Local food vendors got a chance to showcase their wares to potential catering customers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) first food fair. The midday food tasting on June 22 featured Southwest Baltimore restaurants and catering vendors in an attempt to steer more UMB catering dollars to local small businesses.
UMB offices spend about $1 million per year on catering meetings, says Ashley Valis, MSW, executive director of the Office of Community Engagement at UMB and a board member of the Southwest Baltimore Partnership. The Office of Community Engagement (OCE) planned the food fair with the help of the student-run Community Action Network.
“There are a lot of small businesses in our neighborhoods around campus that could really benefit from being able to access the dollars that we spend at this institution,” said Valis. “For a lot of these meetings that people have every day, they get in the habit of using the same caterer over and over again. We wanted to bring [awareness of] the different variety they could be using that are either within walking distance or a short five-minute drive.”
UMB President Jay A. Perman, MD, chairs the board of the Downtown Partnership and, with the mayor of Baltimore, co-chairs the UniverCity Partnership, an effort to revitalize Baltimore’s downtown. In 2014, Perman established the OCE to align UMB's community-based scholarship and service and develop a localized engagement strategy. Perman has further emphasized this community outreach since this spring’s unrest, and UMB has joined with other anchor institutions in the OneBaltimore response.
Food fair organizers ensured that arrangements were in place to allow UMB purchasers to use their ProCard to place orders at and after the event, easing the University’s renewed connection to the local restaurants.
Local restaurants offered information and samples to about 100 UMB employees who attended the tasting. Primo Chicken, a Peruvian chicken restaurant on West Lombard Street, offered a chafing dish full of its specialty dish. Zellas Pizzeria and Delivery, located in Hollins Market, accumulated a long line of hungry customers waiting to taste its many varieties of pizza. At the table for CUPs Coffeehouse & Kitchen, executive director Holly Gray dished out cups of honey barbecue chicken salad – “with a kick,” said Gray – and Sonoma chicken salad, with grapes and walnuts.
CUPs, a restaurant and full-service caterer on Arlington Avenue, is a nonprofit that offers workforce training to at-risk youth. The kids “learn culinary skills and get a strong foundation in workforce and life skills,” Gray said. “With us, your catering dollar goes a lot further than your stomach.”
The food fair “is a great way for us to introduce our product,” Gray added.
Joey Vanoni of Pizza di Joey already is a regular on the UMB campus, since he parks his food truck outside the University of Maryland BioPark at least once a week. The truck features a 4,000-pound brick oven in which Vanoni bakes huge 24-inch pizzas – “family pies,” he calls them.
A U.S. Navy veteran, Vanoni learned to cook true New York-style pizzas in his hometown in New Jersey. He honed his skills in the service, baking pies on-demand for his hungry fellow service members. Vanoni lives in Pigtown, where his business is based.
Catering at UMB would be a great opportunity for his growing business, Vanoni said: “I’m looking forward to coming out and serving more at the University.”
Vanoni heard about the event from Ben Hyman, executive director of Pigtown Main Street, a local community organization. Hyman ran his own table at the food fair.
“This is terrific,” Hyman said of the food fair. “We have great small businesses, and giving them this opportunity to promote themselves is a big deal. A catering order makes the week for a small business. The University has been such a great partner in helping [the campus community] to explore these new food places.”
University employees in attendance were impressed by the offerings. Carolina Castro, an accountant with UMB’s Central Administration Support Services, enjoyed a piece of mushroom spinach pizza from Zella's. “This is really, really good,” she said of the pizza. “This is great, it helps support the community.”
“I think it’s wonderful,” Dana Joyce, marketing specialist at the School of Pharmacy, said of the food fair. “These businesses are right in our backyard, and this is an important way to support them.”
Trying out small businesses can offer a little variety at meetings, she added: “It’s great to try something different!”