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Photo by Alizabeth Solomon

Rooster + Hen: “Food is the new rock ‘n’ roll”

At Rooster + Hen, every vegetable comes from a farm, and every farmer has a name, and Allison Smith and Joe McRedmond will tell you every single one. Their vegetables hail from Zahradka Farm in Essex, Tuscarora Farms in Tuscarora, Beechwood Orchards in Pennsylvania… If he can’t remember the name of a farmer, McRedmond pulls out his phone to look it up.

Smith and McRedmond are the owners of Rooster + Hen, a small organic general store tucked away off of Frederick Road in Oella, the wooded western end of Catonsville. The owners hung their sign, cut the ribbon and opened their white french doors on Oct. 1.

Pumpkins and squash greet customers at the door, bursting from their baskets under a cream-colored awning. Just inside, a plate offers free apples. Kelly green zucchini sells for a dollar, lime green tomatoes for 50 cents. Fairy lights line the beams and Elvis croons softly in the background. Shoppers can browse sipping home-roasted cold-brewed coffee or iced chai green tea. On Sunday afternoons, Wieland’s BBQ food truck sets up outside and customers can come inside and savor their slow-roasted brisket at the mismatched tables.

A plate of little organic carrots makes the huge grocery store variety seem alien. Everything is small, colorful, natural. The only alien product in this store is the HEX Ferments “Butterfly Lime” kombucha, a potion that glows a mystical neon purple from its glass bottle.

Every product they sell seems to be made by a “good friend of ours.” Bill’s Dills provides local pickles. Max from Max’s Degrees, who sells a spice mix called “Cliffdiver,” just left for Europe and currently has a blue mohawk. The woman from Cliff’s Salsa has to drive out from Baltimore twice a day to restock because her salsa sells out so quickly. Even the artist behind their lacy red and white folk-art sign is credited: the original paper cut was created by Baltimore artist Annie Howe, in collaboration with graphic designer (“What was his name? I can’t leave him out!”) Toddfather Art.

Smith and McRedmond have been working 12-hour days since they opened – but they’re not complaining. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” said McRedmond. “With other jobs, on the way there my legs would start shaking in the car. But I was home the other day and I just wanted to be here.”

The long hours are a choice, an intentional gift to the community. In opening all day, seven days a week, the owners’ goal is to be convenient, a place “where you can pick up an onion for dinner on your way home from work.” Smith’s eyes light up behind her tortoiseshell glasses as she lays out her plan to save Catonsville from the drudgery of long lines and big carts at the grocery store. “We recognize the hurdles that people go through,” she insisted.

And those hurdles, Smith said, are especially acute for parents. A mother of two children, Smith explains that parents have two problems with shopping: First, kids fall asleep in the car and second, they follow their parents around the store and beg them for everything.

Rooster + Hen sets out to solve these problems. They offer to watch sleeping babies in the car while their parents shop and will even watch kids in the store — if a mother walks in with a baby, McRedmond will say, “Put the baby in Allison’s arms!”

And for the kids shopping with their parents, “We’re never gonna put candy at a child’s eye level,” Smith said. “That’s just cruel.”

As for the other logistics of opening a small produce market, Smith and McRedmond are learning as they go. They knew vendors from working together at the Catonsville farmer’s market — he sold coffee, she sold popsicles — and relied on that network when building their business. “Everyone has an answer, we feel really lifted up,” said Smith. “It’s a magical experience.”

That network was the starting point for most of Rooster + Hen’s products. As said by their slogan, the store sells “Very Good Goods” by small-scale producers. “We’ve just stocked the place with all of our favorite stuff,” said Smith, praising Zerbe’s Potato Chips, WOOT! lavender granola and JD Honeybee’s gluten free muffins (“gluten or non-gluten, best muffins I’ve ever had!”). The hardest part, she said, is not eating it all.

Smith and McRedmond met a year ago, when Smith went to see McRedmond’s band. The two both have a musical background. McRedmond, a tall man with a fluffy two-toned gray beard and tattoos peeking out of the sleeves of his flannel shirt, moved from Pennsylvania to Washington DC in the 1990’s and played guitar in a “post-hardcore punk band” — in other words, what he calls “weird rock.” Smith, originally from Oklahoma, started out playing the fiddle in an “alt-country honky tonk” band called the Pistol Arrows. These days, he plays bass, she plays drums.

For them, there is nothing surprising about their move from music to the food business. “There’s a food revolution in Baltimore,” said Smith and artists and musicians are on the forefront. “They both need creativity and a kind of do-it-yourself spirit,” explained McRedmond. “Food is the new rock ’n’ roll.”