There's a recipe for opening a successful Richmond restaurant. The ingredients are these: Big-budget backers. Professional branding and interior design. A lofty concept. Trendy food.
Kendra Feather never followed the recipe.
She's the first to tell you she's no chef. When she talks about getting back in the kitchen, "literally, everyone gets really quiet," she says. "They avert their eyes and they walk away."
Nor is she a bartender. Nor is she a business mogul; only recently did she take bookkeeping lessons.
Kendra Feather is a good waitress.
That, if you get right down to it, may be her secret. She knows how to make people happy. She knows how to serve.
She has an uncanny instinct for what Richmonders like, an instinct that's guided her while she's built not one, but three beloved restaurants: a funky vegetarian hideaway, a charmingly Southern sandwich nook, and a Church Hill hangout that from its opening day felt like it always belonged there. Plus, there's a bakery on the way.
"She's one of those people who just takes care of business," says Manny Mendez, the bearded chef and co-owner of Kuba Kuba and now Galley.
"She's one of those people who has a really clear vision of what she likes, and what she thinks everything should look like, and what other people will like too," says Rachel Zell, a server at Can Can, a caterer and longtime friend.
"Kendra has made her way into that illustrious group of people who make really good food in the city of Richmond," says John Campbell, a former Ipanema bartender who's now bassist for Lamb of God.
OK, Kendra Feather. How did you do it?
Feather was never interested in restaurants. In her 20s, she helped run an underground art gallery. She promoted bands. She studied public relations at Virginia Commonwealth University.
To support these endeavors, she worked for six years at a Grace Street coffee shop, The Bidder's Suite, first as a server, then as manager. She learned from the eccentric owner all the ways to make a restaurant fail. When Bidder's Suite closed its doors, Feather asked for the equipment as compensation for the months she'd worked without a paycheck. "It was like a keg box and a stove, but whatever," she says. "I literally thought I could open a restaurant with $3,000."
This was foolish, Feather acknowledges. But she didn't know that. "Enough nice people took pity on me, basically, and helped me along," she says. She picked up extra shifts waiting tables at Third Street Diner and banked her tips. She didn't know how to cook, but she enlisted friends who did.
Even with her laughable budget and the limitations of The Bidder's Suite's basement space, Feather had some definite ideas about how she wanted the place to feel. Surfer dude Jeff Killen, now a sought-after restaurant designer, built wooden booths separated by metal screens, creating a sense of intimacy without walling off each table. She stocked up on thrift-store plates ("If it didn't have a chip, I took it") and Mason jars. It was a trend-setting move in retrospect, but livid diners demanded real glasses.
Feather opened Ipanema Cafe in 1998, when she was 28. The name came from her favorite song; she didn't think about the Brazilian connotation that would confound people for years.
Campbell was Feather's first bartender. He recalls standing behind the cheap plywood-topped bar and spinning old rock 'n' roll records on the turntable — a pain while pouring drinks. "It was like having that one extra customer on the bar," he says.
Feather was buoyed by blind faith and simple delight. She kept waiting tables. She thought it was neat that she could eat for free, she says. She didn't know any better.
Not that it was easy. Feather recalls nights when she'd be hunched over a table at Ipanema doing paperwork until 5 a.m., "creeped out and crying, because I just wasn't prepared to be that grown up yet."
The early menu featured duck. But Feather noticed that the veggie dishes were selling well, and so Ipanema became a vegetarian restaurant. Critics praised the food. Scenesters, bike couriers, sculpture students and advertising majors adopted the place and kept it going, one $20 tab at a time. "Sometimes the difference, for a restaurant, is 10 people a day," Feather says. "It's just 10 people a day."
The dimly lighted basement restaurant with the battered plywood bar, the thrift-store plates and the tempeh somehow became a city institution. On Sept. 30, Ipanema marked its 14th anniversary.
"It became itself," Feather says. She doesn't own Ipanema, she likes to say — it belongs to the people. "And they expect it to stand in time." Those one-time students, now married and parents, walk in and complain that they don't see anybody they know.
She kept the changes modest during recent renovations — an orange wall became green, the bar was replaced. She's updated the menu, too, although one thing will never change: the smoked Gouda sandwich.
It was the first thing she put on the menu — the sandwich she invented before she learned how to cook. Fragrant with thyme and caramelized onion, oozing with cheese, with nicely smushy tomato slices and nicely chewy Billy bread, it isn't fancy. But it's deeply satisfying. "It's still everyone's favorite sandwich," Feather says.
