A beloved Baltimore business owner admits he’s just doing what comes naturally.
Ever since I was 23 or 24 — having co-founded the Baltimore City Paper (of blessed memory) with Russ Smith — people have exclaimed about me, “Oh he’s a real entrepreneur.”
It continued through my second act, co-founding the coffee bar chain Donna’s with Donna Crivello.
My third act … before the curtain comes down … is under consideration. I still have important work to do with Donna’s. It’s an institution that, in keeping with the City Paper’s 40 years of life, deserves to play for at least another 15 years. But I have to admit, I think about what else is out there. What else do I want to produce?
Honestly, I’ve never been comfortable being called an entrepreneur. A certain glamour attaches to that word. I certainly never felt like an entrepreneur — and certainly not glamorous. Mostly, I have felt — and feel — like a small business person.
My day-to-day existence was — and is — consumed with paying bills, making payroll, insuring that people are smiling, keeping the bathrooms clean and the lights on. It’s all quite inspirational.
However, I recently came across an article that addressed the question “What is an entrepreneur?” An entrepreneur, the writer said, sees things that others don’t. An entrepreneur creates something where formerly nothing existed.
I reflected on that, and thought, perhaps — modesty thrown to the wind — that definition fit me after all.
When Russ and I started the City Paper in 1977, Baltimore’s print media consisted of The Sun and The Evening Sun, The News-American and a (then) less-than-inspiring Baltimore magazine. We realized that there was no media outlet, with the possible exception of a little radio, that spoke to young people in Baltimore.
We realized that there was no resource that aggregated all the entertainment options that young people wanted. And we also realized there was nothing in Baltimore that provided for a non-conforming, shall we say, “alternative” voice in politics and culture.
From the day we started publishing, we provided all of these.
As the City Paper got off the ground but couldn’t ever fly above 1,000 feet or so, we realized our distribution had to be free, not paid, so we could sell lots of advertising based on a bigger readership. Today, there is little media that doesn’t do this, but at the time we were the only print vehicle in Baltimore that did. This decision made our business.
So with a lot of persistence and grit layered on these entrepreneurial insights, we took off. Overnight … if 10 years is overnight. I think even the most high-flying entrepreneur has to pay homage to the grind — that’s how you make it.
With Donna’s, it was not that different. We saw a food scene in Baltimore that didn’t know what good bread or coffee was (Donna’s offered the first significant espresso bar in Baltimore, years before Starbucks arrived). No one, outside of Harborplace, had outdoor dining, and we offered outdoor dining at just about every location we ever owned and operated. The original Donna’s were deli-like in size, but always offered fresh, made-from-scratch food.
Our insight — what we saw that no one else saw — was that even if you were going out for a bite, a sandwich or just dessert, the food could be of the same quality that you get at the finest restaurant without costing the price of airfare to Milan.
And we served vegetables. Lots of vegetables. Our cuisine had at its center the Mediterranean diet, way before nutritionists had discovered it was the healthiest way to eat. Lots of extra-virgin olive oil, vegetables, fresh bread, a little cheese and some wine.
As with the alternative City Paper’s content and model, many of these foodie options are now commonplace. The ubiquitous “fast casual” dining segment, which emerged 15 to 20 years ago, was based on many of the same insights. Most Italian restaurants now serve extra-virgin olive oil with their table bread. No one did that in Baltimore when we started Donna’s. Now everyone does.
On the one hand, for the entrepreneur — me — it’s a bit hard seeing that what you thought was clever and innovative is now routine.
On the other hand, for the imaginative entrepreneur … there’s also opportunity, always on the horizon.
As I write, I think that, maybe, Donna’s might just be the place for me to stage something new.
Time to innovate again. Stay tuned.
See Alan Hirsch on Need to Know — JBiz edition on facebook.com/jmoreliving on May 22:
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