Developer Charlie Diradour has made a habit of driving around to check out how restaurants are faring. And through the last 20 years his route continues to get longer.
"The landscape that we see now is something a lot of cities would be absolutely envious of," says Diradour, who helped build the Fan into a dining destination in the '90s with Buddy's and by backing Kuba Kuba. "People in this city have been dying for this kind of action, and we're getting it now."
With more than 500 restaurants — plenty of which come and go — a thriving local dining scene has become Richmond boosters' go-to tourism hook, not to mention the surge in craft breweries. But it's a jarring disconnect that Richmond's key selling point obscures the reality of a 26-percent poverty rate.
Whether it's food in a box from the FeedMore pantry or served up on a trendy tablecloth, everyone needs it, craves it, every day. What Richmonders eat tells a cultural story and shapes the local identity. And it's a powerful representation of a changing city.
"It's interesting that we have this conversation about Richmond as this burgeoning food scene," says Duron Chavis, community engagement director at Renew Richmond Urban Farm. "People in Mosby and [parts of] South Side barely have a grocery store and couldn't even afford these restaurants."
While plenty of notable restaurants are opening in economically disadvantaged areas, places to obtain fresh groceries in those areas largely are absent.
In other parts of the city, there seem to be more than enough supermarkets, and they keep coming. In the past six months, the upscale and organic-oriented chains Wegmans and Whole Foods announced plans to open in Henrico County and on Broad Street, respectively. Southern Season, a massively popular grocery store that boasts "more than 500 hot sauces, 380 cheeses, 2,050 wines and 430 chocolate bars" opened off Staples Mill Road last month. While its cooking school offers a promising platform for local chefs, to most East End residents it may as well be on Mars.
Chavis is a leading voice among people in the city working to bridge the gap between the food that's touted to tourists and the meager options for patches of lower-income residents. While local has become an-almost-required marketing term at higher-end restaurants, people are starting to notice areas that barely have places to buy food, much less produce it.
"Now that people are talking about food deserts, it's changing the landscape," Chavis says. "That conversation is important not just for the health piece, but for economic development."
Chavis says those areas are blank canvases ready for change. Karen Atkinson has used that canvas to help lead a resurgence in farmers markets, drawing shoppers to South of the James Market and smaller efforts across the city. Chavis' work with Renew Richmond to the East End and South Side is as much about producing healthier food as helping people grow it themselves — to make money for the community.
"We're talking about how to change the relationship of the community from being a consumer to the producer," he says.
Other Richmond entities also are taking notice. The East End, among the areas of the city worst affected by a lack of food options, has received corporate help from Bon Secours Health System. Mayor Dwight Jones' administration, alongside 7th District Councilman Cynthia Newbille, has put a focus on improving food access there. All of them have backed Tricycle Gardens' effort that started last June to put fresh produce in corner stores throughout the city.
Restaurateurs making Richmond nationally known for its food also are on board. Kendra Feather, owner of an acclaimed group of restaurants that includes the Roosevelt in Church Hill, says she wants to continue making her ingredients more local.
"That's the developing conversation now," Chavis says. "I think what will happen as time progresses is more of them will start purchasing from these urban farms, and that will help empower the community."
In a city where the restaurant scene is "the new rock stardom," Feather says, chefs continue to draw attention and acclaim. Jason Alley is one of them, evolving into not only a chef and owner but also a spokesman for the scene.
It's the personalities who have the power to take the conversation about where food comes from to customers. In doing so, restaurants may be able to lean more on the food growing in their backyard.
"I want to be able to serve a garden salad in December," Feather says, "and not have customers annoyed that there aren't tomatoes."
Food-celebrity power isn't the only answer. FeedMore Chief Executive Douglas Pick says the newly launched Capital Region Food Collaborative will focus on connecting the dots. He points to the twice-annual Richmond Restaurant Week as an example of how the city can channel the dining scene toward solving the city's lack of food access, and sees room for growing that collaboration.
"I've seen nonprofits for years not collaborate," Pick says. "How can we make the whole greater than the sum of the parts?"
1. Kendra Feather
Feather started a restaurant in her 20s, parlaying a willingness to take risks into a successful stable. With Ipanema Cafe, Garnett's, the Roosevelt and WPA Bakery, Feather has earned frequent accolades and customer loyalty. Like Alley, her focus is on propelling Richmond forward along with her businesses. In the next year, she hopes to continue building relationships with urban gardening initiatives and local farmers.
2. Ed Vasaio
Ask a restaurateur about who paved the way for the bustling food scene and Vasaio's name will come up. Between Mamma 'Zu, Edo's Squid, 8 ½ and Dinamo, Vasaio has built a reputation on simple and delicious Italian food without the aid of Internet hype or buzzwords. Even as the scene he helped create relies on marketing to survive, Vasaio won't talk about his locally sourced ingredients or his next big move — a Southwestern-style restaurant on Morris Street. The food, and everyone else, speaks for him.
3. Jason Alley
Chef and Partner
Comfort and Pasture
Alley earned his status as one of Richmond's favorite chefs through more than cooking skills alone when he chose to build his businesses in areas of the city left behind by the restaurant scene. He's achieved Richmond ambassador status through national media attention, which puts him in a position to lead the way in bridging the gap between the restaurants and residents.
4. Michelle Williams
Owner and Operating Partner
Richmond Restaurant Group
Pearl Raw Bar, Hill Café, the Hard Shell. The Richmond Restaurant Group has been a dominant part of Richmond's dining scene for nearly 20 years, with restaurants including seafood and the farm-to-table Daily Kitchen and Bar. Observers note the group's ability to turn tables as a key to its success — especially given the cavernous spaces it manages to fill.
5. Reid Brown
After taking over the Richmond portion of Brown Distributing, Reid Brown wanted to make the city known for its beer. He's helped foster what's become a thriving local beer scene by not relying on the big Bud, helping connect individual breweries through its distribution channels and Taste the Local promotional efforts. The result isn't just increased market share — it's provided support for new breweries and craft enthusiasts throughout the city.
6. Douglas Pick
The former Capital One executive has led the combined Central Virginia Food Bank and Meals on Wheels since 2012 and is pushing for FeedMore to increase its output from 20 million pounds a year to 30 million. This spring he helped launch an initiative dubbed the Capital Region Food Collaborative, aimed at encouraging nonprofits to find ways to work together.
7. Cynthia Newbille
Seventh District Representative
Representing Richmond's East End, Newbille has fought to attract restaurants and grocers to an area that's been labeled one of the city's worst food deserts. She's worked with Bon Secours and the Jones administration to highlight her district's needs. Last year, she helped launch a pilot program to bring fresh produce to corner stores with urban agriculture group Tricycle Gardens.
8. Karen Atkinson
Having led the South of the James Market from its inception in 2007, Atkinson's GrowRVA continues to build infrastructure for farmers markets in the city while organizing food trucks. The continued growth will mean more local farmers have a chance to benefit from the restaurant scene.
9. Duron Chavis
Community Engagement Director
Beginning with the Richmond Noir Market in 2009, which aimed to bring food access to low-income communities, Chavis continues to find new ways to engage the city's lack of food access by helping residents produce food themselves. He serves on the mayor's anti-poverty commission, where he pushes for the city to increase efforts to connect residents with healthy food options.
10. Dominic Barrett
Barrett has led the United Methodist Urban Ministries of Richmond initiative since 2010 with a focus on helping people in food deserts farm for themselves. The Goochland-based farm hopes to grow 85,000 pounds of produce this year, with one-third of it going to FeedMore.