Hello, this is Jen Mindell from Cafe Gutenberg. RVAfoodie was kind enough to let me use this forum to address some issues that I feel strongly about, and to clear up some misconceptions about the sale of our restaurant.
First and foremost, some background: I’ve been the Chef at Cafe Gutenberg in Shockoe Bottom for about 5 years. The original incarnation of the business was a European bookstore/ coffeeshop/ wine lounge that was a great concept, but perhaps a little out of place in working class Richmond at the time it opened. It was well- loved by its regulars, but struggled to be accepted in a social and financial climate that was demanding more sustainable and accessible offerings. In short, fine dining and European were on their way out, while local and affordable were on their way in. Not to mention independent bookstores were dissapearing in the wake of Borders and Barnes and Noble. Had the original owners opened last year, the year of the wine lounge, perhaps it would have done really well, but who knows. Food trends are fickle, fast and hard to predict and for whatever reason, Cafe Gutenberg’s original formula just didn’t take off.
So three years ago my boss sold the business and 20 of us were left without jobs. My co- chef/ partner Garrett and I had long believed that if we stripped the business down to just food, no frills, that the community would come back to us. Both of us are from working class backgrounds yet came up in higher end kitchens, so we longed for the opportunity to use our classical training in a different way- cooking simple food that people like us could afford in a place that we felt welcome, as- is.
In a rare turn of events, we were offered the opportunity to take over the business and despite the fact that we had little more than 6 grand, awesom staff and our chops, we said lets do it. And it worked. We designed a menu that we could afford to produce and our customers could afford to enjoy, focusing on the way that the rest of the world eats- mostly vegetables and grains with a little bit of protein. We bought old furniture and used the bookshelves to build wainscotting and server stations. My father came down from Vermont and built roomy tables out of refurbished lumber. We caught a lot of flack from people who called the decor “shabby” and I’ll admit that the framed photocopies of cookbook illustrations left much to be desired, haha. But the fact is that we put our limited resources into what mattered to us- the food- and we’re proud of that decision. We were able to give 20 people their jobs back and purchase pricier but worthwhile local ingredients for our customers, two things that wouldn’t have been possible had we not been thrifty with the renovations.
Our first 6 months were amazing, brutal but amazing, and we were so pleasantly surprised that people supported the decisions we had made. We had opened a restaurant at the onset of a recession and brought an empty spot back to life. Say what you want about decor and ambiance, but when it comes down to it people still appreciate food that is made with honesty, love and skill at a great value.
But it hasn’t been easy- our first winter was pretty scary in fact. The meat of the recession had hit, the storms flooded our dining room and kept people indoors, and downtown turned into a ghost town after 5pm, people rushing home before the roads iced up. We didn’t know what to expect so we saved every penny, worked our butts off and panicked like most newbies do. Business returned in droves once March hit, and then the formula repeated itself for our second year, almost like clockwork.
As is the case with many restaurants, our sales from the summer sustained us through the winter. We saw so many spots close in the city, places we thought were immune to the cycle, that it really sunk in how lucky we were to have loyal customers who embraced what we were doing. Sure we had some debt and some premature gray hairs (no fair Im only 31!), but we had survived to see a third spring- yay!
At some point we had to admit our limits though. We had a prime location that was well beyond our means, and twice as many seats as we needed. We had a thousand marketing ideas without a clue as to which were smart investments. We knew the service wasn’t perfect but no matter our efforts simply lacked the wisdom to take it there. In short, we were still two chefs without a strong business partner to fill in the rest of the equation.
In February we agreed that we needed to pass the space on to someone who could get their arms around it. We sat the staff down and told them one by one, and then we put it up for sale. It was alot like breaking up with someone you love who’s just not “the one”. You want it to be right but you know that you’re both holding back to make it work.
It didn’t take long for the rumors to fly. Selling a business is a lot different than closing one, but the public often views it as the same- understandable but unfortunate. Style weekly asked me for an interview to dispel the rumors that we were closing, and I was happy to oblige. I had a very nice converstaion with Vernal over coffee, he was down to earth and we talked about future plans, the awesome response to our food, the mixed reviews of our service, and successes and failures as owners. I admitted that opening without a financial cushion had been a struggle all along. And that despite the fantastic location perhaps we were better suited to a smaller space. All in all, I was happy with how it went and honored that Style was interested enough in our plans for the future to send someone in for the scoop.
Next thing I knew our very simple story had garnered us inclusion in an article I barely recognized. Doom and gloom jumped off the page, starting with the title “Gutenberg For Sale; Others Eye Exit”. The headline implied that our decision was due to location while the content focused on neighborhood violence, economic downturn, and the supposed inability of restaurants to coexist with Shockoe Bottom nightlife. It was the same over dramatized story I’d read a dozen times before. The sale was barely touched on except as evidence that we had been pushed out by clubs, a fact that couldn’t be further from the truth. The one sentence chosen as quote-worthy from our conversation was “last winter was financially brutal”. How embarrassing. The comment was made about bad weather affecting our weekends, not about the neighborhood, but out of context it served to align us with a story of mass exodus.
I was hurt. I had opened up about a pretty big decision and felt totally misrepresented. The very reasons we love our neighborhood- diversity, lack of pretense, authenticity… were under attack (again), and this time with our name on it.
