Identifying an organization that could provide specialized guidance and training for the incoming tenants of Baltimore’s redeveloped Lexington Market wasn’t a straight shot. Ultimately the road led to SAGE Dining Services, a Baltimore-based foodservice contractor.
During a recent reconstruction of the historic market, developer Seawall Development partnered with Innovation Works, a community business incubator, which turned to SAGE for resources that would help increase the likelihood entrepreneurs setting up in the market’s new space would succeed.
Vendors at the market are largely foodservice or food concerns, says Tina Rodriguez, cofounder, CFO and general counsel of SAGE. As such, she adds, “they needed help in a very specific way—not just investment and financial advice, but specifically food production and management knowledge.” Innovation Works is not in the food business, but SAGE was uniquely qualified to step in. Rodriguez, who also sits on the Innovation Works board, saw an opportunity to give back to the community.
Senior members of SAGE’s team created presentations that walked vendors through the various aspects of running a food/foodservice business. The topics touched on skills needed to run a foodservice business, from inventory management to menu design, food costs, pricing, accounting, human resources, POS systems, payment technology, scheduling, marketing and more.
While some of the vendors at the market were old hands, the curriculum was designed primarily for startups. “Some of the tenants had been tenants of the previous market for 30 years, but some are in business for the first time,” Rodriguez says. “We looked at it from the perspective of what you would need if you were starting a food stall.”
Some of SAGE’s senior staff also volunteered to mentor the tenants. They assisted during the presentations and made themselves available as resources after the market opened.
Ultimately, Rodriquez says, at least two dozen people were involved in preparing, delivering and recording the presentations. “You really need not one person, but a whole team to rally around a project like this,” she says.
Besides donating the labor for these efforts, SAGE also has provided financial support, investing in Ignite Capital, the financial arm of Innovation Works that provides grants to Baltimore small businesses, particularly those run by women and people of color.
The goal, Rodriguez explains, “was for all the vendors who were going to be leasing space to succeed. The point was not just to give them space, but give them support so when they did open the doors, they could make it.”
Lexington Market, which first opened in 1782, is part of the Baltimore Public Market system, the oldest such group in the U.S. It has traditionally served as a gathering spot and hub for fresh, local food. Merchants sell items such as artisan coffee, crab cakes, local dessert favorites, classic fried chicken, Jamaican fare, seafood and more. Reopened in a new 60,000-square-foot space last fall, the building supports nearly 50 vendors.
Rodriguez and her husband, SAGE cofounder Paco Rodriguez, grew up in Detroit and the Bronx, respectively. One of their goals in launching the company was a desire to make an impact and give back to a city facing challenges similar to those of their hometowns.
“SAGE is so proud to be a part of this project that supports small businesses,” Rodriguez says. “We hope our mentorship and training will help foster new business opportunities, as well as continue to develop communities in and around Baltimore.”
Rodriguez adds that she hopes the company’s involvement in getting the revitalized Lexington Market off to a healthy start will inspire contract feeders in other cities to taken on similar projects supporting their own local communities.
SAGE Dining Services, an FM Top 50 firm, specializes in the independent school and college segment, serving some 275 clients across 36 states. The Rodriguezes won the 2022 IFMA Silver Plate Award in the Business & Industry/Foodservice Management category.