Realizing Dreams Through Social Good
Among the fanciful murals that decorate the Dogwood Restaurant in Hampden are a bright blue dog nestling beneath a flowering, purple tree and giant crimson tomatoes that seem to spill off the walls onto diners’ plates. Created with the help of community-based program Rebuilding Through Art, the images are dreamlike.
And dreams, realized, are a large part of what makes the Dogwood so special. Featuring fresh, organic foods locally sourced whenever possible, the restaurant is the fulfillment of a lifelong goal for owner and chef Galen Sampson and his wife and business partner, Bridget.
Through a culinary apprenticeship program, the Sampsons provide training and employment to people who are transitioning from addiction, incarceration and homelessness. It’s a double bottom line: financial and social returns on investment through transformed lives.
“We’re staking our restaurant business on the hope that people can change,” Galen says.
The apprenticeship program is supported through business revenues and employs seven people for one to two years. In addition to food preparation and kitchen techniques, apprentices learn life skills necessary for success. “When people apply for a job, we want them to have real-world experience to succeed as professionals,” Galen says. “Our employees deal with stress and pressure and learn how to think on their feet and work together.”
The Sampsons are longtime activists in Baltimore. When they met in 2003, Bridget, a writer and university professor, was an Open Society Institute Baltimore Community Fellow teaching a family literacy program at the Women’s Detention Center. “I saw women and their children wanting a better life but lacking practical skills to achieve that,” she recalls.
Galen, then executive chef at Baltimore’s Harbor Court Hotel, had seen some of his coworkers struggle with poverty, family issues and available transportation to get to and from work. After they met, the couple teamed up on projects such as reading and swimming programs and Christmas tree sales to benefit families in transition—but they wanted to do more.
To help shape their vision, the Sampsons participated in 2007 in UB’s Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship course, which they had learned about through the Open Society Institute. The class pairs nonprofit organizations with teams of business students to identify needs and goals, conduct financial analysis and market research, and develop viable business plans.
“We’ve had many participants with wonderful results, and the Dogwood is one,” says J.C. Weiss, who teaches the course in the Merrick School of Business. Weiss, who came to UB after 30-plus years in banking and venture capital, says that many nonprofit entrepreneurs are passionate about their mission but struggle with the details of creating a workable entity. “We give them organizational help, and the students get experience working with real clients,” Weiss says. “It’s an excellent school-and-community partnership.”
Through the course, UB students helped the Dogwood simplify its original plans to ensure a tenable business model that also provided an intensive and practical training program. “We started out to create a nonprofit but ultimately wound up with a restaurant that could help people—a model that could sustain itself,” Galen says.
As the Dogwood’s apprenticeship program has evolved, it has produced unexpected benefits. “We had not anticipated the support system that has been created among the staff,” Bridget explains. “When people have been through similar experiences, they understand each other.”
Now, Galen and Bridget continue to mentor their former employees as they move on to other jobs.
“Seeing people succeed is very special—better than I could have imagined,” Bridget says. “For us, the journey is the dream.”
Galen was named a CNN Hero in 2008, and the couple and their employees were recently featured in an hourlong Turning Point documentary on PBS.