Baltimore’s Preakness Stakes returns May 20. But several restaurateurs and small-business owners who participated in last year’s events won’t be coming back to Pimlico after losing thousands of dollars — and not on the horses.
Land of Kush, Terra Cafe and Codetta Bake Shop were three of the eateries that were part of an initiative called Restaurant Row in 2022. The goal was to invite small and, in particular, Black-owned small businesses to Pimlico’s Infield to sell food during the inaugural Preakness Live Culinary, Music & Art Festival, a two-day event envisioned to draw diverse audiences.
But attendance was far short of what organizers and vendors anticipated.
Preakness organizers told the vendors they should be prepared to sell 3,000 meals. In reality, those interviewed by The Baltimore Banner said they sold less than 10% of that, which amounted to more than $10,000 in losses.
It was the first time Terra Cafe owner Terence Dickson, a longtime Baltimorean, had ever attended Preakness. He shut down his Charles Village restaurant for the weekend in order to sell food at Restaurant Row, and paid a premium to source pallets of fish, mushroom and bread during a time of rising food costs. For an event for which he hoped to earn $60,000, he estimates he ultimately lost $10,000 to $15,000. The loss still stings a year later. “It was just an ugly thing,” he said.
Naijha Wright-Brown, whose Land of Kush restaurant sold its plant-based offerings during the event, also prepared the thousands of meals organizers demanded they have ready to go. The restaurant sold just over 200. “We didn’t even make enough to cover payroll,” she said.
Wright-Brown ended up reaching out to the Restaurant Association of Maryland and Baltimore’s Downtown Partnership, which had put event organizers in contact with small business owners, in an effort to recoup some of her losses. She was able to get some money back but didn’t break even. “It was very costly to us,” she said.
In a statement from 1/ST, the company said organizers recognized vendors had incurred losses but said they worked with businesses “on a case-by-case basis, to cover up to 70%” of that amount. They added that they waived rental and setup fees for participating vendors.
But for business owners, the experience was “just kind of demoralizing,” said Sumayyah Bilal, of Codetta Bake Shop.
She blamed 1/ST’s “egregiously wrong scale of what to produce” for the festival. Though she doesn’t think the Canada-based firm acted maliciously, she said “they had no idea how to execute this in a thoughtful way.”
To ensure that she would have enough sweets on hand, Bilal shut down her Federal Hill business for more than two weeks, hired extra staff and and rented an additional kitchen. She thought the event, which featured headliners like Lauryn Hill and Megan Thee Stallion, along with celebrity guests like the cast of “Top Chef,” would bring great exposure as well as strong sales. She projected a windfall; instead, her business lost over $10,000.
While Bilal was able to salvage some of the unsold items from Preakness, “a lot of it got thrown out. Our stuff has a shelf life.” It took months to recover from the financial hit, and the experience left a bitter taste. She said she is now hesitant to vend at future festivals unless they have “a track record of proven attendance and sales.”
Adding to Dickson’s sense of frustration is the fact that one of Baltimore’s biggest hospitality companies, Atlas Restaurant Group, was hired to provide catering for VIP areas during the events. The Preakness organizers “didn’t feel that any of the small businesses were good enough to get the paid catering positions,” he said. “We’re in the back of the bus.”
Bilal agreed. “If you want to support Black businesses, hire us to cater” in the VIP tents, too, she said.
This year’s Infield event is a scaled-back version: Rebilled as Preakness LIVE, the festival (with headliner Bruno Mars) will only take place on Saturday. Atlas will again provide the catering at the suites and VIP tents, this time along with D.C.-area company Ridgewells Catering and help from Baltimore’s Blk Swan, according to 1/ST. Black-owned business Hiatus Cheesecake will provide desserts.
And there won’t be a Restaurant Row. In its place, a limited number of food vendors will take the infield during Preakness Live, including Boardwalk Fries, Jimmy’s Famous Seafood and Shareef’s House of Wraps.
Guests at the aging Pimlico grandstand will find Pappas Crab Cakes, Stuggy’s Sandwich Shop, Jeppi Nut & Candy and Underground Pizza, among other local businesses.
1/ST touted its commitment to “leveraging the Preakness platform to support city and state owned businesses.” They announced a “Preak Weeks” initiative and ticket giveaway meant to drive customers to small local businesses from May 1 through the day before the races.
Bilal had her own suggestion for how the organizers can do better in the future: “It needs to be executed well, or you’re going to continue to alienate the very communities that have been disadvantaged for so long that you’re trying to include.”