A lunch hour spent gazing at the 1917 Singer Building across from her on Rhode Island Avenue was all it took. Her musings hooked the veteran of the Washington, D.C. restaurant scene. What she saw in the space that once housed the First National Bank of Maryland in Mount Rainier convinced Erin Edwards it would be a perfect gathering place.
“It just spoke to me. The building itself had so much history and so much character. We didn’t realize how much work it would be,” says Edwards, co-owner of Pennyroyal Station. She laughed at the thought of all the blood, sweat and tears that went into transforming the aging structure into a stunning restaurant.
She and her partners had to rely on humor and tenacity to get them through the three years it took to open. “You know when people say there is that feeling. There was that feeling. One thing leads to another, and you can’t stop the train. You just keep on going,” Edwards says.
Framing a Vision in Mount Rainier
“The finished project is very homey and very comfortable. It’s exactly what we wanted it to be,” says Garrick Lumsden, co-owner and longtime friend of Edwards. “It’s good to see the vision that we wanted to have out there is actually what we were able to create.”
Pennyroyal Station is five miles from the U.S. Capitol, offering a plethora of places to dine. Even before buying her home in the tree-lined Mount Rainier community, Edwards recognized that the town known for its charming, affordable houses built in the 1920s and 1930s offered very few options for eating out. “There was nowhere really to go. You had to drive to Hyattsville for anything, or you’d have to drive into D.C.,” says Edwards. “This town is so great that I could see our restaurant being kind of a flagship for development down the road.”
First, the three co-owners, Edwards, Lumsden and executive chef Jesse Miller, had to transform the 1700-square-foot space. “It was a shell. We kept the interior walls, which are layered with years of paint. It was beautiful,” Edwards says. Pennyroyal’s partners wanted to keep the sense of history and nostalgia the Singer Building offered. “The building pretty much dictated how the design came about because we let it speak to us and went with that flow,” says Lumsden.
The restaurant’s name pays homage to the trolley station where residents from the neighborhood traveled into the District in the early 20th century. The trio focused on recreating a vintage feel with rustic touches. They wanted a place that reflected the people and the houses in the community. “You feel like you are at home. It speaks to that era of that kind of architecture back then,” Edwards adds.
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Patrons enter the light-filled space through the original doors from the First National Bank. Plants, antiques, and personal touches decorate the rooms with the marble bar and dining tables. Chef Miller provided large oil paintings that speak of Mount Rainier’s connection to the West Coast Washington and its pennyroyal state flower. “Jesse, the chef, went to Towson University for art. The paintings in the dining room are paintings he did. It makes it more personal because there is such an art community,” Edwards explains.
The exterior of Pennyroyal Station reflects the owners’ and the community’s love of the arts. Yuri Avgustinovich painted the mural of flowers and birds on the building’s exterior with sponsorship from the Mount Rainier Arts Commission.
The city’s lively arts scene and diversity made it attractive to the restaurateurs. Both Edwards and Lumsden see Mount Rainer as a welcoming place for the old, the young, artists, musicians and families. “We’re starting to get younger families moving in. It’s a good thing. We have a blended community now,” says Lumsden.
Anticipation and Adjustment
Pennyroyal Station opened to a diverse community eagerly anticipating the arrival of a new restaurant in Prince George’s County. The COVID-19 restrictions already in force meant welcoming a limited number of diners on December 1. “We’ve had small glimpses of what it will be like. We were open for two weeks with 25 percent capacity. We got that energy and excitement. It definitely disappeared when it shut down,” Edwards says.
The coronavirus resurgence meant the restaurant’s owners had to pivot quickly to offer only pickup and delivery options. “It’s pretty much a moving target. Every day you have to adjust,” Lumsden says. “Our original plan was to be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And then we had to adjust that model real fast because we didn’t know what the flow of lunch would be like.” Although their landlords have been helpful and understanding, Edwards finds the shift jarring. “Now, you are forced to operate at a distance. I think that is one of the challenges: being able to develop your business just through to-go and still show what you are about.”
Social media helps, but only so much. “It’s the hands-on experience that we love to provide for people. That’s our heart and soul,” says Lumsden. The restaurant’s outdoor patio seats 40 with tables spaced six feet apart in compliance with the county’s COVID-19 guidelines. The patio is heated but not warm enough for chilly winter temperatures, so Pennyroyal’s team adjusted again. “If it’s nice enough outside, we’ll put out a blast and open up for that day. We did that the Saturday after New Year’s Day. It was about 50 degrees. It was a great turnout. We did almost 50 covers,” Lumsden says.
The next step in their plans is to open Pennyroyal early for lunch. “With the sun being out, it’s much warmer on the patio. We’ll probably do fast-casual. People can pick up their order indoors and sit outside,” adds Lumsden. Edwards sees opportunities to provide more lunch takeout options for people working from home. Staying on top of the shifting demands is a challenge. “It’s do or die, basically. I can’t say that I like it,” Edwards says with a laugh. “I’ve never wanted warmer weather to come so quickly.” The wait for limited indoor dining to resume could come later this month, but there are no guarantees.
Comfort Food for a Community
What does appear more certain is the response to the food Pennyroyal Station offers its expanding community of loyal fans. “Everybody has been great. They are very supportive. We have a lot of repeat customers coming back because they definitely want us to survive,” Lumsden says.
Edwards agrees. “They’re so happy that we’re here. It’s such a small thing to get from people, but it means a lot. It keeps you going.”
The culinary genius of Miller is a major attraction for people craving American comfort food and snacks re-imagined through contemporary interpretations. Lumsden gives his take on why Pennyroyal’s food draws repeat customers. “First of all, everything is delicious. Our chicken sandwich and burger are fabulous. People love them. The family meals are doing very well. There is a beef brisket with collard greens and biscuits that sells a lot. We also have a taco meal.”
