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Getting Into the Spirit with Church Bar

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BmoreArt’s Picks: December 20-26

The charming colloquial phrase “bottoms up” has a dual meaning at Church, Old Goucher’s newest cocktail bar and restaurant. Church, which opened this October after much anticipation, is challenging the hospitality industry to think from the bottom up.  Owner Chelsea Gregoire, a Baltimore native and award-winning bartender, wants Church to be a place of community where power is truly with the people.

To achieve this, Gregoire implemented a bottom up management style that asks employees to be valued stakeholders in the decision-making process of the nascent restaurant. “Hospitality has always shut people up when they advocate for themselves, and if nothing else, even if I fail.. they will still have learned how to advocate for themselves,” Gregoire says of the staff of Church.

Church pivots away from the pernicious power dynamics of traditional top-down hierarchy in kitchens and restaurants toward a model that resembles cooperation, compassion, and heart.  Gregoire says they don’t use the phrases “front” or “back of house” and when they hired their team everyone started at the same wage with no specific role or responsibility.

Leadership roles formed naturally and those promoted helped write their job descriptions and budgeted for their role. Tips are pooled and split evenly among workers based on hours worked. “You can’t make systemic change overnight,” Gregoire says of famed NYC restaurateur Danny Meyer’s failed attempt to implement a tipless system. Where Meyer’s failed, Gregoire conjectures, is by not asking the workers their opinion on the monumental effort.

 

Downstairs, just beyond the impressive prep-kitchen, the wall is plastered with the roles and responsibilities of every position to promote accountability. The tip pool breakdown hangs in total transparency alongside a sign-up sheet for Learning Tracks, or a series of modules that Gregoire developed as pathways to professional development for anyone working at Church.

The year-long Learning Tracks include Leadership & Management, Spirts & Cocktails, and Culinary & Cuisine. The completion of each module comes with a pay increase and anyone on the staff can sign up for any module. The Fellowship Hall, or break room, serves as a quiet space to relax during a shift, grab a book from the lending library, or to find Gregoire, who says this open room is also their office.

Church seeks to create a space unlike any other, a place of community and gathering much like that of an actual church but without the fear of being shunned or castaway into the murky margins as an outsider. Gregoire, a studied theolgian who themself became an outcast after coming out as queer, acknowledges that the material reality of the objects within the restaurant can evoke a sense of church, but hopes that they are nuanced. Gentle imagery is laced among the more obvious objects.

A sculpture resembling a pipe organ hangs above the bar, a nod to stained glass shimmers above the host stand, a resplendent tapestry overlooks the pew seating at the entrance. The walls are finished in a deep blue limewash, displaying a mottled and matte finish that resembles crushed velvet. Limewash was used in churches during the plague due to its anti-microbial nature, Chelsea shares. A contemporary curtsy to our own generation’s pandemic.

 

Every detail in the bar and restaurant was considered with great affection for the human body, mind, and soul. The ramp of anticipation that leads to the entrance was a hard-fought battle with architects and the city to ensure that its gradient was not too severe for those with mobile disabilities. Upon entering the restaurant, the space provides enough area for someone in a walker or wheelchair to move comfortably. The standing bar, set back behind the seated bar, was designed to allow enough space to tuck away comfortably.

The strength of the black walnut bar is substantial enough to lean against it if you need a respite, and if you look closely, you can spot the live edge finish of walnut bark butting against the wall. Golden tin tiles flash from under the bar in the sunlight gliding through the space. Severe angular shadows cast from the windows overlooking the open kitchen and it feels like the set of a noir film in color. Rich wooden tones warm the edges and grip at nostalgia. It’s chuchly, but not off-putting and in no way sacrilegious.

Pews are the most obvious church element and Gregoire delights in their accessibility. The pew is made for all body types and constructed for easy sitting, proximity and gathering. Gregoire and the Church team managed to capture the sanctity we revere and still create a space that gushes with radical acceptance.