In 2008 Feather's brother heard about a restaurant for sale — the tiny, triangular spot at Park Avenue and Meadow Street that was Chiocca's for years and then briefly was Table 9. He dragged her to look at it. Cute, Feather thought. But it was $30,000 she didn't have.
A new owner turned it into Credo's Park Avenue Café, failed in record time and walked away. "Literally walked away," Feather says — "like there's the cutting board with the lemon and the knife."
The building's owners, Mendez and local restaurant emperor Johnny Giavos, called Feather and offered her the keys. They gave her three days to decide.
Though charming, the place was wholly impractical. There was no heat and no central air conditioning. It had no hood vent, no stove, no walk-in fridge and no fryer. Feather called it "Barbie's first kitchen."
She stayed up all night researching lunch-counter cuisine and writing a menu that could be assembled with nothing but a toaster and a sandwich press. And she told Mendez and Giavos yes. "I still don't even know if we even have a lease," Mendez says. "We just shook on it."
Feather opened Garnett's in 2009. She made the place a thoughtful, not worshipful, nod to lunch-counter culture: "You can't be too nostalgic for a certain time," she notes, "because it's not good memories for half the people in Richmond."
One day she met Frank Chiocca, who owned the place from 1964 to 2004 and practically raised his family in that tiny triangle. Hearing the stories of Chiocca's revealed to her the secret "of how the fabric gets woven" — how a building, a time, a cast of characters and a list of recipes combine to become a distinctive place.
That was her goal for Garnett's. Feather read a book called "The Great Good Place," by Ray Oldenburg, which examines the importance of gathering spots between home and work. The book included a photograph of five old men smoking and sitting on a row of chairs outside a cafe.
Feather wanted that. She selected five perfectly mismatched chairs and placed them outside Garnett's. "I really thought that if I put the chairs there, maybe the old men would come," she says, laughing. "I don't know. They never did." The chairs got stolen.
Despite Feather's careful staging, the cafe struggled. Garnett's limped along, its bills paid by Ipanema's profits. A year after it opened, both businesses were edging toward bankruptcy.
Yet she didn't think about closing Garnett's, she says, for one simple reason: "I like coming here. I want it to exist. ... Even if it's not making any money, I don't really care. I literally don't care. That's stupid. And that's bad business. But."
Diners eventually became regulars, lured by desserts and date nights. Now there's frequently a wait for a lunch table. Feather bought new chairs for the sidewalk — and chained them.
Her favorite thing: walking into Garnett's and seeing a father sharing a slice of cake with his son. It's not the cake that matters, she says. It's the moment.
"That's so beautiful," she says.
Twice Feather beat the odds. Why, then, did she open a third restaurant — this one more ambitious — on the very edge of gentrified Church Hill?
"I shouldn't have done it," says Feather, 42. "I lied to my parents. They still don't know that I own half of Roosevelt."
The summer of 2010 had been awful. Her dog died. Her chef at Ipanema left three weeks before she planned to depart for a work-study session at an olive farm and vineyard in Italy. She canceled the trip. Unrelated to the chef's departure, Feather discovered some business irregularities. The most difficult thing about running a business "is being damaged by other people's greed," she says — whether that means a bartender giving away half the bar to his friends or a trusted associate proving untrustworthy.
To clear her head, she took a weekend trip to New Orleans with a friend and neighbor, local beekeeper Cy Bearer. She returned to Richmond invigorated — not by the food, but by the joie de vivre she found in that fabled city. She made a vow: "I wish that, if I ever open another restaurant, I just want it to be a really happy place that embraces the place that it is."
The next day she found out that the old building at the corner of 25th and M streets, formerly home to Que Pasa, was in foreclosure. "If you want the restaurant, we'll buy the building," said the Kellmans, her longtime supporters and Ipanema landlords.
She looked at it, and she liked it. She liked the big windows, the airy space, the fleur-de-lis ironwork. And she knew just the person she wanted as partner: Lee Gregory, the former chef at Six Burner.
Gregory rarely got press, Feather says, but she loved his food. When every other restaurant had asparagus on the menu, Gregory was getting creative with butterbeans and turnips. And she had noticed the city's chefs sitting at the Six Burner bar: "When they had a night off, that's where they all went to eat."
Gregory didn't know Feather well. He'd called her a few times for her advice on potential restaurant investments, and she always told him not to spend his money on someone else's failure. "It'll happen, it'll happen," she said.
"I certainly didn't want to hear that," Gregory says.
Gregory didn't see a lot of money in the Church Hill venture. "I'll do it, but this is weird," she recalls him saying. "What's going to go wrong?"
When Feather contacted influential neighborhood blog Church Hill People's News to share details about the project, the comments section erupted in cheers. John Murden, the blog's founder, met the restaurateur at a Church Hill Association meeting. Feather thought he was cute, and Murden fell hard.
