City has long history of gourmet coffee
As coffee bars continue to expand and show no sign of waning in popularity, for older Baltimoreans, the mention of Starbuck’s or Gloria Jean’s Gourmet Coffee, for instance, must inevitably recall memories of the Smith Punch Base Coffee and Tea Co. Kenny Co., two former hallowed and cherished local purveyors of the heavenly bean. Kenny Co. Kenny, who arrived in Baltimore in 1872 and opened a coffee, tea and sugar store at Lexington and Greene streets. Kenny Co. closed its retail stores in 1934 and then became a strictly wholesale operation. In 1940, the company was taken over by Consolidated Food Corp. of Chicago, which closed its local headquarters. Kenny Co. was the Smith Punch Base Coffee and Tea Co., the third black owned business in the 1400 block of Pennsylvania Avenue. It was established in 1906 by Deaver Y. Smith Sr.
Until his death in 1975, Smith operated the 15 foot wide store at 1411 Pennsylvania Ave. the way he had for the preceding 65 years, with much of the store’s original equipment and well worn counters. An old pendulum clock on the wall marked in measured beats the passing of the years.
Smith’s only concessions to modernity were a neon sign in the window with an illuminated cup of coffee advertising “Rich Cup,” a blend that he sold, a delivery truck and 1930s era white porcelain lighting fixtures suspended from the ceiling.
In the early years, Smith roasted the coffee beans that he delivered to Baltimore’s revered Waters Catering Co. and restaurants between Baltimore and Annapolis by horse drawn wagon. He later switched to a red panel truck that his son, Deaver Y. Smith Jr., who worked in the business, drove for years. Electric motors were eventually brought in to power the grinders.
Shoppers entering Smith’s narrow store were instantly surrounded by the aroma of sassafras, spices,
peppers red and black and rich coffee beans from South America and Africa that he dispensed from ancient teakwood coffee bins painted red and shelves lined with tea canisters.
Signs on the wall advertised “Ceiling Prices” for “Good Coffee” at 25 cents a pound; “Special Coffee” for 35 cents a pound; “Genuine Java Mocha” at 48 cents a pound and three ounce packages of “Orange Pekoe Tea” for 20 cents.
“His basic business was, and still is, special blends of tea and coffee,” said a 1961 Sunday Sun Magazine article.
“He buys different varieties of coffee beans unroasted, from a New York broker. Four degrees of roasting light, medium, dark and very dark are possible in his oven. Different mixtures of these coffees and roasts give him an infinite variety of possibilities.”
Smith also sold his favorite blend of tea, a mixture of “rolled green gunpowder tea for a mild background, some black Formosa for piquancy, a bit of leaf green Hyssop and a touch of black leaf Ceylon for other flavor characteristics,” observed the newspaper.
One charming anachronism that dated to 1906 was a wall mounted gooseneck telephone over which Smith conducted much of his business.
In the 1950s when the area was being converted to dial phones, Chesapeake Potomac Telephone Co. workmen offered to give him a modern instrument.”Put a dial on it if you must, but leave it there,” he told them. And the mighty C complied with his wishes.
Smith also helped finance the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Ave., a mecca for black entertainers until it was torn down in 1971.
Reflecting on his business and life, he told The Sunday Sun Magazine in 1961, “It’s done a good job for me. Why change it?”
The Pennsylvania Ave. store closed in 1979 and moved to Orem Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, where it is operated today by the founder’s grandson,
Albert Smith Jr.