Into the Fire

What does it take to open a Richmond restaurant? We spent six months behind the scenes to find out.

You know that guy who dreams about opening a restaurant? He’s always talking about how he’s going to quit his job and just go for it. He can’t wait to play the genial host, wining and dining his friends like the place is his living room.

Tom Haas and Taylor Hasty hate that guy.

“Those restaurants close,” Haas says. If you think opening a restaurant would be fun, he says, “you should not open a restaurant.”

Yet that’s exactly what these two young entrepreneurs are about to do. Their vision: a chic, American fusion, small-plates restaurant that seats 150. It’s called 525 at the Berry-Burk, named for its address in the city’s original swanky store.

Haas is the front-of-the-house guy. Hasty is the executive chef. Both partners have restaurant experience — more than 30 years’ worth between them. Otherwise they’re a study in opposites.

Haas is a lanky 31-year-old with perpetually half-closed eyes. Don’t be fooled; he misses nothing. He’s a constant talker, a deadpan joker, a bourbon-and-ginger drinker. His resume: bachelor’s degree in religion from the College of William and Mary; manager at Bentley’s at 27 in Charlotte, N.C.; bar manager at the five-star Sanctuary Hotel at Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina; bartender at Lemaire at the Jefferson Hotel.

Hasty, 28, is quiet and mild-mannered — except in the kitchen. After graduating from Johnson and Wales University in Norfolk, Hasty worked for restaurants in his native Halifax County and Charlotte. He then spent about five years working for Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena, the Bobcats basketball team, the Knights minor-league baseball team and the city’s convention center, where he catered events for thousands.

They know the industry, which is kind of like saying a blackjack player knows the casino. “Everyone who knows business knows you should never get into the restaurant business,” Haas says.

Nationally, 60 percent of new restaurants fail within the first year. For the survivors, the payout can be big; Haas and Hasty’s goal is a 30-percent profit margin. But even if the restaurant thrives, it will take years for Haas, Hasty and their backers, Jim and Ted Ukrop, to recoup what they’ve put in. The total investment in 525 is seven figures. Haas and Hasty’s stake totals $500,000.

Then, there’s the personal price. Haas and Hasty have talked about running a restaurant together since they were roommates in Charlotte. When Haas moved to Richmond to work at Lemaire, he got lucky: He was introduced to Jim Ukrop, who was looking for the right person to open a restaurant on the first floor of the Berry-Burk building he owns.

Saying “yes,” for Hasty, meant moving here — six hours away from his fiancee and their infant son, now 1, in Columbia, S.C. She understood this was an opportunity that never would come again, Hasty says. But he has missed so much. When his son took his first steps, he saw it on a cell-phone video.

Haas, too, is six hours away from his girlfriend in North Carolina. He’s also struggling to recover from an accident in March 2011 in which a school bus struck his car. The crash left him in constant back and shoulder pain, even after surgery in December. Haas has seen lingering effects from the concussion, such as occasional blackouts and difficulty finding the right words. After the accident, doctors advised him not to make any important decisions, especially financial ones, and to avoid stress and exertion.

“So, I’m opening a restaurant,” Haas says cheerfully.

You have to ask: What’s wrong with these guys? Why do this?

They can’t do anything else.

Cooking is the only job Hasty’s ever enjoyed. “And I love the long hours,” he says. “It’s like a challenge — who drops off first?” At his arena job, he worked 12 to 16 hours per day for 36 days straight during the busy season. Once, he says proudly, he worked 23 hours. He didn’t drop.

Haas is the same way. At Lemaire, he lived for the nights when 200 wedding guests would descend like tulle-clad locusts on the bar. He found his hands moving faster than his mind while the orders came flying for cocktails, cosmos and shots.

Both thrive on competition. Long before 525 opens its doors, they’re planning how they’ll build a restaurant empire in Richmond. In cities such as Charleston, a handful of restaurant groups control virtually all of the major fine-dining establishments, Haas says. Richmond’s not like that — yet. They see an opportunity.