Each corner of the bar and restaurant offers a unique experience. The power to choose that experience is with the guest in the innovative reservation model. Reservations are encouraged, though I have gone without, it is nice to choose what kind of experience you’d like to have at Church. Unlike any other bar I’ve been to, to sit at the bar, you must have a reservation. Gregoire says it’s so that those seated at the bar have a “bar experience” that’s not interrupted by patrons ordering behind them.

Each space has its own distinctive experience, whether sitting in the dining room, at one of the comfortable bar seats, or a table on one of the decks. I have dined on the back deck lounging on the relaxed rolling contours of the bench seating, at the bar watching the active bar team working in quiet unison with simple gestures, and in the dining room with an ever attentive and courteous waitstaff. Each space offers a unique perspective.

 

Upon arrival, it’s very likely the host will offer a tour. Do not decline; the short tour showcases the space’s porosity and the way it flows easily and without barriers. There are still features from the building’s previous incarnation as a Baltimore rowhome. My favorite is a small window between the dining room and kitchen. The window, once on the back of the house, now offers diners the pleasure of peeking directly into the bustling kitchen.

The tables in the dining room, the furniture on the deck, the construction of the bar, the sanding and finishing of the pews, were all task that Gregoire took into their own hands. Church is a labor of love.

The bar menu is Gregoire’s “greatest hits.“ Meticulously conjured shrubs and syrups mix gently with liquors sourced locally and afar. Chelsea explains they want to create an experience that is approachable but also introduce a new ingredient wherever possible. Chelsea says sometimes the experience in new cocktail bars and restaurants can be too niche and the experience can cause a guest to becomes tense. “Hospitality is a way of life, and you experience hospitality whether you go to a restaurant or a coffee shop, or an office that’s designed for your body or you go to your grandmother’s house,” they say.

Church has been open for two months and already things have changed. Gregoire says the power dynamic is evolving. In the kitchen, there is no hierarchy.  Power is shared equally among those working the line to execute the resident chef menu. It was presumed that leaders would arise naturally from the pool of candidates working in the kitchen. Instead, left to their own design, the kitchen is leaderless and non-hierarchical. Each night before service, the kitchen announces who will be the expo.

Gregoire says they are efficient and even more importantly than that, they are all happy. Since everyone in the kitchen has chosen to share responsibility equally, the search for executive sous chef and sous chef has been discarded. In exchange, Gregoire invites them all to rewrite the roles and responsibilities to share equally and instead of paying one person more money, they can split that pay increase among everyone on the team. Historian C.L.R. James sums this up perfectly in his famous quote, “every cook can govern,” an adage widely known from his 1950’s pamphlet on direct democracy.

 

Gregoire laments that the working culture at Church is nothing like the hospitality industry at-large and that this experience may ruin the industry for anyone who chooses to move on.

“I would like to reframe that,” Gregoire’s business partner Marisa Dobson, who has accompanied us during our morning together, politely interjects. “They are gonna go out there to different places and expect more,” she says jovially.

The culture change is welcome in an industry that survives from antiquated wage policies that guarantee too little to those working the hardest. Too many workers have cowered to big chef personalities who flash grins on magazine covers and use those same teeth to gnash and angrily rant about labor costs behind closed doors. You won’t find any of that toxicity at Church.

I gather, from my short time spent with Gregoire, that there might even be shared tears of joy in the cooperation that is felt between the people working in this establishment. I almost get weepy eyed at the agency I feel in the Church model. True change takes time, Gregoire admits, but the change is happening by challenging and changing the norms of that structure. This industry needs a change and in the words of the great singer Sam Cooke in his Civil Rights era song, “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.”

Resident Chef Dwight Campbell’s Jamaican inspired menu remains through 2022. In 2023, the food menu changes with the new Resident Chef Melanie Kerr. Read more about Church’s Chef Residency or apply for a guest spot in 2023 on Church website.

 

Interior Design for Church Bar by Tiffani Ready of Reidy Creative

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