Dogwood made good food and a difference in lives

Owners helped people in recovery from addiction, prison, homelessness

  • In full blossom, Bridget and Galen Sampson's charming Hampden restaurant is serious about its commitment to sustainability and community development. For diners, Galen Sampson's classic preparations of American cuisine make doing the right thing a pleasure.  • Restaurant info.: The Dogwood, 911 W. 36th St., Hampden, 410-889-0952,
In full blossom, Bridget and Galen Sampson's charming… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun…)
March 20, 2013|Dan Rodricks

Has it been mentioned anywhere that the couple who ran the Dogwood Restaurant in Hampden tried to change the lives of desperate people while serving good food and drink?

There aren't a lot of businesses willing to hire ex-offenders and recovering drug addicts. It's a bother. It comes with risks, and there are plenty of attorneys to warn clients about "negligence in hiring," and the liability that brings.

But the Dogwood believed in giving second chances, so attention must be paid, however late the notice.

The Dogwood closed last weekend, with owner Galen Sampson telling The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic, Richard Gorelick, that business went south over the last three weeks. Sampson paid his staff and closed the doors.

By most measures, that means the Dogwood was a failure.

But, by another measure — making a difference in the lives of people — it was a relatively short, sweet success.

Five years ago, when I was writing frequently about joblessness among ex-offenders — men and women coming out of prison with no clear plan for re-entry — people who cared about that problem pointed toward the Dogwood, Sampson and his wife, Bridget.

These were special people, even by the standards of Baltimore, which is loaded with generous people trying to fix their fellow humans.

Galen Sampson had been an acclaimed chef at the upscale Harbor Court Hotel. He developed the idea for a culinary training program for people in recovery while a community fellow with the Open Society Institute.

Every year, OSI awards grants to social entrepreneurs with great ideas for improving Baltimore, one step at a time, with particular emphasis on reducing the drug addiction, violence, poverty and family dysfunction that has festered in the poorest neighborhoods for so long.

So, with a grant from OSI, Galen Sampson launched his program, calling it Chefs in the Making and paying people as they learned how to prepare and cook food.

Bridget was right there with him. A writer and social activist, she'd been the recipient of a 2003 OSI grant to tutor incarcerated mothers and their children in reading. She'd also been involved in an outreach program for women coming out of prison.

"Two people with hearts of gold," Diana Morris, the director of OSI-Baltimore, says of them.

Starting in 2007, the Sampsons took on the double challenge of running a restaurant — never an easy thing — and training people in recovery from drugs, prison and/or homelessness.

"You need to make a difference to your community," Galen Sampson said.

A few years ago, we reported on the success of some of the people who escaped addiction and relapse through the Dogwood kitchen.

One was a fellow named Tyrone Lewis, the lead apprentice in Chefs in the Making at the time. Though he had been hooked on heroin for 15 years, Lewis managed to get and keep a series of short-order cooking jobs. By 2008, he had been clean for four years and working as the Dogwood's kitchen manager.

I don't know where Lewis is these days, and Galen Sampson could not be reached Wednesday.

But that's OK. Attention must be paid, just the same.

Here's a man who, with his wife, created an enterprise with the whole community in mind. They bought organic and seasonal produce from local farmers, pushing the idea of using sustainable, regional food sources. They offered a great product presented smartly. They planted their business in an old neighborhood with new promise. And they were willing to expend the extra energy required for Chefs in the Making.

"They made a difference," says Morris. "They did a lot for people and did it with dignity. They took the time to develop a program so people could improve themselves with better pay and stable jobs — in the kitchen and out front. Galen taught the people he trained every aspect of the restaurant so they could have a good future and climb the culinary ladder."

Of course, the recession hit soon after the Dogwood opened, and the restaurant closed and reopened a couple of times. Some people never took to its below-level dining space and the lack of natural light.

"At The Dogwood, we tried to do something innovative and risky, and the city and its people always supported us," Galen Sampson wrote in his farewell message on the restaurant's website. He thanked his staff, customers and investors, then said he was headed to an organic farm in Virginia for the growing season while his wife returned to her love: writing fiction.

"However, nothing will ever bring us the joy and the heartache, the fun and the challenge that the Dogwood did," he closed. "The Dogwood pursued the ideal of being a good restaurant that also helped people who were trying to change their lives. We hold in our hearts individuals with transformed lives and the moments of profound community we shared celebrating food and wine. We consider those some of the greatest successes one can have in life."

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