Made in Baltimore with love
A few years ago, Teresa Stephens was working in a community garden in West Baltimore when a disheveled man stumbled in from a nearby alley, alcohol on his breath. The man, who told her he had grown up on a North Carolina farm, seemed interested in her work.
Stephens, now 52, offered him a plot of his own. “I provided everything: a shovel, a hoe, the seeds he said he wanted,” she recalled.
Within months, “Mr. Robert” had a thriving garden — and had sobered up. “He would just come out and sit in the middle of everything he’d grown. The gardening was unpaid therapy,” Stephens said. He showed her “the impact that green can have on someone’s life.”
Inspired by the transformative power of urban gardening, Stephens decided to get serious about greening up the city. As a volunteer for the neighborhood 4H club, she taught children how to make “seed bombs,” colorful balls of fertilizer and seeds.
“We tossed them all over the community,” she said.
Then Stephens decided to start selling her seed bombs, establishing a small business called Urban Roots Company.
That’s when she caught the eye of Andy Cook, executive director of Made in Baltimore, who invited her to become one of the program’s members.
“I just really appreciate them so much,” Stephens said. “The support they give to their makers through their workshops, the mentors that share success stories — it’s just really encouraging.”
What Made in Baltimore does
Established in 2015, Made in Baltimore became part of the Baltimore Development Corporation — which is funded by the City of Baltimore and local philanthropic foundations — in 2018. Its mission is simple: to encourage and support entrepreneurs who make products here.
“Made in Baltimore is a program to support makers and manufacturers in Baltimore City and grow our ‘buy local’ movement,” Cook explained.
“We organize a network of entrepreneurs who make products,” he said. Most are small business owners with fewer than 10 employees.
The program helps in three ways. First, Cook and his staff help entrepreneurs market and promote their products, adding them to its billboards, pop-up stores and their catalog, or LookBook.
Second, Made in Baltimore offers business development in the form of networking, workshops and lectures. And finally, the group helps people advocate for policies that make it easier to run a business in their neighborhood.
“We work with businesses over the long haul and try and support them as they evolve,” Cook said.
Navy mother finds a niche
One of those evolving business owners is Jessica McGrath, 52, who creates jewelry. Twenty years ago, McGrath took a beading class at a San Diego high school “and, always the entrepreneur, I made a beading company and sold at local craft shows,” she said.
Later she took metalsmithing classes in Carmel, California, and realized “it was what I really wanted to do.”
When McGrath moved to Maryland, she took classes at the Baltimore Jewelry Center and decided to “get serious” about her art. She came across Made in Baltimore and sold her jewelry in their pop-up stores and virtual marketplace for three years.
“I really liked what they stood for, helping small businesses in Baltimore and raising them up,” McGrath said.
“I love their chutzpah — they never give up. They try to help and move [us] forward. It’s such a great organization. It’s really something that is needed,” she said.
The group’s networking, how-to workshops and pop-up stores helped McGrath, a U.S. Navy spouse and mother of two, turn her artistic talent into a business, she said.
“I bring this experience of being in so many different places, and you can see it in my jewelry as well,” she said. An iron gate in Florence, for instance, inspired a piece of jewelry that McGrath now sells on her website or at craft shows.
Family recipe launches toffee business
Life experience also came in handy for Kathy Filosi Nelson, 72, a video producer. After 10 years on the Today show, Nelson started her own video production company.
The experience of running her own business gave her the confidence to follow her dream and establish a toffee company in 2016 with her husband, Larry. For years Nelson had made her Italian grandmother’s English walnut toffee recipe for friends and family, but she decided to start selling it commercially.
“Next thing you knew, people were liking this a whole lot,” she said.
Nelson heard about Made in Baltimore “at the same time we were looking to kick things up a bit,” she said. So, she reached out to Cook and began selling her sweets in Made in Baltimore’s pop-up stores.
“They’re phenomenal. They’ve grown this into a really special place for people who believe in Baltimore. They’ve helped tremendously.”
Now, with the help of Made in Baltimore, MFG Toffee Company is “looking for a new space — we’re growing,” Nelson said.
“As everyone else was sequestered in place, we started experimenting a bit, and now we have 13 different toffees and barks,” she said, including Italian Cappuccino, Spanish Latte, Mexican Spicy Pepita, Canadian Maple Pecan, French Raspberry and Japanese Ginger Matcha.
MFG Toffee now sells its toffee and barks all over the country, including at local stores such as Eddie’s of Roland Park, Cheese Galore & More, Gordon’s and Zelda Zen.
Where to buy
So where can you buy Stephens’ seed bombs, McGrath’s jewelry or other Made in Baltimore items? During the pandemic, their websites are the easiest places to find the products.
When customers are ready to shop in person again, though, there will be plenty of opportunities to buy. Since 2015, Made in Baltimore has sold members’ products at its popular pop-up holiday shop (virtual last year). In addition, its members’ products are for sale at a kiosk at Open Works Makerspace on Greenmount Avenue.
This month Made in Baltimore is installing a window display at Double Dutch Boutique in Hampden. In addition, the program will offer a few in-person sales events this summer.
Made in Baltimore operated a temporary brick-and-mortar store on North Avenue for 18 months, and its “long-term goal is to have a retail storefront somewhere in the city,” Cook said.
In the meantime, though, Cook and his staff have 220 entrepreneurs to nurture.
“For me,” he said, “the greatest success is seeing our members succeed — seeing their businesses grow in ways they want to be growing, meeting their goals.”
What advice does Cook have for people who want to launch a business like Stephens, McGrath or Nelson?
“It’s easier than ever to start a product-based business right now — not that it’s easy,” Cook said. “It’s really a ripe time … As we’ve seen this year, there’s so much support for local businesses.”
Teresa Stephens’ Urban Roots Company has benefited from that support. Its seed bombs were a bestseller at Made in Baltimore’s pop-up store last year. She also sells her handmade garden products in the Maryland Historical Society’s gift shop and the MICA student bookstore. Her team also teaches gardening classes and workshops about the power of plants.
For Stephens, it’s not about making money; it’s about making life a little better for Baltimore residents.
“City agriculture, or city greening, has been really helpful to mending many lives,” she said.