Co-owner Edwards thinks the comfort food menu appeals to a broad range of diners, including vegans and vegetarians. The squash and Taleggio cheese lasagna with miso-ginger and rosemary cream is a standout. “It allows us to also make food for everyone. We can adapt and change things. We have a huge vegetarian community, so we concentrate on local produce and having options for vegetarians. But then, he loves pigs.” Miller’s all-day basted pork shoulder goes on sandwiches and in the family taco meal. It serves four with tortillas, Carolina rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, lime and radish included.
Patrons looking to create the Pennyroyal experience at home can order one of the meal kits. Lumsden notices more sandwiches and family meals going out during the week. On weekends, people tend to go for the full range of menu options. “It’s quite surprising to us sometimes how large the to-go orders are toward the end of the week. People are at home and want the full meal with appetizers, entrees and desserts. It’s great.”
The restaurant also sells cocktails for two, wine and beer to go. Edwards envisions Pennyroyal becoming a one-stop-shop that makes it easier for people to enjoy a restaurant experience at home during the pandemic. The three partners are doing all they can to make customers feel welcome while waiting for COVID-19 restrictions to be lifted. “We definitely want it to be a staple in the area as a gathering place for everybody. From just coming to get some takeout or having a drink or grabbing a cappuccino to actually coming to celebrate a special occasion,” says Lumsden.
Creating a Family Team
Pennyroyal Station draws customers from far beyond Mount Rainier’s borders. Miller, Edwards and Lumsden worked in D.C. for many years before opening their new restaurant. Some patrons followed them from the days when Edwards and Lumsden owned the Toyland bar at 4th and H Street NE. Others remember Edwards and Miller from their time at Bar Pilar and Café St. Ex on 14th Street NW. “We’ve gotten a great pool of people ordering from D.C., Maryland and even from Alexandria, Virginia,” Edwards says. “I’ve actually been kind of surprised how many people from Virginia have come across,” adds Lumsden. Edwards laughs and counters, “Yea, because they do not come across bridges.”
The three restaurateurs brought all of their years of experience in the industry to Mount Rainier. Edwards had no doubts about who she wanted to form a partnership with to launch a shared vision. She and Lumsden both worked for Passion Foods Hospitality at one time. “We went back and forth being each other’s managers at different locations. We’re like brother and sister. We’ve known each other for 20 years. We know how to say what we’re going to say and just keep it moving,” Lumsden says.
Chef Miller impressed Edwards when they worked together in D.C. “Chefs are a tough breed. He is probably one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. He works his butt off and loves what he does,” says Pennyroyal’s co-owner. “He adjusts and adapts to what people want. He focuses on making people happy. Those are some of the most important characteristics a chef should have.”
The fourth member of the team is also a veteran of the D.C. restaurant industry. Chris Martino focuses his culinary training on creating exciting drink options for Pennyroyal’s customers. “Erin and I worked with Chris over ten years ago at our first business venture. We grew to think of him as family, so it was very obvious to tap him when building Pennyroyal’s cocktail program,” says Lumsden. “He lends his expertise to the Pennyroyal drink list, which boasts playful riffs on classic cocktails that deliver nostalgia with a dose of fun.”
When friends and business partners bond as a family, Edwards admits occasional disagreements come with the territory. “There’s never going to be a partnership that is perfect. There is never going to be a partner that you don’t get into arguments with because it is a stressful, stressful job.”
Then what is the key to making it a successful collaboration? “If you can trust, you listen, move forward and keep on trying. You can get in a fight and keep on going and go for the big goal. Congress could learn some things from that,” Edwards says.
Lessons for Tomorrow
Pennyroyal’s co-owners have learned a great deal themselves going through the setbacks and struggles of opening their own restaurant, especially with the unexpected pressures of operating during a pandemic. Edwards acknowledges how difficult it is to see once-successful restaurants closing permanently. “Your heart kind of dies because you realize restaurants have been here throughout history. They are a lot of times the center of communities. It’s where memories are made.”
Yet she and her partners and many of their colleagues keep pushing ahead, knowing it could be a long time before restaurants function as they once did, if ever. The time they spend trying to create memorable experiences in today’s environment taught Edwards to count their blessings. “We lucked out because we have a patio. Also, with the layout, the bar is in one area, the dining is in the other. It has super high ceilings. It’s very comfortable; even when there is 25% occupancy, you feel safe.”
The Pennyroyal team learned another critical lesson from the COVID crisis. Any plans they have for future endeavors have to incorporate the impact of pandemic restrictions. “There are things you’ll take into consideration, and your concepts might change. There are things you think about now when you’re going to look at a space. What does six feet apart look like? These are things you never ever would have thought about happening,” says Edwards.
The Mount Rainier resident does feel encouraged about the future and her team’s ability to continue building Pennyroyal into the neighborhood institution they want it to become. “I don’t mean to get political, but some of the changes that have happened now make you feel more optimistic that things will get better. You realize that leadership is so important because 2020 has been such a learning experience.”
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There are ideas for other business ventures on the drawing board, as well as plans to add brunch service and extended hours at Pennyroyal. For now, the co-owners are investing the love and passion necessary to stay in the game. “We’re a family, and we’re a company now, so we plan on growing the business. We just don’t know what that looks like right now,” Lumsden says. “It will be nice to have people back indoors. We love to host. We’re great hosts. We love for people to be around having a good time. We want to make sure that everybody is happy. It’s our thing.”
Pennyroyal Station is located at 3310 Rhode Island Avenue in Mount Rainer, Maryland. Go to the restaurant’s website for more information. For details on patio service or other updates. Follow the restaurant on Instagram and Facebook.