Comfort chef Travis Milton saunters toward the door of the brightly lighted cooking school at Southern Season. He's been discussing his demonstration slated for the specialty grocer's private opening party. Jay White, vice president of new store development, gestures toward him, smiling. "He's exactly the kind of gentleman we want," he says.
Milton, trucker hat askew, shoots him a perplexed look. "Gentleman?"
"Oh," Milton says, joking. "You said 'gentleman' and I got confused."
Those with a tooth for Southern gourmet may have taken a pilgrimage to the popular Southern Season locations in Chapel Hill, N.C. or Charleston, S.C. The grocer is known for stocking specialty items that feature a Southern twang, such as peach gazpacho, endless varieties of grilling sauces and a galaxy of cheese straws.
But the big draw when the 52,000-square-foot Richmond store opens July 31 — a short drive north of West Broad Street off Staples Mill Road — will be the local talent and products on display.
In addition to Milton, local talent in the works for Southern Season's launch period include Joe Sparatta of Heritage, Blue Ridge lamb farmer Craig Rogers, "Southern Slow Cooker" author Kendra Bailey Morris and Rappahannock chef Dylan Fultineer.
"We want local producers to come into the store and meet someone for themselves," Chief Operating Officer Dave Herman says. Southern Season's manager will be in charge of outreach to local chefs, vendors and entrepreneurs, he says.
Bar-height demonstration areas will cap the ends of aisles, and the sales floor includes a circular specialty-grocery counter, where local food artisans can interact with and sell directly to shoppers. The current roster features 10,000 Virginia foods — 10 to 15 percent of which are from Richmond.
"We're all about sampling," White says. "That's what we do day in and day out. But nobody sells a product better than its creator."
Southern Season seems firm on introducing Richmond shoppers to as many local products as possible. Herman says the store's buyers have been combing local food boutiques and farmers' markets for months looking to make local contacts.
"We've had so much fun getting out there and trying all the Richmond products," Herman says. "We've been in Chapel Hill for almost 40 years. We've grown organically there, but we want it to be your local store here too."
It's the local food scene that made Richmond such an attractive location, says Kat Van Leer, marketing and public relations manager.
"Look at what's happening in Richmond. It's one of the coolest foodie cities. There's this excitement for good food here," Van Leer says. "The restaurants here are incredible."
Pamela Osborne, the director of restaurant operations for Southern Season, adds that the site's Southerly Restaurant and Patio should be a good fit for Richmond's food landscape.
"I think brunch is going to be one of our busiest services," Osborne says. "This area of town has a lot of chains — the Dennys and the IHOPs. I think we can set ourselves apart there."
She notes that the Weathervane restaurant at the Chapel Hill location was voted as one of the best brunch spots in the country by Open Table. "We're really looking at the restaurant as being a showcase for the products we sell in the store."
The marble-and-espresso-colored Southerly Restaurant and Patio will be headed by executive chef Joseph Durante. With more than 40 years in the kitchen, Durante aims to bring Southern Season's accessible gourmet flair to 320 seats and an expansive patio. A stroll through the menu reveals crispy rockfish tacos, sweet-tea-glazed salmon and a chipotle-infused take on classic North Carolina barbecue, among other comforting fare.
Highlights from the grocery floor right outside the restaurant include:
• Locally roasted coffee from Black Hand, Rostov's and Blanchard's at a huge, dedicated coffee bar.
• A massive, three-tiered Matador oven from Germany in the bakery with a touch screen and the capability for 200 programmable recipes.
• An extensive cheese counter presided over by Richmond's only licensed cheese monger, Dany Schutte.
• More than 5,000 wines and a temperature-controlled rare wine room.
• A candy section featuring a wall of every flavor of Jelly Belly jelly beans.
• An ice cream counter — with handmade waffle cones, naturally. Plans are in motion for the ice cream to be locally produced, but the wraps aren't quite ready to come off on that deal.
Finally, there's the cooking school in a glass-paned rectangular classroom at the back of the store. Featuring six tiered rows of tables facing a long kitchen, as many as 40 students at a time can watch the chef's every move from three high-definition TVs mounted near the ceiling. White says the goal is to get popular local chefs such as Comfort's Milton, as well as national chefs to teach. The first class will be on the subject of pie-making, with many others to follow, such as the meat-heavy Guys on the Grill series popular at the other Southern Season stores.
There will be a lot for shoppers, diners and students to explore when Southern Season throws open its doors, but White hopes the store also will become a familiar, central location for Richmonders' favorite foods.
"The store size seems daunting at first, but it's a very warm and inviting presentation," White says. "We're hoping that it becomes a destination."
2250 Staples Mill Road
Monday-Saturday 8 a.m.-8 p.m.,
Sunday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.