They know they’re gambling. That’s the fun of it.

“The restaurant industry — to truly love doing it, you have to have something wrong in your head,” Haas says.

So what does it take for two unknown entrepreneurs to open a high-profile restaurant on a lonely stretch of East Grace Street with a rookie staff, hoping — no, expecting — to succeed?

Style Weekly followed Haas and Hasty for six months to find out.


Tuesday, Dec. 6

Projected open date: early January

The restaurant should have already opened. In late October, Haas predicted that construction would begin within a week and be done in 90 days.

No one’s yet picked up a hammer. A sheaf of schematics lies on a table, showing the future shape of this empty space. In the center is the dining room, with a 10-seat chef’s table for small-plate tasting. To the right is the bar, with one unusual conversation piece: a 3,000-pound safe, dating from 1863. Haas is turning it into a wine case.

There isn’t much to see, not yet. The marble tiles where shoppers once strolled are covered with a thick layer of grime. You can smell the old building’s musty bones.

But you can see, too, why Haas swooned for this space. Six pillars lift the ceiling to celestial heights. The enormous plate-glass windows fill the room with winter light. Carved into the building’s exterior, above the front door, is a dapper man in a top hat. Haas loves the remnants of 1920s grandeur, when “if you had money, you showed it. It was just pure opulence.”

Things are moving too slowly for his tastes, held up by complications with the business structure. The good news is that he and Hasty are no longer paying for the renovations; instead, the Ukrops are footing the bill. The bad news is that their budget just got a lot smaller.

While contractors handle the heavy lifting, Haas and Hasty have turned their attention to personnel. The success of 525 rests on having the best-trained staff in the city, he says — but Richmond’s service superstars aren’t easily bought. Haas intends to offer full health, vision and dental coverage for all employees, full time and part time. Plus gym memberships. It’s gonna cost them. But they have enough money to pay for all of this for one year. Haas believes the investment will pay off.

If people come. Outside, East Grace Street is desolate. A solitary pedestrian, an elderly woman with a cane, inches past the holiday displays in the Miller & Rhoads building’s empty window.

Because 525 is cater-cornered from CenterStage and its Carpenter Theatre, Haas and Hasty are counting on theater traffic. But that isn’t a sure bet. CenterStage drew about 100,000 people to its events last year, says Dolly Vogt, regional general manager for SMG Richmond. But financially, CenterStage struggled in its first year open, 2010; it collected just over $3 million from shows and events while paying $9.28 million to produce them. Next year CenterStage anticipates a temporary boost in attendance because it will hold the events bumped from the Landmark Theater during its renovation.

East Grace Street is a tough location, says Kelly O’Keefe, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter. O’Keefe considered the space in the Berry-Burk for his company, O’Keefe Brands (now part of CRT/tanaka), but decided the area was too isolated. Although businesses are creeping nearer, and apartments are filling up, East Grace Street is still the frontier, O’Keefe says: “It’ll be a challenge for them.”

Haas takes the long view. “Eight years from now, when there’s six restaurants within a block of us and the buildings are full,” he says, “it’s gonna be so cool.”


Tuesday, Jan. 10

Projected open date: first week in April

The devil’s in the details, Haas and Hasty discover. And a lot of devils live in their 84-year-old building.

“Pretty much every day our foreman has a new surprise for us,” Haas says over coffee at the nearby Starbucks. The latest surprise is a serious one: a central ventilation shaft is too small for all the ductwork the restaurant needs. The contractor’s renegotiating with the city, trying to secure new permits for an alternative type of gas line.

The upstairs neighbors are restless. During the holidays the contractor blocked off several tenants’ parking spaces in the basement garage. Angry notes appeared in the lobby. To turn enemies into customers, Haas and Hasty intend to give every resident a $100 restaurant gift card.

