Shallow Creek Cafe Struggling to Stay Alive
Owners of the Edgemere used bookstore and cafe hope their "labor of love" is not next in a long line of local business closures.
Sisters Laura Dernoga and Lynette Christensen are not too proud to say they need the support of the community to make their labor of love a success.
The sisters, along with partner—and mother—Gail Hoffman, own Shallow Creek Bookstore Cafe on North Point Road in Edgemere.
With Edgemere businesses dropping like flies recently, with the closures of Chesapeake Terrace Deli, Chewy's, Edgemere Bowl and convenience store Pantry One, Dernoga and Christensen hope theirs isn't next.
But that's a very real possibility, they say. The small business has struggled to stay alive almost since opening its doors, and the continuing economic slump, along with the shuttering of RG Steel, isn't helping matters.
If things don't get better, the cafe could be just one month away from becoming the latest casualty of a seemingly never ending recession.
But the entrepreneurs remain convinced that their deli, coffee shop, bookstore and unofficial community center is badly needed in the waterfront neighborhood that can seem isolated from the rest of Greater Dundalk.
An ominous beginning
"We opened the business in October 2008 and the stock market crashed about week later," Christensen said. "And the government finally admitted the country was in a recession."
The business owners repeat a question often asked by Dundalk residents in reference to shopping opportunities: "Why does everyone have to drive to White Marsh for everything? Why can't we have some nice shopping opportunities right here?"
"This is the only business of its type in this area, and we think it is a valuable and needed business, but the economy sure isn't helping us," Christensen said. "When we first opened, people kept spending but then, the economy hit hard, and people had to cut back—and we're hurting."
Regular customers who used to splurge on milkshakes or ice cream for the kids stopped spending money on non-necessities, and some even went to the trouble of apologizing to the sisters.
"People would come in and tell us they hadn't come in recently because their salaries were cut, or they lost their jobs altogether," Christensen said. "When the mortgage needs to be paid, a milkshake isn't so important."
An unofficial community center
Shallow Creek is a place where people can hang out, relax and not be rushed, the owners said.
Tables offer eating and work space, while three upholstered chairs are grouped around an electric fireplace and another is nestled in a front corner of the shop.
The cafe enjoys nice business from Sparrows Point High School, which means summers are extra slow— the business looked forward to the beginning of a new school year after limping through the warm months.
Christensen and Dernoga have essentially put their life savings into the shop. They tapped into retirement savings and have used credit cards to provide what they believe is an asset to the community.
The three partners have invested about $150,000 in the business, and refuse to decrease the quality of the products they serve —or raise their prices—to help navigate the economy.
"We've held off for two years raising prices," Christensen said. "If folks aren't coming in now, they sure won't come in if the prices go up."
The cafe serves "prime meats," including white chicken meat and albacore tuna, artisan breads and locally produced items.
"Tuna has gone up $30 a case in these three years — there's only six cans in a case, so that's $5 a can," Christensen said. "But we haven't compromised our quality."
They support local food producers by selling Chesapeake Bay Roasting Company's coffee, their ice cream comes from the Kibby Creamery in Rising Sun and baked goods come from a local bakery.
The sisters are products of the Greater Dundalk community. Dernoga graduated from Dundalk High School in 1991, and Christensen followed suit in 1993.
Hoffman grew up in Fort Howard, graduated from Sparrows Point High School and never strayed from the Greater Dundalk community.
After the sisters married, each moved to the Edgemere community and believes strongly in being a vital and contributing member of that community.
They take pride in the cafe being a safe place for children to gather after school, and they encourage groups to hold meetings there.
PTAs hold committee meetings, real estate agents sign contracts with customers, employers interview prospective employees, students hold study sessions and Internet surfers use the free WiFi.
"Some are good at spending money and some aren't" Christensen said. "We'd prefer folks would spend money, but we don't kick them out if they don't."
Edgemere resident Bonnie Cunningham is a Shallow Creek regular. Over a bagel and "the best cup of decaf in town," Cunningham studies for the Spanish class she takes at the Essex campus of The Community College of Baltimore County.
She studies at Shallow Creek to avoid distractions at home, but admits to enjoying chatting with people at the cafe, even though that sometimes distracts her from her mission.
"Gail and her family are really nice, and they're active in the community," Cunningham said. "The people who work here are very sweet, and I enjoy getting to know new people little by little."
Noting that few socializing places exist outside of the bar scene, Cunnimgham said she believes it's important for local residents to have a place like Shallow Creek to gather.
Giving it their all
"We think that many people realize we're the only thing like this in the community," Dernoga said. "But we don't think people realize how dire things are here for us."
The business partners are tapped out and can't make further investments in the shop without a bigger customer base. A display ice cream freezer is broken and there isn't money to fix it.
"We simply can't afford to fix it, and the ice cream is now stored in a freezer in the back," Christensen said. "And that causes a domino effect — we don't sell as much ice cream because people don't see it."
Staff hours have been cut back, and the unpredictability of the business has made it difficult to schedule employees.
"It's very dire," Christensen said. "The business is so sporadic, it's difficult to schedule our workers—we need to cut back hours but we want the kids to make enough to pay their car insurance."
Because there's no rhyme or reason to the pattern of business, the owners can schedule two workers and then have no customers, or schedule just one and then get slammed.
The philanthropic-minded partners, in addition to wishing their own personal bottom line was doing much better, also lament their inability to respond to community requests for donations.
"We like to give back to the community, to support fundraisers, schools and rec councils," Dernoga said.
"We always supported everything that came in the door," Christensen said. "But lately, we've had to say 'no,' because we just don't have it to give. And that hurts us to have to say no."
The three partners are determined to see the business through to whatever lies ahead, whether that's being a thriving, vital pulse point in the community or whether it leads to closing the doors for good.
If the latter happens, it won't be for a lack of passion for and belief in the value of the shop to the community.
"We know this business is needed and wanted in this community," Dernoga said. "And we're not afraid of work; we're doing everything we can to make it work."
Location: Shallow Creek Bookstore Cafe, 7216 North Point Road in Edgemere
Days and Hours Open: Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Monday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Tuesday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Serving: Breakfast, lunch, dinner; sandwiches, entrees, soups, salads, coffee, tea, soft drinks, baked goods, ice cream
Other: Sells used and new books; displays art by local artists
Accepts: VISA, MasterCard and Discover