The high cost of doing business in the city

November 30, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Drop by Morton's wine and food shop in Baltimore at noontime and you'll see people having lunch.

There is no sign that this Mount Vernon business is failing and will probably disappear from the first block of W. Eager St. by mid-January.

"The market we selected has become the most hesitant to be in in this area," said Robert Talbott, who owns the shop with his wife, Janis.

With its assortment of wines and hearth-baked breads, Morton's seemed the epitome of a small 1980s urban business, an upscale pantry for a neighborhood of art galleries, interior designers and restaurants.

When Morton's opened nearly nine years ago, it seemed to send a bright and clear signal that luxury trade was returning to the Charles Street-Mount Vernon area.

The owners' aim was to fill a gap left by two very old firms known for their fancy provisions. "We basically wanted to open a business and made a judgment that this neighborhood needed a good wine and food shop. We were trying to fill the void created by the loss of Boone-Elder and the Independent Beef Co.," Mr. Talbott said in 1985.

Independent Beef, on Howard Street, and Boone-Elder, a wine shop in the first block of W. Chase St., were famous suppliers of fancy food and drink.

For a while, Morton's succeeded. But sales peaked in 1989. At the same time, the owners said, the rent increased on their 3,200-square-foot, first-floor space in a small office building that once housed a livery stable and taxi cab operation.

Then came reports of street crime. Not necessarily in the block that houses Morton's but in other Baltimore neighborhoods.

"Something has happened to peoples' mind-set about this neighborhood," Robert Talbott said. "There was a time when customers dropped by on their way home after work. But when crime began to grow, they stopped coming. In large part, they lock the car doors and roll up their windows and put distance between themselves and the city."

And they leave Morton's with its sliding sales and shelves stocked with imported cheeses, Greek olives, smoked fish, Hungarian paprika, barrels of coffees, special teas, fancy paper products, gourmet crackers.

The store's walls are lined with "Best of Baltimore" awards from Baltimore Magazine and the City Paper. The shop is bright and its wares well displayed. It belies any connection with federal bankruptcy protection the owners sought several months ago.

"We are committed to the neighborhood and like it. We'd like to stay and locate a place where there's a space available in today's rental market," Mr. Talbott said.

Food sales constitute about 40 per cent of Morton's gross; wine and liquor account for another 40 per cent; and catering 20 per cent. "Catering was never the business for us to be in. At the end, we are only accepting catering orders from long-standing customers," he said.

The owners are outspoken about crime. Mr. Talbott cites the case of a physician who was a substantial customer. His office staff lobbied the doctor to leave the Mount Vernon neighborhood after a receptionist was raped one morning on a parking lot. "The staff threatened to quit. The doctor relocated in Pikesville. His business went with him," Mr. Talbott said.

He believes the Mount Vernon neighborhood does not always deserve the reputation it has.

"There are car thefts in Towsontown Center but to the public, the probability of a car theft seems greater downtown," Mr. Talbott said.

One aspect of downtown survival is directly linked to city government. The owner heavily criticized the saturation of this neighborhood with meter maids in search of expired parking meters.

"The meter maids are rapacious. If you are parked for longer than three or four minutes at an expired meter, you will get a ticket. They swoop down on this neighborhood every day, every hour," Mr. Talbott said.

"I had one customer come in. His face was florid. He said, 'I like this place. I like the food. But when I factor in the parking tickets I get here, this is the most expensive place in town.' "

Mr. Talbott said his wife once fought a parking ticket. "She had a car parked in the alley so she could load some food. She got a ticket. The judge told her that was just the cost of doing business in the city," he said.

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