Growing up in McCulloh Homes with a family of strong women, Amanda Mack knew she would be successful. But she never thought she would have a brick-and-mortar presence at the city’s iconic Inner Harbor.
“It was truly the heart of Baltimore. It didn’t matter how much money you had, it was a central point and meeting point for residents to take in all the beauty that Baltimore has to offer,” said the 35-year-old, whose Crust By Mack concept has attracted a cult-like following where customers have been known to wrap around the block waiting for her delectable creations, from savory meat pies to buttery rich cookies. “I never imagined having a space here.”
She added: “Waterfront real estate statistically in Baltimore isn’t for Black-owned small businesses even though Black people make up more than half of these businesses consumer base. We are reduced to stands, windows and carts to sell our products because systemically it’s assumed that we can’t handle this type of operation.”
But then came developer P. David Bramble and his vision of incorporating local, Black business owners into the pavilions of Harborplace, the iconic early ‘80s retail and dining development that he has acquired and intends to remake.
Bramble, the managing partner and co-founder of MCB Real Estate, first met Mack during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic through state Del. Marlon Amprey, a Baltimore Democrat.
“He told me, ‘You’ve got to meet this amazing chef in Baltimore. She’s amazing,’” he recalled.
After meeting Mack, and becoming a fan of her pastries, Bramble knew he wanted to work with her.
“I knew at some point I wanted her to be part of some of the things we were doing in Baltimore,” he said, adding that he’s allergic the shellfish so he hasn’t been able to taste Mack’s signature crab pies. “I wasn’t able to eat the stuff that people love the most. But I’ve had lots of the other stuff. And man, it’s delicious. And it’s mostly sold out when you get there. She’s a natural fit.”
Mack is the first temporary tenant to sign on to the space at Harborplace, a stretch of waterfront property along the city’s Inner Harbor. In recent years, the area has floundered as a slew of national retailers have left its two pavilions. Now, with most of the spaces empty — notable exceptions include The Cheesecake Factory, Hooters and the IT’SUGAR Baltimore candy store — Bramble is looking to place temporary retailers in the empty spaces as he works on a redevelopment plan. Although there is not an exact timeline on the redevelopment — Bramble’s company has yet to begin gathering public input — it is expected to take at least several years to complete.
Mack originally planned to open a restaurant in Mount Vernon near the University of Baltimore. But that deal fell through, allowing her to work with Bramble. Another tenant, CollegiateLuxe, a Black-owned lifestyle apparel brand, signed on after Mack.
Bramble wants to make the best use of the existing Pratt Street and Light Street pavilions, filling empty retail spaces with small local vendors that hopefully can stay on once the site is reimagined. He said he wants to prioritize filling the spaces with minority-owned businesses, making it more representative of a city that is more than 60% Black.
“We’re not going to allow this space to languish. We want to remind Baltimore how cool it is. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves,” Bramble said during a phone interview Saturday. “Harborplace is special. We’re really focused that we move toward reactivation. For the interim uses, it’s all about activation and reminding people of the coolness of being so close to the water. We’re giving Black-led businesses the opportunity to showcase themselves in the heart of our city.”
The symbolic significance of having Black-owned businesses on the Baltimore waterfront is not lost on Mack’s family.
“Culturally, we were brought here, sold here. The harbor was one of the ports that our ancestors were brought to and sold. To be on the water and be connected to the ancestors, it’s not just a humbling experience, I want to pay homage to them,” Mack said. “
As a Black woman, Mack said she is excited about helping “to create a new legacy for the Inner Harbor.”
From 1634 until Maryland abolished slavery in 1864, the waterways in Baltimore figured prominently in the transatlantic slave trade. The ports along Fells Point and the Inner Harbor were places where enslaved Africans were brought into this country, auctioned off and forced to work. Slave pens — also known as slave jails where enslaved Africans were temporarily held until they were sold — were located around the city and along its waterways.