Hasty has been perfecting his menu. The philosophy is traditional American, local, with a hint of the South and a twist of the exotic. He already knows which dishes will be popular: the seared scallops with lobster and sweet pea risotto, the pork loin with goat cheese and andouille sausage.

The pair has been scoping out the competition, too. They liked the food at Jason Alley’s Pasture, Haas says. While some complain about noise, at least the place is busy. But is it smart to open a second small-plates restaurant a block away?

They’ll find out soon. For now, their days are consumed with details, details, details. They pore over catalogs and meeting with sales reps for all the equipment and fixtures. Glasses. Flatware. Six types of plates.

Haas holds up a price sheet for toilet-paper holders. “Which one of these four looks the best?” he asks, dismissing the “jumbo twin smoke” as too rest-stoppy. He’s found himself staying up late obsessing over votive candleholders, an ice pack on his shoulder.

To clear his mind, Haas walks the dusty, empty restaurant space late at night, after the construction crews have left. He imagines the tables, the bar, the crowds.

Details be damned, the walls are rising.

“It’s tremendously exciting and horrifically terrifying,” he says.


Thursday, Jan. 19

Projected open date: early April

525 will be a well-dressed restaurant.

A heap of tweed, metallic crocodile vinyl and pinstriped fabric covers the table in the cozy-industrial office of Helen L. Reed. Hasty and Haas are here to discuss the latest design updates with the Richmond interior designer, who specializes in contemporary looks for hotels and restaurants.

Reed has chosen a menswear-inspired look for the restaurant — sexy yet simple, like a bespoke suit. She’s getting custom mirrored sconces, inspired by old theater makeup mirrors, and overhead light fixtures that resemble giant hatboxes.

Haas looks glazed. He returned yesterday from a week in Las Vegas, where he researched several high-end bars, met some Miss America contestants and was inducted (temporarily) into the posse of Oakland, Calif., rapper AP. 9. But he gets no respite.

“There’s a couple of things that’ve happened while you’ve been gone,” Reed begins.

Not good things. The decorative ceiling panels will have to be lowered because of mechanical issues. A 24-inch ceiling duct must be routed right through the 12-foot-tall shelving behind the bar.

Hasty looks concerned. Haas just laughs. “Well, let’s work around it,” he says.

That means the bar shelves are getting chopped down to 8 feet. It means saying goodbye to Haas’ rolling library-style ladder, the one he was going to have custom made.

They could move it, Reed suggests. But there wouldn’t be enough room for staff to make coffee and get to the glass-washing sink, Haas says.

“I really wanted that ladder,” he says, with a moment’s regret.



Friday, March 2

Projected open date: early May

Micheal Sparks’ elegant Manchester design studio smells like bacon. Hasty cooks furiously in the studio’s tiny kitchen, a cold Corona perched on the counter. As soon as he finishes a dish, Sparks whisks it away to be photographed under lights. Opening day is still at least two months away, but the campaign to win over diners on Facebook is about to begin.

Hasty and Haas approached Sparks early on to get his help developing a logo, brand and online presence for 525 at the Berry-Burk. That’s how the game is played now: Build buzz months before you open. “These guys are one of the ones who are doing it right,” says Sparks, a marketing and creative director who specializes in food, fashion and interiors.

Buzz — that elusive feeling of anticipation — isn’t had for the asking. To build buzz, O’Keefe says, “the people behind it become very important to the story.” Curiosity hit a fevered pitch when Chris Ripp, whose family owns an empire of Arby’s franchises, announced he was opening Can Can in Carytown. Same when his brother, Michael Ripp, opened new darling Burger Bach.

Celebrity isn’t something Hasty and Haas have on their side. They’re not part of a Richmond restaurant family, like the Giavoses or Ripps. They’re not established restaurateurs like Alley (Comfort, Pasture) or Kendra Feather (Garnett’s, the Roosevelt). So they’re turning to Sparks to help them get the city talking.

