A few weeks ago the cast and crew of HBO’s Veep were filming scenes in a tucked away Baltimore café on McMechen and Park called Bolton Deli. Shortly before that, Bolton Deli was catering for Netflix’s flagship original series House of Cards.
So clearly, the people in the know understood the food was quality. But even more impressive than keeping the cast and crews of hit TV shows well fed is their record with the regular folks of Bolton Hill.
For more than three years, the aptly named Bolton Deli has been making tasty sandwiches to a neighborhood with almost no casual dining options and winning a loyal fan base along the way. Unfortunately for people who enjoy both justice and good food made by friendly people, Bolton Deli’s doors will be closing at the end of the month.
Think of the situation as something akin to David vs. Goliath if Goliath had stolen David’s diary and used his secrets to financially ruin him and then out of spite, broke his knees so he couldn’t get to the battlefield. That may be a little colorful, farfetched, and also strange, but so are the events that led to the closing of this gem of a deli.
Nick Brooks co-founded the Bolton Deli as part of his senior thesis at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Together with his business partner and a few friends, Brooks completely refurbished a modest space on a shoestring budget, transforming a ramshackle florist shop into the skeleton of the Bolton Deli.
A recent graduate of art school with no prior business or food service experience, Brooks suddenly found himself at the mercy of a machine that played by a very different set of rules. There was no room for error in impressing upon the very put together movers and shakers of Bolton Hill, the splendidly dressed types who dwelled in million dollar row-homes and wielded that most important type of political power: local power.
Bolton Hill is a quirky and friendly mini-hamlet, but it’s extremely residential in character and feels like a place that doesn’t take too kindly to change. Eager to set up shop, he weathered various storms, including the dreary agony of zoning meetings, desperate accusations that his restaurant would single-handedly cause a rat problem in the neighborhood (spoiler alert: there was already a rat problem), and push back from an entrenched competitor possibly unwilling to relinquish its monopoly in Bolton Hill.
It was by no means easy (opening a restaurant in the best of circumstances isn’t easy), but Brooks and the Bolton Deli triumphed over legal minutia and mayhem and debuted one of the best damn spots in Baltimore. In other words, in a strange reversal, the good guys actually won.
I remember my first encounter with Bolton Deli. I was navigating blocks through the pixels of Google Street View, trying to scout out my future home from three thousand miles away. It seemed that Bolton Hill was residential to the hilt, without much in the way of the stuff I really needed: comic book stores, Arby’s, basketball courts.
There was a little deli though, and it appeared to be walking distance from my new front door. Since sandwiches are nearly my favorite food this was good news indeed. I expected something decent, but found something that was actually really great.
The dining room is brightly lit and cheery, with nary a bad vibe to be found no matter the time of day or amount of customers. Music roars softly from speakers, eclectic noise jams and folksy twang alike. There’s a nice little collection of various paper money from around the world posted to the wall behind the register (my eyes usually gravitate to Chairman Mao’s smiling mug).
You can tell artists run the place, because the menu is a chalky masterpiece, as is its slightly smaller compatriot, the ever-changing Specials Menu. There’s always a good book on hand to snatch from the overcrowded shelf, whether it be something about the rivers of Trans-Jordan or some tome about dog breeding or even a Hemingway novel that seems especially appropriate over coffee.
If you’re into milkshakes, theirs are famous. If you like live music, they practically have a house band on the weekend during the sunnier months, usually rambunctious jazz that was fun and festive, and only annoying if I was trying to sleep past noon. Perhaps in a more metropolitan digs like Mount Vernon or Federal Hill or Fells Point this place could get swallowed up or looked over, but to us it was a secret treasure.
For over a year we would pop in for food or coffee. It seemed like MICA students or recent graduates exclusively ran the place and though they were young and cool, I detected no hint of coffee shop elitism. My fiancée had a hard time existing without their bagels with humus, and I made it my mission to try as many of their sandwiches without cheese that I could. I did decently.
For more than three years, Brooks learned the ropes in real-time as his brainchild proved a success and developed into a neighborhood staple. Starting with almost nothing, Brooks and his partners invested every bit of their earnings and put it right back into the business.
It was a source of pride, a visible badge of plucky business acumen from a somewhat unlikely source: an art student who simply worked his proverbial tail off. So when it came time for Brooks to consider moving on, it was of the utmost importance that he pass the torch to someone he could trust, perhaps another MICA alumni or another like-minded member of the Bolton Hill community. The future of the deli was therefore an important thing to secure.
So with his intent to sell, Brooks sought guidance from MICA, and more specifically the (then) Director of Alumni Relations. The Director showed immediate interest and assured Brooks he would help him find a buyer, and that enthusiasm morphed into a desire to buy the place himself upon his upcoming retirement from MICA.
