Food & Drink

Smoking Allowed

For Neopol’s Dorian Brown and his mom, Barbara Lahnstein, where’s there’s smoke, there’s salmon.

The Lion Brothers Building on Hollins Street in West Baltimore surely has the best-smelling loading dock in America.

The seductive scent of burning oak smoking dozens of pounds of salmon that emanates from behind the back door of Neopol Savory Smokery’s ground-floor production kitchen is vaguely reminiscent of a campfire cookout—that is, if Scottish and Norwegian fish were on the menu instead of burgers and dogs. It’s the same intoxicating aroma that lured customers, like a siren song for the nose, to a stall in Belvedere Square Market for 15 years, where mother and son Barbara Lahnstein and Dorian Brown smoked fish, garlic, shrimp, turkey, mussels, sausage, and just about anything else they could think of before moving their food preparation operations here in June 2018.

Inside, two 35-by-80-inch J&R Manufacturing red metal smokers do their thing. The fish in them now is destined for Neopol’s three retail outlets and weekend farmers markets, where it will be devoured by rabid fans addicted to this particular brand of smoking.

Meeting that demand is one reason Brown and Lahnstein opened the production kitchen. They plan to sell their sandwiches, spreads, and salads to the public from this spot starting next year, but for now the more than 1,000 pounds of fresh-never-frozen salmon—and everything else that they smoke here six days a week—supplies stores in Washington’s Union Market, Georgetown, and the original Belvedere Square location.

“I’m really grateful for everyone that supports us in D.C., but the love in Baltimore is different,” Brown says. “Belvedere is where the heart is. Our customers there are . . .”

“Amazing,” Lahnstein chimes in.

Neopol is an unlikely made-in-Maryland success story starring a diminutive, blunt-talking German immigrant and her only child, a strapping, thoughtful, and charming man with a knack for making customers and employees feel as if they, too, are part of the family.

“People love Dorian,” Lahnstein says as Brown cringes, a facial gesture his mother won’t let slide.

“Stop. It’s true,” she says in a German accent that hasn’t thinned much since she moved to the United States from Stuttgart in 1982.

During a 90-minute conversation at a table where customers will soon enjoy delicacies like the salmon spread Lahnstein now insists on setting out, they interrupt and correct each other often. It’s not hard to imagine a scene at a farmers market two decades earlier when Lahnstein embarrassed her teenage son by insisting that he show customers his unfortunate new tattoo of an Aries symbol that he now admits looked more like a diagram of the female reproductive system. (It has since been covered up by a tattoo of a raven.)

But from the moment Lahnstein’s husband left her and Brown just days after Dorian was born 36 years ago, they’ve been a team of two. Although they couldn’t be more different, they are bonded by a love for one another that’s as impossible to ignore as the smell wafting from those smokers.

It’s the Saturday before Labor Day, and as Lahnstein’s done for decades, she’s selling an assortment of smoked treats at the Waverly Farmers Market, which she still calls the “backbone” of the business.

At times it seems as if Lahnstein, who has lived in Charles Village for more than 20 years, is greeting a receiving line of old friends. Jennifer Goold moved to Baltimore in 1993 and started frequenting Lahnstein’s tent here not long after. She buys salmon and tops it with olives and other veggies in salads for her children’s lunches. (PB and J, it ain’t.)

“You haven’t changed at all,” Lahnstein tells her.

“It’s all the amazing smoked fish,” Goold replies.

When Paola Albergate arrives to pick up a jar of bone broth, Lahnstein ducks out from her post behind some tables to greet her.

“I come to this market every Saturday, and I love her the most because she believes in what she’s doing and wants to share that passion with everyone,” Albergate says. “She makes you feel like you’re a part of her little Neopol circle. I can get bone broth from Whole Foods, but I won’t do it because Barbara tells me what she puts into it.”

Neopol is an unlikely Maryland success story starring a German immigrant and her only child.

Almost on cue, Lahnstein begins explaining how she simmers the bones for 60 hours and adds apple cider vinegar. She—and several of her customers—believe drinking the broth has health benefits. Wunder wasser, she calls it.

“It’s best in the morning or in the evening before you go to bed,” she says. “I refuse to sell it to people who say they’re going to use it for a dish. It’s not stock. It’s $20—why would do that? It’s a waste. You can go to Giant.”

She calls the concoction one of her better ideas before launching into a list of ones that fell flat. Mozzarella emerged from the smoker as gooey “spaghettis.” Peas were a disaster. Sardines flopped. But the line at her tent that’s continued to grow—year after year, and now, as she continues to talk—is proof that her successes far outweigh the failures.

Lahnstein, 60, was interested in art and graphic design as a young woman, but after she came to the U.S. and became a single mother, she was forced to recalibrate her life.

“I needed money, and I thought, people need food,” she says.

Fair enough, but what to make? Recalling a childhood favorite, she decided on smoked herring. But sourcing the fish here proved problematic, so she settled on . . . just about everything else.

Lahnstein didn’t just buy a ready-made smoker—she sketched a design for her own.

“Reading a lot of books on it, it’s very simple,” she says. “I found a welder off Harford Road. It was a guy who had his ears blown out in Vietnam. He couldn’t understand me anyway, but I showed him the drawing.”