“This is where we came from,” said Mack’s mother, Tiffany Wingate, becoming emotional as she looked out onto the harbor from the deck of her daughter’s new space. “My heart melted when I found out she was getting a space here because our history is on this water. Where we started does not determine where we end up.”
Bramble said he is inspired after hearing how the business opportunity has affected Mack and her family.
“That’s really deep,” Bramble said. “I hope that when people hear that [that] they understand the significance of what we can do. That’s huge. That’s absolutely huge. I hope that is a harbinger of major things to come — people’s sense of ownership and pride. It we do this right, this will be the beating heart of the city, state and region. And that is pretty exciting.”
Mack has been able to do something that generations of Black culinary geniuses were unable to do — secure enough finances for a physical business.
“She has worked really hard for this,” said her aunt, Michelle Vessells, who is a caterer. “Things seem to be falling in to place.”
Vessells said that a lack of financing prevented her from launching her own physical restaurant.
“I was not educated enough about it,” the 53-year-old explained. “I didn’t research it until it was too late.”
Catering has long been a career that has attracted Black people. In fact, during the late 1800s, catering was popularized by Black Baltimoreans because of its large population of freed Black people who had the talent, but not the finances, to own a restaurant.
Mack’s grandmother, Yvonne Roy, has been cooking since she was 13. At 77, the trained chef is bursting with pride to see her granddaughter not only have a physical space, but one in such a prime location.
“When she told me she was going to have a space on the water, I told her, ‘Girl, we’re going to make a killing,’” said Roy, who in her own right is known for her carrot cake. “I told her that she is going to set the stage for other Black women to open their businesses down here.”
Roy has worked with Mack throughout her culinary trajectory, from when Mack would make and sell doughnuts to classmates at Baltimore City College High School to helping her out at her previous space — a counter at Whitehall Mill.
“I always knew she was an entrepreneur,” Roy said. “I have always helped her with whatever I could.”
There will be plenty of chances for Roy to help Mack expand at Harborplace.
The interior of the new space, the former Edo Sushi on the second floor of the Pratt Street Pavilion, is 3,600 square feet compared to her previous 400-square-foot counter presence in Clipper Mill. The additional space affords Mack the ability to create and serve foods that she wasn’t able to offer at her Whitehall Mill counter.
Patrons can expect cast-iron chicken pot pie, corn bread, yeast rolls (similar to the ones Roy made when Mack was growing up), fresh focaccia, pineapple upside down loaf cake, macaroni pie, and her signature sweet pastries and savory crab pies.
“We’ll focus on breakfast and lunch,” Mack said, adding that the space will officially open in April.
For now, she will host special pop-ups as the space is prepared for business. Mack will rent out the restaurant’s deck for concerts, day parties and other events. “We’re going to show the best that Black people has to offer. We’ll have storytelling through food. It will be a true reflection of Baltimore, entrepreneurship. People will be able to come here and have a space of their own.”
Mack said that despite the space needing a thorough cleaning, a fresh coat of paint and an upgrade to the lighting fixtures, guests will be wowed by their experience once it opens. Mack plans to commission local artists to create benches that will be sprinkled throughout her new deck.
“We’re going to bring music, entertainment, culture and art,” she gushed, adding that the space needs a good 30 days before it is ready to officially open. “We’re going to bring the culture down to the Inner Harbor.”
Mack’s husband Jarrod is eager for her to introduce her style of cooking and baking to a greater audience. The couple have been together since they started dating as students at Morgan State University and have three children, ages 16, 9 and 5.
“To see that my wife is at the forefront of this development is amazing,” he said. “It was a no-brainer. This is a perfect fit. I’m excited for the old customers, new customers and tourists to try her food. It can’t happen fast enough.”
Customers will be able to try out Mack’s food Tuesday, Pi Day, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. when she has a pop-up in the hallway outside of her future new restaurant. And her crab pies will be sold that day.