Sparks pulls up a photograph of a salad on the website of a local restaurant that shall not be named. “That’s terrible,” he says. “The lighting’s not right. It looks sort of ill.” Poor salad.

This is why he has Hasty hard at work in the kitchen, producing a few signature plates to be photographed under luscious lighting.

Hasty produces a simple plate of fresh mozzarella, tomato slices and pesto vinaigrette. “Look how beautiful,” Sparks raves. “It looks like you just want to grab them.”

Next: a sandwich of beef medallions on rosemary focaccia with Boursin cheese and a homemade red onion and balsamic vinegar jam. “Keep it pretty for me,” Sparks commands.

After the beef-medallion sandwich gets its glamour shot, it’s divvied up for tasting.

Score one for Hasty. It’s delicious.



Tuesday, April 10

Projected open date: soft opening in early to mid-May, grand opening May 25

Hasty has a stainless-steel gleam in his eyes.

Yesterday, workers began installing the kitchen that Hasty first sketched a year ago. Now there are counters, a walk-in refrigerator, a deep fryer and a commercial panini press that can smash eight sandwiches at once. And best of all, a hulking Garland six-burner range, topped with a hellish infrared heat box called a salamander.

It’s nicely appointed, to the tune of $100,000. Spacious, it’s not. “It’s really just a very tight, efficient kitchen,” Hasty says. One chef mans the fryer; one, the cold stuff; another, the panini press. Hasty’s in the middle, garnishing, saucing and sautéing.

To start, 525 will be open seven days a week, with brunch on Sundays. Hasty plans to be in the kitchen every day, for every meal, until he’s confident that things are running smoothly.

Drills whir and paint sprayers hiss. Construction is supposed to wrap up May 5. The hiccups of the early days are slowing down, although just the other day, some jackass threw a piece of drywall through one of the enormous plate-glass windows. Add another few grand to the tab.

Haas has hired Laura Robertson as front-of-house manager. She has a little server experience and a degree in communications. Their next task is to hire the 30-odd servers and bartenders. They’ve decided to take applicants with no restaurant experience, because they prefer blank slates to bad habits.

The restaurant’s getting closer to opening every day, but the constant delays are difficult to deal with. They lost an entire month waiting for the city to give them a permit to install speaker wires, Haas says. One month. It’s killing them.

But maybe, just maybe, 525 can open on May 25.



Wednesday, May 30

Projected open dates: soft opening June 6, grand opening June 8

That perfect opening date doesn’t happen. Because Haas is a perfectionist.

Construction is complete. The furniture is ready. But the floor isn’t.

The problem was the marble. The contractor cleaned it up a bit, but the old scratches and stains remained. That isn’t what Haas pictured back in December, in his reverie of 1920s opulence. “It was not worth it just to be open,” he says. “I’d rather do it right.”

So he paid a company $8,000 to grind off the top layer of damaged marble and refinish the floor. It took two weeks. The tables and chairs had to be placed in storage. And Haas gave up on the 5/25 opening of 525. “It’s painful,” he says.

Adding to the pain, Haas and Hasty already have hired 35 people, several of whom gave up other jobs. They’re getting paid for a few hours of training, and that’s it. “It’s not enough to live on,” Haas acknowledges. A couple of people have left.

The ones they’ve hired are almost all in their 20s. Most have a little restaurant experience. Haas isn’t concerned. “I can teach people how to serve,” he says. He has very definite ideas about how to do this.

Although 525 doesn’t aspire to be a five-star restaurant by Forbes Travel Guide standards, Haas wants his servers to aim for the five-star standards. This means they must never: put their fingers in dirty glasses while they clear tables (“six-packing”). Ask whose order is whose (“auctioning”). Say words such as “nope,” “gonna,” “gotcha” and “OK.” After some debate, “y’all” is deemed acceptable.