Lahnstein and her friend Odessa Dunson, who went on to become Brown’s godmother, began selling smoked foods at farmers markets. “We smoked pheasants and put it in baskets and decorated it. They looked beautiful,” she says. “Imagine a German woman—I had much more hair then—and a black woman at the farmers market selling smoked pheasant. People really bought it. We made $70 or $100 and we thought we were rich.”

As a child, Brown helped his mom in a number of ways. He’d sit in the living room shredding cheese for pies while watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And there was Dorian’s Special Lemonade, handcrafted by the then 7-year-old.

“I wanted him to make his own money,” Lahnstein says. “I made him invest in buying a box of lemons and the cups and the sugar. He had bundles of money in his pocket.” (In fact, Brown continued selling the lemonade though college, when he made up to $600 a weekend. Today it is still a staple at Neopol, which offers several varieties, including a popular cardamom one.)

In 1993, Lahnstein and Dunson opened Metropol café on Charles Street. When they lost their lease four years later, Lahnstein continued selling baked goods and smoked delicacies at farmers markets while Brown squeezed lemons.

“My daughters were in love with Dorian,” says developer Bill Struever, who waited in line many a Saturday morning for that lemonade. Struever was such a big fan of Lahnstein’s smoked salmon that he convinced her to open a stall in his Belvedere Square Market in 2003.

He invested in the building and helped get the newly named Neopol up and running. “I think a market in any city in the world would love to have Neopol,” says Struever, who was also instrumental in helping Lahnstein and Brown open the production kitchen in his Lion Brothers Building. They call him their “angel.”

At the time, Brown, who was attending Hampton University with the goal of becoming a teacher, helped out at the store in the summers, over holidays, and on some weekends. Along with fish, poultry, and meat, Lahnstein’s culinary creations like smoked hummus and smoked tofu had made it into a foodie mecca.

While Lahnstein thrived creatively (she designed Neopol’s fonts and its lovely logo of a fish kissing a lemon, which Brown has tattooed of the inside of one of his arms), the business side of the operation was never her strong suit. By 2007, she was burned out and ready to close shop.

“I said, ‘Dorian I can’t do this anymore,’” she says. “You should have seen his face. He was really upset. He said, ‘No, this is our family business.’”

With Neopol floundering, Brown put off his teaching career after graduating to help revive the business. In 2009, mother and son became partners.

“I came in with a fresh perspective,” he says. “We started letting people taste things at the counter, doing sandwiches. We started hiring people who were friendlier.”

Salmon is dry-cured with ingredients including cranberry, candied ginger, and caramelized onion.

Customers noticed.

“The energy in that particular store was just different than the other ones in Belvedere Square,” says Nia Johnson, who has been a twice-a-week customer for years. The turkey club is her favorite. “The people that worked there seemed extremely happy, and there was a magnetic energy. The first time I had their food it was just amazing. I could not not return.”

Brown also focused on cementing relationships with employees. Olivia Ferrell, general manager of the Belvedere Square location, started working at Neopol seven years ago. She considers Lahnstein to be her second mother and thinks of Brown as a brother. He’s been instrumental in helping her develop as a leader.

“I have a lot of college students who work here,” says Ferrell, whom Lahnstein and Brown voluntarily paid while she was out on maternity leave. “Dorian told me to send them a text message when they’re starting a new semester. Something positive to let them know I’m thinking about them, which is something I’d never thought to do.”

In 2015, Brown was approached by a man at a farmers market and asked whether he’d like to open a location in the new Union Market, in Northeast Washington. The first day Neopol offered its signature salmon BLT and other items for lunch there, it sold out of food. Today, it’s the business’ busiest location.

Another retail store opened in Georgetown last year, and suddenly the 850-square-foot kitchen in Belvedere Square was bursting at the seams. Opening the production kitchen was a necessity—and a leap of faith.

In the nearly 4,000-square-foot facility in the Lion Brothers Building, a former embroidery factory, a second J&R smoker has joined the blackened 16-year-old original. Salmon is dry cured with ingredients including cranberry, candied ginger, caramelized onion, and whole grain mustard, then air dried for an hour before being smoked for three to six hours at temperatures ranging from 120 to 135 degrees. Other foods, like eggs for the one-of-a-kind smoked egg salad, are cooked first then simply finished in the smoker to add a charred flavor. (“We smoke the chicken first, and then they lay the eggs,” Lahnstein jokes with customers who ask how it’s prepared.)

During the business’ growth spurt, Brown is working upward of 90 hours six or seven days a week. On this sweltering mid-August day, he left his apartment in Remington at 4:30 a.m., picked up food for the D.C. stores at the production kitchen, then drove it to Washington because the regular driver was on vacation. After making a delivery to Union Market, he worked the morning and lunch shifts in Georgetown, stopped back at Union Market to check on an employee who had been out with a kidney infection, then drove home to Baltimore in rush hour. After finishing clean-up at the production kitchen—which included mopping the floor—he reflects on why 14-hour days like this one are worth it.

“I owe my mom a lot,” he says. “When I was kid [I saw her] work crazy hours, and I took notice. She’s not doing as much anymore—and she shouldn’t have to. Right now, I’ve never worked more or slept less. The stress of this is real. It’s a tough business to be in, but I still really love this. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

Around 6:30, he finally heads home to make dinner with his girlfriend, Jess. In one of the smokers, the last pieces of oak are left to burn out on their own. They’ll leave ash and coals to help kindle the fire tomorrow, when there will plenty more salmon to smoke.