1.5 million the city has spent in the last four years to revitalize the downtown area.
"We've rebuilt streets, put in landscaping, fixed the park at Old Town and encouraged small businesses to fix up their storefronts," Neal said. "There were not many places to eat when we started, but things have mushroomed. I think these businesses have seen the tremendous promise and charm here."
Louise Swartzwalder knew the possibilities of the city because she's lived there for five years. An expert home cook, she shared the universal dream of starting her own food company.
Armed with her variations of family recipes and an ability to produce blue-ribbon pies, she created Takoma Kitchens two years ago. After using licensed kitchens in the District, she now produces unusual condiments, pies and tea breads five days a week from a kitchen she leases from the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church, at 310 Tulip Ave.
Her pies -- Mile High Lemon Meringue, pear-cranberry, Victorian Apple Pie and others -- are sold at the Takoma Park Farmer's Market and the Marquez farmstand at the Bethesda Farm Women's Market. All but the meringue carry an intricate latticework top, the Kitchens' culinary signature which is applied even to the 4-inch "baby" pies that are baked by the dozens.
"One week I wrote down the number of hours that I spent simply in production," said Swartzwalder, who became a food producer after working on the Hill and for the John Glenn campaign. "It was 55 hours and that didn't include deliveries, filling special orders, running errands and paying bills. But it's really gratifying to have people say they like your stuff and begin to get a following."
For the holidays, Swartzwalder and her sole employe will again make gift baskets filled with breads, strawberry and lime preserves, plum conserve, Tomato Gold (a yellow tomato marmalade) and homemade popcorn balls. "We try to concentrate on items that aren't commonly made, or aren't made with the unique ingredients we use," she said.
There is a lot of cooperation between most of the food businesses in Takoma Park. At Takoma Nutworks, at 6713 New Hampshire Ave., the sunflower, cashew, peanut and pumpkin nutbutters produced by the four women who own the company are sold by the Takoma Park-Silver Spring food co-op.
"We also sell to buying clubs and several natural food stores in the area," said Karen Erlich, one of the co-owners. Out-of-the-ordinary flours, such as semolina and whole wheat pastry flour, are sold in bulk, as are whole nuts and dried fruits. "We try to fill in around the edges and offer what most distributors don't."
The Nutworks, also known as Flowering Tree Natural Foods, produces the nutbutters directly from eating quality nuts, rather than using a nut stock of lower grade peanuts, as is common with larger processors. "We grind it Monday and Tuesday of each week and the aroma is really something," Erlich noted.
Although Nutworks will sell directly to the public, it sets minimum orders because it is not designed for small sales. The minimums are 12 pounds for the nutbutters (at $1.47 per pound for the peanut butter, for example), 30 pounds for dried fruits (at 71 cents per pound for raisins) and 100 pounds for flour (white unbleached pastry flour at 20 cents a pound).
The Nutworks, a throwback to collectives of the '60s and '70s, is triumphing even in a different era. "We doubled our business last year and brought in two new people. Our personal service makes the difference," said Erlich, who raised two handicapped foster children and now, with her husband Marc is raising two younger children, aged 10 and 2, of their own.
The Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-Op also has survived in an era when many food co-ops have died for lack of members. Adapting from a strict granola environment to a recognition that patrons wanted fast food, albeit healthy fast food, has helped keep the co-op going.
"People want something ready-to-eat that's quick," said Reggi Norton, who has worked at the co-op for four years. Although its 200 members still include bread bakers and home soup makers, the co-op now stocks frozen juice, frozen dinners, deli salads, "natural" potato chips and commercial flours, in addition to the bulk honeys and beans of yesteryear.
Toiletries, canned soups, even a cheap brand of ketchup are found on the shelves to serve the diverse needs of the co-op's neighbors.
"We're not just a health food store, but we try to pick healthful versions of everything we stock," explained Norton.
The area's newest arrival, Everyday Gourmet, also puts a premium on convenience foods, selling soups and pasta salads for take-out.
Owners Susy Murphy and Debbie Messinger, both Takoma Park residents, and their baker, Roy Dunnaway, also produce an extensive range of pastries (coconut cake, truffles, cream puffs, Black Forest cake) and breads. Coffee is freshly ground each day and the shop's shelves are filled with local items, such as the cranberry ketchup and lemon relish made by Homespun, of the District, as well as Di Camillo biscuits from Niagara Falls, N.Y., Stauds no-sugar jams from Vienna, Austria and sandwich meats, bagels and lox.
"We don't want to be too yuppie or Georgetown or upscale," said Murphy. "We've had everyone from senior citizens to street people come to see us so far."
Both women had worked in catering in past years and the redevelopment of Takoma Park encouraged them to open their shop this year. "We can see that rents and space will do nothing but go up as its attractiveness grows," said Murphy. "We live here, had outgrown our own kitchens and this is where we wanted to work."
The mortality rate for new food businesses is high, because of the enormous amount of hand labor and time they require. One part-time food producer in Takoma Park, Bit O'Chocolate, closed this August as its owner went back to her social work career, much to the consternation of the fans of her double chocolate chip cookies and other chocolate delights. But the new and existing Takoma Park food makers are convinced that their growing numbers will bring customers and awareness that they exist.
"People are accustomed to taking walks in town, but they never had anything to walk to," said Greenan, of Lickety Split. "Now they see us as recreational food -- a destination."