Brooks proceeded to share the “guts” of his business, his financials, his operating manual, and even an introduction to the owner of the property. This information was shared in absolute confidence. There was a brief moment of excitement; Brooks believed he had found a buyer, a tacitly MICA approved torchbearer who seemed inclined to keep the spirit of the place alive. However the initial enthusiasm of the sale seemed to diminish after the Director of Alumni Relations had a quiet word with his accountant. Slowly contact fizzled to a halt. Through impersonal emails, communication went nowhere and Brooks assumed that he had simply decided to pass on the sale. Which would have been fine, if that was the end of it.
Shortly after, Brooks was notified of another potential nightmare: new owners had stealthily bought the building. What this meant for the tenants was unknown, but a clandestine sale of an unlisted property was not a favorable omen. Seeking answers, Brooks attempted to make contact with the new landlords only to discover some modern day skullduggery. And who was the mysterious buyer of the building?
If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes or police procedurals or have a dark turn of mind, it’s all pretty clear. Using that trove of information shared in absolute confidence (financials, asking price, operating manual, as well as contact with the owner of the property!) the former Director of Alumni Relations had brought this proposition to his partner, and his partner’s LLC legally bought the building. Yes, legally. Morally disgusting, but perfectly legal, the age old mitigating factor!
The former Director and his partner agreed to a face-to-face with Brooks. He prefaced the get together with the ominous declaration, “This isn’t going to be a good meeting.”
That one bit of straight-talk proved true, as the man who was very recently Director of Alumni Relations (!) and his partner declared their intent to evict Brooks and the Bolton Deli by the end of the year (mere months away), with zero compensation. The stated plan was to “modernize” the property, most likely to increase rent for the tenants, and to perhaps open their own café.
Facing a possible calamity, Brooks took his case directly to MICA. Their support should have been a given. He was after all a graduate of MICA and an eager employer of MICA students past and present. Not only that, his deli was the only off-campus dining option that accepted MICA flex-dollars. He was tied to the school in several indisputable ways. And yet, when Brooks made his appeal to force MICA’s hand in an attempt to provoke both a show of public support and to exercise the authority and responsibility the situation demanded of them they opted to pass the buck and wash their hands of the situation.
The man who was attempting to near literally rob Nick Brooks of his business had been employed extremely recently by the college for the express purpose of ensuring positive relations with students and supporting them post graduation. This was of little consequence to the administration, and they replied with mealy-mouthed half-sympathy, coupled with a boilerplate statement of neutrality. Sorry man, very unfortunate, but we’re going to stay out of this.
It is a sinister situation, made all the more terrible by the armor of devious legitimacy. Is the lesson here simply never trust anyone? Not quite, but that feels like the major takeaway here. It shouldn’t be remotely legal for a former administrator using confidential information to so cynically sabotage a business built from the ground up by the students he was so recently in charge of helping.
After MICA sent him away with no apparent recourse, Brooks began the process of liquidating his assets for pocket change. That is the situation as of now. Sadly, the time to actually save Bolton Deli appears to have very quietly passed. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still time to make a righteous fuss, to try and force MICA to take a stand because they can’t shut their ears to hundreds and hundreds of enraged alumni and neighborhood supporters. Plaster the area with flyers, art, letters and phone calls to MICA and to the Bolton Hill business community. Be annoying, be enraged, and be persistent. It’s worthwhile to throw a fit over something like this.
When I met with Nick Brooks at the deli to talk to him about the situation, he wasn’t vengeful or full of more than justified anger. He recounted the events in an almost detached tone, clearly unhappy, but resilient. It was important for Brooks that people know that the Bolton Deli didn’t fail because they were a bunch of neophytes who couldn’t run a business, or pay their rent on time, or manage to make a profit, or any number of reasons that small cafes usually go under.
Other than the early struggles with the zoning board and the dismal ending, he expressed pride in what he and the Bolton Deli managed to accomplish. For three and a half years the Bolton Deli gave this quiet neighborhood everything it had, from cozy brick accented respite from the wind and snow, to iced coffee on a hellishly humid day, to the dependably delicious sandwiches regardless of unkind weather. It fought to exist and then it damn well did it, and did it brilliantly.
Bolton Deli’s doors are closing for Christmas. They won’t be opening again.
Editor’s Note: We reached out to the former Director of Alumni relations before the piece ran and heard nothing. Since the article ran, we have tweeted at him and also tracked down a more current email and have invited him to tell his version of events. We are waiting and hoping for a response.
Alex Siquig is a writer who recently left the San Francisco Bay Area for the lovely streets of Baltimore. His work has been published in Thought Catalog, Lubricated, Urban Image Magazine, and he is the co-creator of the web-comic Black Snow: Two Drink Minimum, which finished second place in the Washington Post’s Best Web-Comic of 2011. He lives with two fine cats and a fine woman.