November 10, 2020 News & Features » Cover Story

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Inside Out 

How restaurants are restructuring their spaces during the pandemic.

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You have arrived at your destination.

Manny Mendez holds court at 1601 Park Ave. hours before Kuba Kuba pours the morning’s first cafe con leche. 

By 10 a.m. he’s on his second espresso – he proudly declares he’s down from eight a day to four – and within 30 minutes he’s conversed with nine passersby, from a woman walking her corgi to a friend who, after a few minutes, is invited to join our interview. 

“You can see why I’m not in the kitchen making tamales,” Mendez says.

click to enlarge Chef and owner Manny Mendez sits outside of his 22-year-old Fan restaurant, Kuba Kuba, greeting passersby, and their pets, every morning. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Chef and owner Manny Mendez sits outside of his 22-year-old Fan restaurant, Kuba Kuba, greeting passersby, and their pets, every morning. 

The Fan’s 22-year-old, quirky Cuban restaurant is as much a part of the street as the maples and oaks that line Park Avenue. “Even though I love the customer base at Kuba Dos, it’s much different driving to a shopping center versus walking to the corner shop,” says Mendez, who is also part owner of Little Nickel and Galley restaurants. 

Kuba Kuba is the quintessential neighborhood haunt, the kind that, even during a global pandemic, seems to be buzzing with socially distanced energy. Three customers show up at 10:50 a.m. and Mendez invites them to take a seat at one of the sidewalk tables to wait out the 10 minutes before opening.

But what about places like Kuba Dos, the 5 year old, much larger restaurant in the Tuckahoe Shopping Center near the University of Richmond? Or Little Nickel, the tropical, dinner-only escape with an expanded, twinkly-light adorned patio? How cold is too cold to sit outside?

Restaurateurs with big dreams and tight budgets have long lived by British real estate tycoon Harold Samuel’s adage: location, location, location. More often than not, much like the homes we invest in, the physical structure of an eatery and the address we plug into our phones are part and parcel with the identity of the restaurant itself.

“I have so many fond memories of ice cream as a child and nostalgia with my family – it was important to be somewhere with families and make connections and know all the neighbors and become the neighborhood scoop shop,” says Ruby Scoops owner Rabia Kamara. “I kept finding myself back in Brookland Park.”

Kamara and business partner Emmett Wright were hoping to open their first brick and mortar in the spring in a 2,400-square-foot blank slate, set conveniently on a corner and falling within their budget, ready to be built out to the owners’ liking. 

click to enlarge Rabia Kamara of Ruby Scoops will open her first brick and mortar business this winter at 120 W. Brookland Park Blvd. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Rabia Kamara of Ruby Scoops will open her first brick and mortar business this winter at 120 W. Brookland Park Blvd.

“This has been a big test and lesson in trust,” Kamara says. “I’ve helped open a lot of restaurants – I was not prepared for what opening my own situation would entail.” 

The pastry chef started Ruby Scoops in October 2014 as an online retailer, popping up at Washington area markets and festivals. In that time, she’s built a devout following of her small-batch ice cream and sorbet. “This is the longest time in five years I’ve not been selling ice cream to people,” Kamara says. 

The contract for Ruby Scoop’s 300 W. Brookland Park Blvd. location started to fall through this spring, and “broke down even further,” this summer, Kamara says. “It was very unclear about what the delivery date would be.” On July 27, Kamara posted photos to the Ruby Scoops’ Instagram page of a building very much in disarray, writing that it was no longer moving forward with 300 W. Brookland. 

With time and money already sunk in the original space, Kamara and Wright launched a Kickstarter to help them pursue the reality of a hard-earned storefront. More than 500 backers raised $32,191 for the team to invest in their new address, 120 W. Brookland Park, which is just 500 feet from the original and is set to open this winter. “Our Realtors knew we wanted to stay in the same area,” Kamara says. 

Nathan Hughes, principal broker at Sperity Real Estate Ventures, assisted Kamara and Wright in the search for their ideal scoop-shop location. Hughes has been a full-time business broker and commercial Realtor for 15 years, specializing in the inner workings of the Richmond restaurant market.

“It’s more art than science,” Hughes says of tracking down a coveted location. “Though there is a science to it for sure. What it really comes down to is your concept, what your offerings are and how it all fits into a neighborhood.”

There are still hot spots like the bustling, beer-centric Scott’s Addition district. Or the recreational and residential friendly Manchester, where Richmond’s first food hall, Hatch Local, is slated to open in the spring. 

