Art and culture are the keys to building community for businessperson and restaurateur Terence Dickson. Combine those keys with healthy, affordable eating and community service, and you have the recipe for Dickson’s Terra Cafe in Baltimore’s Charles Village.
Dickson, originally from Orangeburg, S.C., said he learned the essence of food, and the importance of natural and organic ingredients there. “I think that my food thing really started when I was young,” said Dickson, “because I was the oldest, and my responsibility was to make sure that the food was prepared for my sisters and brothers and my family, because my mother and father – they always worked. That’s what you had to do in order to take care of a family.”
Dickson’s professional background is in automotive sales, fashion design, and real estate. He purchased the building in which the Terra Cafe is housed around 1999 with a vision to open a restaurant that would achieve community development through non-traditional means. “You build community, not with money first,” said Dickson, “but you build it with art, you build it with culture, you build it with community, and then the money will come later.”
At the time, says Dickson, people found it difficult to buy into that broader community-oriented vision, which made securing financing very difficult. Dickson’s idea for a restaurant did attract investors, but their willingness to fund the venture was tied to a more direct partnership role in the development and management of the restaurant than Dickson was offering at the time.
Dickson opened the cafe in 2009, but the period between purchasing the building and opening his restaurant was not idle. “The nice part about [owning the building] is I’ve had the privilege and the honor to help nurture maybe 30 or 40 businesses,” said Dickson about the various entrepreneurial ventures he’s been able to assist by providing a home in his building.
When he was finally in a position to open the restaurant, Dickson made a commitment about the role he would play in his neighborhood. “The commitment was that prayer at the beginning that I promised God that you take care of my business, and I’m going to stay on my assignment and take care of your people,” said Dickson, who feeds homeless persons in the area every second Sunday of the month through his ‘Neighbors without Walls’ initiative in furtherance of that promise.
That sort of commitment to community is central to Dickson’s vision for the Terra Cafe, to the point that its catering arm, a more recent extension of the Terra Cafe brand, is reserved for events related to community-based efforts. Dickson also does healthy eating and cooking demonstrations, forums, and makes space in the cafe for various forms of artistic expression.
The art on the walls is produced by local artists and are not charged a fee or commission for displaying their work. Musician’s are invited to come and share their work, an effort to bring more expressions of culture to the area.
The Terra Cafe is also an opportunity to help a local economy sorely in need of jobs.
“Within our community, we need jobs,” says Dickson, “and if we can’t get it through big business, small business is definitely going to be the way to go because we’re going to be a little bit more forgiving. I have cats who work for me that might not work anywhere else. What do you do when a cat comes home from 13 years being locked up, and he says I don’t want to go back to the street? . . . You hire him at Terra Cafe.”.
Terra Café, located at E, 25th Street and St. Paul, is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., Mon-Thurs; from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., Fri-Sat.; and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays. If you are in for the first time, try one of the various manifestations of fish on the menu, suggests Dickson.