Last night at The Hippodrome, five of Richmond’s most successful restaurateurs appeared in a panel discussion on the local restaurant industry, presented by Richmond BizSense.
The panelists were:
Johnny Giavos, who owns diverse restaurants across Richmond, including 3 Monkeys, Kitchen 64, Sidewalk Café, Stella's and the Continental Westhampton.
Michelle Williams. a partner in Richmond Restaurant Group, which owns the Hill Café, the Hard Shell, Europa and Water Grill. The group is also in the process of renovating and reopening the Fan restaurant formerly known as deLux, and is opening The Daily, a new natural and organic café in the former Glass & Powder Board Shop in Carytown.
Chris Tsui, owner of Blue Goat, Osaka and Wild Ginger. He is also about to open Fat Dragon in the space that used to house Stronghill Dining Co.
Kevin Healy, owner of the Boathouse at Sunday Park and the Boathouse at Rocketts Landing. Healy is preparing to open Casa del Barco, a restaurant in the old Reynolds Metals building on the Canal Walk downtown.
Buz Grossberg, owner of Richmond’s famous Buz and Ned’s Real Barbecue, which opened a second location on West Broad Street.
Similarly, Giavos said, “You let the location speak to you. With Kitchen 64, the area right off the highway needed to speak to families. You need to be able to come in with the ladies, or come in with the guys for a game, or bring in the whole family.”
There was also a lively discussion about the difference between owning a restaurant downtown and in the suburbs. “It doesn’t always work based on the name,” Grossberg said. “Food quality is second to service in the West End. … In the Fan, you can yell at customers and you can spill food on them and people will come back.” He added that while he didn’t want to change the counter-service, casual feel the original Buz and Ned’s location maintains, he had to plan to give western Henrico County diners more time to warm up to it.
Williams talked about the difference in dining timing: “In the city, people eat all day and all night. In the suburbs, people eat at 6:30 and want to be the only people in the restaurant. It’s a challenge when everyone comes in at once.” She added that she thinks this is why chains have such success outside the city — they have more capital to hire a large number of employees working at one time.
Healy noted that in the suburbs, it’s also more important to be in tune with neighborhood happenings like football games or community celebrations and predict accordingly: “Everybody does the same thing,” he says. “You have to know what’s going on and be prepared.”
When asked why restaurants fail, the group had varying opinions. Williams talked about the stress of being available as an owner at all hours, plus the pressure to always deliver a great experience: “You’re only as good as your last meal.”
She also revealed why she thought deLux didn't make it, attributing it to designing the wrong style of dining establishment: “We made a beautiful restaurant that belonged somewhere else,” she said. “It belonged downtown. But you have to learn every day.” She says the new version will be more of a neighborhood eatery for Fan dwellers.
Tsui added that the difficulty of being a food lover and business expert makes it hard to run a successful restaurant: “They say chefs shouldn’t be restaurateurs because they know about the food, but not the business. Then you get business people who don’t know about food.”
Healy noted that it’s easy to open a restaurant without the necessary expertise to ensure success: “Although it’s expensive and it’s hard, it’s easy to get into. If you have a little money and a dream, you’re in business.”
When an audience member asked about local sourcing, the group lamented the way these terms have become marketing catchphrases.
“It’s a great idea, but how many months a year does a garden produce tomatoes?” Healy asked. “We use a lot of produce. … We’d wipe out a small farm. When it’s possible, it’s great, but for a restaurant that does any kind of volume, it’s not practical.
Giavos expressed frustration that some spots use the “local” term to draw customers in when he’s been trying to support local business for years. “I’ve been buying from local vendors for 20 years. Pretty much everyone on this panel has been trying to do that for at least 20 years.”
After about an hour of conversation, the panel ended and the members stayed around for drinks and conversation. Audience members said they enjoyed a closer look at some of the city’s most well-known dining personalities. Mary Ruth Coleman, who is a dining enthusiast, said, “As someone who is outside the dining world, it was great to get a glimpse behind the scenes.”