A low blow, but there wasn’t much to be done. I guess “Restaurant for Sale Because Owners Want a Smaller Space” just isn’t the catchiest story. I don’t blame Vernal professionally, it’s his job, though personally I feel blindsided. Because I DO have a position on the political issues of Shockoe Bottom, but it certainly isn’t the one espoused in his article…
I have long believed that Shockoe Bottom’s struggle to be embraced by Richmond has more to do with the barrage of irresponsible media jabs, pitting us against each other and harping on race and class, than it does a legitimate disparity between business owners. When we struggle, we all struggle, and if the clubs do better numbers than restaurants do in hard times it’s because their product (fun) is consistently irreplaceable, no matter the economic climate.
Anyone who thinks that’s unfair or indicative of a bad neighborhood should consider the fact that food alone just isn’t as lucrative an industry as nightlife. Look at the trend nationally in fine dining- you wont find a success story without a well-paid mixologist to supplement what nowadays chefs are hard pressed to do- pay the bills with food alone. Look at the fan bars who soar above the rest of us, leaving even destination restaurants in their wake. It’s because they offer a place for people to be social, and are successful at it. The media doesn’t begrudge them their success, or demonize their customers as a cultural threat the way they do to clubs in the Bottom. In fact Style Weekly dedicates a column to covering the wild antics of Richmond bars- or certain ones I should say.
My point is that people like to party allover, rich or poor. And as a fan resident I can say that the mob of 2am drunk college kids surrounding West Main St is as intrusive as any nightlife anywhere. But just as with our Shockoe Bottom night spots, I applaud their business savvy rather than blaming them for the less lucrative path I’ve chosen. Food is a passion, not a guaranteed moneymaker, and despite what these stories would have you believe we restaurant owners struggle no matter who or what is next door. That’s just par for the course til you get it right.
If I had to chalk the Shockoe Bottom lore up to something more than that I’d say Richmond is a relatively small city and it’s unfortunate but true that without some sort of crisis to report, we as a community often create it. Despite our wish to be progressive, there is a thick layer of prejudice here that makes certain neighborhoods an easy target for both media and merchants. I can’t say that race and class don’t play a part in this, but I think it has just as much to do with economic fear and anxiety than it does with inherent racism. And the last few years have been no exception to the way communities often try to “explain away” their tough times.
Human nature is funny, and I hate to call us sheep, though we kind of are, just really complicated ones. Another thing we do when times are tough is surround ourselves with places and things that are just a bit beyond our means, giving us something to aspire to. And we avoid the the things that mirror our own reality, whether that be people, businesses, or even whole neighborhoods.
Carytown for example is beautiful, but quite expensive, and is not always filled with people who can afford its shops as much as people who wish they could. Short Pump Town Center is a virtual dose of affluence, and its chain restaurants are consequently packed to the gills with people who just really dig BEING THERE. Areas that have been revitalized by the city are designed to make us feel good this way so we want to spend our money there, and it works. The economy of a neighborhood has a better chance of survival when we’re given the allure of possibilities and prosperity.
Shockoe Bottom, on the other hand, is a community of it’s own design. The real deal, baby. It hasn’t been dolled up by the city, and the businesses here have chosen it instead of vice versa. Consequently it has the elements that a collective prejudice tends to prey on: It has a rich nightlife culture that’s predominantly working class. It has some empty storefronts that “must be vacant for a reason”. It’s businesses are small and, with that, the margin for error is fragile. It isn’t yet filled with expensive boutiques to make people feel the false security of life- improving knicknacks . In short, it’s a very REAL snapshot of your average American city. Pretty badass if you ask me. But instead of receiving support, its merchants get put under the microscope, the media trying to glean some greater story from the everyday struggles of small business. Looking for the villain when there just isnt one, and desperate to deny the fact that times are tough all over, we just SEE it better when it isnt wearing a mask.
Its unfortunate, because Shockoe is probably the most locally- owned neighborhood in all of Richmond. And yet it hasn’t earned the collective support of those who call themselves localvores. We’re willing (and proud) of where we spend our money, but (I include myself when I ask this question) how bout where we spend our time? Too often I think we place ‘local’ as a high priority on our grocery list but dont think about how our presence and commerce in a community can help push local government to take notice, and take care.
That being said, some of the worst attacks on this neighborhood have come from it’s own merchants. There has been a pervasive us-against-them attitude expressed towards the young black of Shockoe Bottom, and claims made by business owners who report losing customers due to fear of violence. Again I don’t disagree with those who call this racism, but I believe that the core might be simpler- people like to have someone to blame when they fail. Some cant accept the fact that when you’re small, the community will see you struggle, and judge you. But thats just the way it is, and frankly that vulnerability, that willingness to try and fail transparently is what separates a business worth supporting from one whose intentions should surely be questioned.
Thanks for letting me ramble, now I guess I’ll get down to it.
For the record, Cafe Gutenberg does not want any part of this anti-club agenda. Not only is it based on myth, stereotype, sour grapes and overplayed youtube videos, but it has nothing to do with our decision to seek a smaller space. We love our neighborhood, we support our neighbors, and we own our success and failures as a business.
We’re not closing, rather looking for a successor. This spot will be absolutely amazing for someone with more resources, and we’re excited to pass the torch and see it grow. For now, we’ll keep doing what we love to do, which is cook for you, and keep our eyes peeled for a cozy spot that feels right. Thank you so much for being the best customers ever- we hope this is just the beginning of many years to grow and learn together as part of an awesome community.