But there is no new restaurant algorithm that will guarantee success in any neighborhood. No magic button that draws a constant stream of patrons. 

And even if you’re longing for a trendy locale, sometimes money won’t buy you what you love. For instance, Hughes says Scott’s Addition is difficult to get into, not because existing real estate prices are “insane,” but because there’s no “second- generation space,” and it’s very expensive to remodel.

In spite of the pandemic – and in the midst of more than two dozen area restaurants permanently closing since March – Hughes says he currently has about 15 to 20 businesses looking for storefronts. 

“For the most part they’re all looking for something smaller, around 1,000-2,000 square feet,” Hughes says. “A lot have a market component and most are focused more on takeout and outdoor space.”

Henry Fletcher, owner of 1115 Mobile Kitchen, says that even before the pandemic he knew he wanted to pursue a peripatetic business model. Based out of Hatch Kitchen, 1115 is set to hit the streets on, you guessed it, Nov. 15, serving Southern-style traditional and plant-based dishes.

Fletcher says that with more people sticking close to home and events – a food truck’s bread and butter – being postponed, he’s looking for a new space.

“Everyone’s on the internet,” Fletcher says. “As long as you know where to get my food and my social media is heavy, it doesn’t change the experience.” 

He credits the restaurant preorder system turned easy-to-use food delivery app Toast: “[It] creates a hype, people can plan to have a certain meal weeks ahead of time,” Fletcher says. “It adds some fun to your dining experience and is the perfect remedy for what we’re going through right now.”

click to enlarge Starting this month, you can find 1115 Mobile Kitchen owner Henry Fletcher and crew at a skate park or brewery near you. Follow them on Instagram for the latest on preordering meals and pop-up events. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Starting this month, you can find 1115 Mobile Kitchen owner Henry Fletcher and crew at a skate park or brewery near you. Follow them on Instagram for the latest on preordering meals and pop-up events. 

Lawyer Patrick Carollo works closely with the hospitality industry to help with the acquisition, financing and sale of properties and businesses. He says he’s worked on three new restaurant leases since March, “It’s a good opportunity, some restaurants have had to leave good spaces so subtenants are coming in with a different concept.”

Carollo says he’s noticed that places with drive-thrus have fared well and is curious to see if any local, independent restaurants will move into the abandoned fast food joints littered throughout the area. Both Hughes and Carollo note that new concepts are keeping the pandemic very much top of mind as they look for spaces and nail down lease terms. 

For chef Michael Lindsey, former executive chef of Eat Restaurant Partners, pandemic proofing the lease of his soon-to-open Grace Street restaurant was nonnegotiable. 

Lindsey and wife Kimberly Love-Lindsey met while working in the industry, helping to open and operate a dozen spots under the Eat umbrella. Lillie Pearl, named after Lindsey’s grandmother, will be their first solo venture, focusing on “gracious” hospitality and dishes inspired by Lindsey’s West African and Southern roots. 

At 416 E. Grace St. in the building that once housed the short-lived Pink Flamingo and before that, Jason Alley’s Pasture, Lillie Pearl was a turnkey opportunity for the couple.

“We knew we could come in and make this restaurant successful, knowing what we know and how to maneuver around the times,” Lindsey says. “But also we said to the landlord, ‘This is what we would need from you to make this work for us.’” 

These terms included “a couple free months of rent,” plus an overall “better rent rate” if the state decides to walk back Phase 3 guidelines, or, worst-case scenario, enact another round of lockdown. 

click to enlarge Michael Lindsey, former Eat Restaurant Partners executive chef and culinary director, will open his first solo venture, Lillie Pearl, this November. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Michael Lindsey, former Eat Restaurant Partners executive chef and culinary director, will open his first solo venture, Lillie Pearl, this November. 

For those keeping track, Richmond is still in Phase 3 of Forward Virginia — and has been since July – which means restaurants are legally allowed to operate at full capacity as long as they maintain 6 feet of distance between tables, keep the bar area closed, adhere to strict sanitation practices, post signs with pandemic bullet points and keep employees masked at all times. 

Ethically? Many restaurants are still opting to keep their dining rooms temporarily closed while they focus their energy on takeout and delivery, or they’re choosing to remove tables even if they have ample room for full capacity. Patios and fast-tracked parklets are still a popular option, though time will tell if restaurant owners feel comfortable sending their staff out in 40 degree weather. 

With Lillie Pearl set to open this month, Lindsey and Love-Lindsey will soon be making these difficult decisions for themselves, balancing a new business, a new baby boy, Tristan, and the potentially busy holiday season. 