The menu has been finalized. In addition to a slate of hearty sandwiches ($8 to $12), Hasty’s offering 19 small plates and entrees ($9 to $20). These include a fried green tomato napoleon with crab, a rockfish seviche mojito and paired beef and ahi tuna tartare. All dishes familiar to Richmond palates, just with a little twist: a splash of Bacardi on the seviche, a cornichon relish with the tartare duo. The cocktail list, too, holds some surprises, such as a jalapeño-and-pear margarita and a fancied-up bourbon and ginger ale with orange and basil, Haas’ invention.

On Facebook, Robertson has been posting photographs of Hasty’s dishes daily. It makes your mouth water. But will it bring people in?



Friday, June 8

The Soft Opening

At 5 p.m., 525 at the Berry-Burk opens its doors for the first time. The well-dressed people walking in the door all are friends and family of 525’s staff, invited here for a complimentary dinner.

That doesn’t mean Haas is relaxed. “I’m nervous,” he says, his usual insouciance abruptly fled. “There’s plenty of things going wrong already.”

To the diners, everything looks normal. The gray and white dining room is crisp and serene, just as Reed planned. The kitchen … not so serene.

“Whooo!” Hasty says, staring at the monitor that displays incoming orders. “Look at all this.”

There’s a problem with the computer system. A big problem. A quarter of the orders that servers enter aren’t showing up on the kitchen screen. Hasty and his crew are cooking blind.

Servers mill around on the other side of the counter, trying in vain to track their tickets. Haas appears, sweating only a little in his pinstripe suit, and helps piece together what goes to each table.

Hasty and his sous-chef, J.J. Chambers, toss bison burgers and pork chops on the grill. Seven sauté pans are crammed onto the six-burner stove. The kitchen’s showing its size; because all the counter space is claimed, a plate of cooked bacon and several containers of sea salt are perched on top of the panini maker. The floor is covered with flour, crumbs and lost lettuce leaves.

“Oh nooo,” a server wails after the top of a burger bun falls from a plate and onto the floor. Hasty toasts a new one. The pace picks up while the restaurant fills. Kitchen jargon flies back and forth.

“Can I get an onion ring on the fly, please?”

“86 shrimp dip.”

“Got a caramelized onion I can sell?

“That’s two all day. Two ducks all day.”

“I got a duck right here working hard.”

The kitchen crew builds a nice rhythm. Robertson, cool in a cobalt dress, keeps the front running smoothly. “Nobody’s mad,” Haas marvels later. “And that’s so rare in restaurants, especially on a night like that.”

At 8 p.m., as the last sunlight plays on the Berry-Burk’s stone facade, the windows are filled with laughing, chattering diners. Candles flicker on white-draped tables. From the street, it looks nice. It looks like a restaurant at last.

Down the street, Pasture hums. Even the old Red Door has drawn a decent crowd. An oyster saloon called Merroir RVA is opening soon in the space left vacant by Louisiana Flair.

You begin to think that maybe, Grace Street could live again.



Sunday, June 10

The Aftermath and the Beginning

It’s Sunday afternoon. The owners are tired. But they’re here at the restaurant. They will be every day from now on.

“It was a good way for us to start,” Haas says about Friday. “Realistically, it’ll probably be our worst night ever.”

Diners had few complaints, other than servers who kept spilling water on the tablecloths. Tricky pitchers, Haas says. The staff served 250 people; it expected 130. Haas calculates it would have been a $10,000 night, if they’d been charging for the food and serving alcohol. When they did the private preview all over again last night, curious theater patrons knocked on the door at 11:30.

“We’re not done,” Haas says. The construction crew’s returning Monday at 7 a.m. for some last-minute fixes. The espresso machine doesn’t fit on the shelf. Back it goes. The alcohol license is coming soon. They hope.

They plan to open officially for lunch on Thursday, June 14, and perhaps dinner too. The grand-opening splash will be June 20.

But Haas, as always, is looking ahead.

Standing behind the bar in the silent restaurant, he turns to Hasty. “I actually saw a great spot for number two yesterday.” S


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