Jeff Jetton is coming into Baltimore like a 747 ― loud and fast.
Toki Underground, the D.C. restaurant he co-owns, has not even opened its new location on Greenmount Avenue yet, but Jetton has plastered the city with text-based billboards hyping up the ramen spot and positioning it as “a Baltimore thing.”
One self-aggrandizing example lists Toki Underground below the names of prominent residents, from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to fictional character Omar Little of “The Wire,” concluding: “Legends are made in Baltimore.” Another includes “Baltimore ramen” among such regional staples as Buffalo wings and Nashville hot chicken. Then, there’s what may be the most combative billboard: “Goodbye crab cakes. Hello ramen.”
The cheeky campaign reflects both Jetton’s ad world background — he co-founded a marketing agency — and the high hopes that he and city boosters have for Toki Underground, which launches next Wednesday in the former Bottoms Up Bagels.
Businesses like Toki and Black Acres Roastery, located on the 1400 block of Greenmount, help “prime the pump” for others to follow, said Jack Danna, director of commercial revitalization for the Central Baltimore Partnership. “It affirms the commitment that something is happening and people haven’t given up on Greenmount Avenue,” he said.
While nearby Waverly has seen new interest from restaurateurs and business owners — Red Emma’s recently opened a few blocks up and Peabody Heights Brewery is close by — Toki Underground is just south of that, in Harwood, sharing the 2700 block of Greenmount with an anonymous-looking furniture company and several boarded-up row houses. The location, Jetton admitted, is “a little bit of an island right now. It’s not a strip of bars and restaurants.”
But Jetton and his business partner Olivier Caillabet are confident that will change. When they opened their first restaurant on D.C.’s H Street in 2011, the neighborhood similarly had plenty of vacant properties as well as a strong residential component, Caillabet said. Today, business and property values in that area are skyrocketing. (Last year, the median home price in the H Street-NoMa neighborhood was around $1 million, according to Redfin. In contrast, home prices in Harwood are around one quarter of that.)
At the same time, Jetton is quick to say he doesn’t want to turn Greenmount Avenue into a D.C. neighborhood. “We’re not replicating H Street,” he said. “Baltimore has its own identity and people are protective of that, as they should be.”
Supporters of the project hope it will be a boon for the area, offering a gathering place as well as relatively economical food and drinks in a neighborhood that hasn’t seen a sit-down restaurant in years. The restaurant’s D.C. branch has received multiple shoutouts from the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand list, which highlights affordable eats, and news of its arrival had local foodies and civic leaders abuzz.
“It’s exciting,” said Diana Emerson, executive director of Waverly Main Street, which helped Toki procure $40,000 in state grants to help fund the restaurant’s buildout. Toki also secured an additional $250,000 in tax rebates from the state through Project Restore, which gives money to businesses setting up in previously vacant buildings. The Baltimore Development Corporation kicked in a façade improvement grant of $7,500, and Central Baltimore Partnership helped land a $35,000 state grant towards construction.
There’s reason for all the goodwill — and all the good funding. More than many other businesses owners, Emerson said, Jetton and Caillabet have demonstrated a desire to get to know the area where they’re setting up shop. “They’ve gone to community association meetings. You don’t always see that,” Emerson said. “Folks a lot of times show up and they’re here and they’re going to make a profit from the community but … may not take it upon themselves to truly understand who and what is in the neighborhood.”
Toki’s owners have also formed relationships with other business owners in the area, including Eddie O’Keefe of Peabody Heights. The brewery is soon to launch a “Speed Gal” ale in collaboration with the ramen spot.
“It’s exciting to see someone like Toki Underground, which has had such a storied history in Washington, D.C., come to Baltimore,” said O’Keefe. “There’s so much opportunity on Greenmount Avenue,” an area he said tends to fly “under the radar of the rest of the city.”
Inside the restaurant just before its soft opening, a sculpture of rotating skateboards hangs above the dining area where guests will sip cocktails and dig into the restaurant’s award-winning ramen. A wall by the entrance has been plastered in stickers and embellished by local artists Wilson Ward Kemp and Lolo Gem. A covered patio will offer additional seating, a marked contrast to the restaurant’s comparatively tiny, 27-seat D.C. headquarters.
In the kitchen will be chef Lorena Rodriguez, formerly of Sally O’s, who says she is still undergoing the intense training necessary to prepare the restaurant’s signature Japanese-style ramen. “For years I’ve been going to the D.C. place,” she said. “When I heard they were coming to town, I applied.”
Similarly drawn by the Washington restaurant’s reputation was Shealyn Reuter, who is taking over as front-of-house manager. “It’s super innovative,” Reuter said of the concept. She previously worked at Blue Pit BBQ & Whiskey Bar and said she thinks working at Toki is “going to push me and take me a different level.”
The same could be said for Greenmount Avenue.