“I feel like this is probably one of the nicest blocks downtown, this street is beautiful,” Lindsey says. “Lillie Pearl should be here, it feels homey, like you’re walking to your grandmother’s house. It feels familiar and comfortable.”

Restaurants, as has been highlighted since the early days of lockdown, are inherently social. They are gathering places, and the best ones do, as Lindsey hopes, feel a little bit like home. 

But as we muster through the eighth month of the pandemic, who is choosing to leave their actual homes to social distance in the wild? And where are they going?

Everyone has a different comfort level when it comes to interacting with anyone outside of their pandemic pod.

Some folks are plagued by lockdown fatigue and simply want to exist outside of their well-worn domestic realm, making reservations every night of the week. Still others are very wary, sitting only outside or placing copious orders for no-contact delivery. 

Terence Chorba writes for the Centers for Disease Control: “In the present pandemic circumstances, we can appreciate that the impacts of communicable diseases on social behavior are somewhat conflicting: increasing altruism and within-group cohesion but decreasing social interactions if there are associated risks for infection.”

As he notes, the term social distance is relatively new to the canon, coined in 1963 by anthropologist Edward T. Hall to “describe a zone of space customarily adopted in many cultures to minimize visual, olfactory, auditory, and tactile stimulation when meeting strangers or mere acquaintances.” 

Shagbark owner and longtime Richmond chef Walter Bundy decided to reopen his spacious, Southern-inspired 4901 Libbie Mill East Blvd. restaurant Oct. 8 for indoor and outdoor dining.

Bundy says he’s careful to follow CDC guidelines and has even put additional measures in place, like taking customers’ temperatures at the door and removing more tables than required by law. “If someone gets sick then it hurts all of us,” he says.  

The Virginia native started paving the way for nose-to-tail chefs like Sean Brock in the early 2000s, championing local hunters and gatherers before it was cool to do so.

“I believe there has been a lot of pent-up demand, people are tired and scared,” Bundy says about his decision to reopen this fall. Once the case positivity hit a low 4.5%, Bundy says he felt comfortable inviting folks into his home away from home.

“It takes a big turn of the engine to get the wheel rolling again,” Bundy says. “We needed to make sure it was the right time.” Like many Richmond restaurant owners, Bundy has seen an uptick in patio dining, “I couldn’t find any tent curtains that took less than three to four months to get here.” 

So, he improvised. 

Shagbark’s power-washed umbrellas and picnic tables on the patio may belie the interior’s more refined aesthetic, but at this point, Bundy says he’s just trying to honor the influx of outdoor reservation requests. “Sometimes you have to sacrifice some of your ego or style just to make it happen.”

click to enlarge Shagbark owner and chef Walter Bundy just reopened his Libbie Mill restaurant this October, serving dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays in the expansive dining room, bar area and newly expanded patio. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • Shagbark owner and chef Walter Bundy just reopened his Libbie Mill restaurant this October, serving dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays in the expansive dining room, bar area and newly expanded patio. 

Carena Ives, owner of longtime Virginia Commonwealth University staple Jamaica House, knows all too well the strain of sacrifice.  Her new and improved 2,100-square-foot location opened this fall at 416 W. Broad St. “When you go into business you’re not thinking, ‘Let’s plan for the worst-case scenario,’” she says. “You’re thinking ‘Who is your market? Who will you be serving, what are their needs? How will you meet those requirements?’”

Ives says the move from near Monroe Park to Broad Street was two years in the making, long before millions of people were infected by a coronavirus.

“It’s the most … surreal kind of horror you can imagine,” she says. “The tragic and ironic part is that for so many years we planned this beautiful space for people to relax, it would be inviting and fun and well done and customers would feel really at home.”

For now, Jamaica House is only open for takeout, though Ives points out that fixed costs remain the same. The monthly rent remains the same. “The whole point of a restaurant experience is not just shoveling food to people,” she says.

click to enlarge Jamaica House owner Carena Ives says restaurant owners prepare for everything under the sun before opening a new location – but never a global pandemic. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Jamaica House owner Carena Ives says restaurant owners prepare for everything under the sun before opening a new location – but never a global pandemic. 

It’s the atmosphere, the genial server, the perfectly spirit-forward cocktail and piping hot plate of fill-in-the-blank. It’s the place that feels like home when you need it to, the space where your worries fall away for a while. 

“Location is important,” Ives says. “But again it’s about: What is the essential purpose of the restaurant? What are you trying to do – are you creating any value to the people you’re serving most?”

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