Murden, a meticulous man, spent months helping Feather paint the space, hand-stenciling damask patterns on the pale-blue walls. They went for long walks through Church Hill while Murden told her forgotten stories about its history. A simple vision for the Roosevelt coalesced, Feather says: a neighborhood bar and grill "which is in Church Hill, which is in Richmond, which is in Virginia."
Working with Feather was the perfect partnership, Gregory says, because all he had to do was handle the food. The design, the concept and the paperwork he left to Feather. "I'm, in some sense, just a glorified line cook," he says. "Nothing ever changed for me — that's the beauty of it."
And Feather got to bake a restaurant from scratch. "We just wanted something cute," Gregory says, "and something that felt like it was supposed to be there. That's what she's great at."
The Roosevelt opened in July 2011. Ninety people poured in on the unadvertised first night. It hasn't quieted down since.
Dining critics also lauded the place. Style Weekly's reviewers called Feather and Gregory's collaboration "unusually focused and intentional, giving the neighborhood an affordable meal in pleasant company, with no false notes to be found." For that spirit, and for its innovative Southern food, the reviewers named the Roosevelt Style's 2012 Restaurant of the Year.
"Neither one of us ever thought in our wildest dreams that it could be like this," Gregory says of the place's success.
Feather, too, seems incredulous. "Does it happen to me three times? I mean, that's ridiculous, right? Who gets given restaurants every couple of years?"
As if it really was that easy. People outside the industry don't understand the stress of running a restaurant, Mendez says, or the partnerships formed under pressure.
On an average day, Mendez may talk to 10 other restaurant owners. They're asking advice, collaborating on themed dinners, tipping each other off to wine bargains. "It's not an exclusive club," Mendez says. "There's big guys and there's little guys" — but for the most part, it's guys.
Mendez can name just three influential women in the local restaurant world: Michelle Williams of the Richmond Restaurant Group, who's behind such places as the Hard Shell and Europa, Virginia Rowland of Rowland Fine Dining, and Feather.
"She spearheads an idea, and it's going to happen," Mendez says. "And she's a chick. It's rare for us to have a female counterpart."
Her three wishes fulfilled — well four, if you count her July 4 wedding to Murden in Italy — Feather is making one more happen for someone else.
David Rohrer was a regular at Ipanema when Feather offered him a job 12 years ago. He began as a cook and learned to bake, mastering the craft of vegan and gluten-free desserts.
Rohrer says he was content living the late-night kitchen life. But about five years ago, he quit drinking. Then he got married. He'd gone as far as he could go, churning out hummingbird cakes for Garnett's and fruit pies for Ipanema. He began to dream of his own place.
Feather knew Rohrer needed to move on. She shared his love of baking, and had always dreamed of opening a pie shop. But when she was diagnosed with a gluten allergy three years ago, she put away her pans and plans.
She decided instead to help Rohrer start a bakery. It could be called the Buttermilk Palace, she suggested. "I don't want a pink powder puff bakery," he said. "I'm a man."
Instead he chose the name WPA: the Well-Made Pastry Alliance. With Feather and Murden's help, Rohrer began renovating a Church Hill storefront — owned by the Kellmans, in no coincidence — at the corner of 27th and Marshall streets. They painted it buttery yellow and French blue. Feather added a few antique touches and a bright red chandelier. Rohrer, an artist, made cheeky versions of 1930s public-service posters that say such things as "Cake: For You, For All." He hopes to open Nov. 9, serving 7 a.m.-2 p.m., seven days a week.
The business model is solid, in classic Feather form. Already, Rohrer has enough wholesale clients to support the shop, including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' Best Café and the University of Richmond. The challenge will be drawing enough customers for coffee and cake to a quiet corner, although another restaurant, Dutch and Co., is opening across the street early next year.
Feather has stepped back on this project, letting Rohrer create the menu and the concept of a traditional cake and pie shop (no fondant here, thank you). "She doesn't want to take away from me opening my first business," Rohrer says.
The thing about Feather is that she acknowledges her weaknesses and draws on others' strengths, he says. While she may no longer be baking, she's always, always thinking.
"I want a crape myrtle cake," she said to him one day. The oh-so-Southern name was a mirage. It didn't exist.
Rohrer invented a zucchini-walnut cake with a hint of cocoa, iced with raspberry cream-cheese icing. "So it's like the bark and the pink," he explains. It was new. It was lovely.
"Maybe it'll be our signature cake," he says. "Who knows." S
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the coffee shop where Feather worked as "Bittersweet." We regret the error.