Many were surprised when Cous Cous closed in April. Three of the restaurant’s principals talk about why the restaurant is better off as The Well.
Several people helped turn Cous Cous into The Well, but one guy started it all: Jacob Goff.
Last July, the head chef of Cous Cous did something different and began offering dinner specials that veered from the restaurant’s Mediterranean menu. “Stuff he wanted to do,” said Chris Ramming, co-owner and bartender of Cous Cous/The Well.
Goff made items like ribs, sandwiches, and fried rice. The wait staff ate ’em up–both literally and figuratively–and their enthusiasm caught on with the customers. “His specials were killing it because the staff was so behind it,” Ramming said.
Al Copeland, owner of Cous Cous/The Well, said at that time the Mediterranean restaurant focused on small, sharable plates. The thinking was that the focus on small plates and sharing would cultivate regular customers, eager to mix and match plates with friends, family, and co-workers several times each month. But General Manager Jamie Gonthier said that’s not what happened.
“Cous Cous evolved into something different than what it was when it first opened,” she said. “Cous Cous was seen as a destination restaurant.” Instead of people coming in regularly, Cous Cous became the place where you’d go to celebrate a graduation, birthday, or an anniversary–a once-a-year destination. That wasn’t so good for the restaurant’s bottom line.
But while Cous Cous dinner-goers weren’t so regular, its bar-goers were. “We had such a late-night crowd,” Ramming said. But he said those bar regulars rarely came for dinner because they had a “misconception” that the menu was too pricey.
When Chef Goff introduced non-Mediterranean dinner specials, those items quickly became the far-and-away favorites.
As a result, Copeland, Ramming, Gonthier, and co-owner Jason Henry decided earlier this year that the Cous Cous concept needed an overhaul. A big one. So they ceased operations on April Fool’s Day, and began the process of de-Cous Cous-ing the restaurant.
For five weeks, the four scrubbed, sanded, and suffered through 18-hour days–day after day after day. “It’s a lot of exhaustion,” Ramming said. But it was worth it. “This was us doing this,” he said, his eyes wandering around what they now have to show for it–The Well. “And I’m really proud of it.”
The most apparent change: the removal of the banquet seating against the Franklin Street wall. Replacing it are several benches that create a more private atmosphere for each table. The upstairs portion now has a couch and bar stools lining a small rail bar. Next to the couch is a working 1979 jukebox filled with rotating 45s supplied by both Ramming and Steady Sounds owners Marty Key and Drew Snyder.
The decor isn’t the only thing that’s changed. “The feedback on the food has been really good,” Copeland said. Among the items he, Ramming, and Gonthier love on the new menu are the chicken wings with homemade dressing, the “Thanksgiving sandwich” (squash stuffing, cranberry sauce, and herbed au jus), both the regular and tempeh Reubens, and homemade baked pretzels with spicy mustard.
Over at the bar, Ramming said that no specialty drink will exceed $8, and the bar will soon carry $2 cans of Genesee, just two of the 22 beers that make up The Well’s beer list.
While the group hopes the new menu will attract more dinner-goers, they also hope The Well continues Cous Cous’s reputation as one of the city’s best late-night spots with regular events and food served until 1:00 AM. Ramming said the late night menu and bar now regularly draws cooks from one of his favorite Richmond restaurants, the nearby Edo’s Squid.1
Copeland said, “People who had never eaten [here] before are now eating.” He’s already noticed “more people from the building2 coming down” for meals.
That’s reassuring to Copeland, Ramming, and Gonthier. A sign that their long hours creating The Well was well worth it.
The Well is located at 900 W. Franklin Street.
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