The recent closing of Boom Boom Burgers made the former owner question how viable this historic district is to local businesses, insinuating that it’s a proverbial NO MAN’S LAND. On why this opinion is wrong.
Joshua Eftekhari-Asl caused a bit of controversy late last week. The former owner of Boom Boom Burgers, who closed its doors three months after opening, penned a letter to the public expressing concern towards “macro-level pressures” within Shockoe Bottom, the location of his now defunct restaurant. “Retail businesses that are REALLY thriving,” said Eftekhair-Asl, “are nightclubs and bars catering to the lower class urban population of Richmond. This proved to be a very difficult and impossible barrier for [Boom Boom Burgers] to overcome.”
Some took his tone as subtly racist, a charge that Eftekhair-Asl emphatically denies, recanting his harsh tone toward Shockoe’s denizens and the area at large in a follow-up letter. Although many understood the former owner’s frustration at closing his doors and letting go of his staff, others felt his mea culpa was unnecessary. Many Richmonders associate the Shockoe area as a portion of the city rich in both history and histrionics. Several blocks away from the Poe Museum is 18th and East Main streets, epicenter to a vibrant, sometimes violent, party scene that can spill out onto streets on Friday and Saturday nights. The “lower class urban population” that Eftekhair-Asl refers to, in all likelihood, is the presence of night clubs that cater to a contemporary Hip-Hop audience. To put it bluntly, the charge he issued in his first letter, and a charge that some still share, is that the prevalent young black population scares away more affluent would-be white customers.
To many, this is a simplified definition for a more complex problem. Many whites will say that it is not the dark skin color in areas surrounding Boom Boom Burgers, in and of itself, that made them recoil from spending money, but a type of sub-culture that values intimidation, violence, and sexual glorification. For them, Eftekhair-Asl, who comes from a multi-cultural background, spoke the truth.
The truth, however, is not always what it seems.
I was in the Bottom a few days ago. It was Monday. Sunshine gleamed off new steel, erected at the many new apartment and condo construction sites on either side of Shockoe’s East Main drag. Driving into the downtown area, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of optimism. It’s the same optimism shared by Erin Helland.
She’s owned GlobeHopper, a coffee house on East Main and 21st streets, since February 2008, “It’s been that way for years,” she tells me, as I sip an iced-tea flavored with lemon. She’s young, has blonde hair, and a determination that emboldens her cerulean eyes. “Everyone can visualize it,” she says of Shockoe Bottom’s potential.
As a successful business woman working within a female-exclusive partnership that also organizes their own non-profit, Youth for Understanding, I know that Helland is as realistic as they come. “I watched this area for six years,” she tells me of her business scouting. She believes that Shockoe’s varied demographics are an asset to both businesses and the community. “If you’re catering to one particular group, I don’t think you have enough clientele.” I ask her what she thinks of the diverse clientele that Shockoe offers. “I love the people here,” she says.
I get the same sense of customer appreciation from Philip Gibrall, who owns McGuire Park Pharmacy and Aziza’s restaurant, two businesses connected to one another on the 2100 block of East Main Street, opened in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Gibrall, a tall, lean, and friendly man with a well-groomed circle beard, and a cellphone clipped to his belt echoes the optimism that Erin Helland voiced. He says that Shockoe is “slowly progressing,” and finds that most people in Shockoe and neighboring Church Hill “want to support independent businesses.” He of all people would know.
Several blocks away is a CVS Pharmacy, a national chain that some people thought would thwart McGuire Park Pharmacy’s success when it relocated to its current Shockoe location in August of 2006. It didn’t. Once people realized that McGuire Park Pharmacy was a family-run business, people began to switch their prescriptions from CVS to them. People also appreciated a unique and uncommon service that McGuire’s provides: free delivery of prescriptions and medications.
During our conversation, he attaches himself to the pharmacy’s phone to help solve a technical glitch with the store’s computer with the help of a support technician. I begin to talk to his daughter, Stephanie. She’s young and vibrant, with an olive complexion and amicable mien, just like her father. She tells me that people are health conscious in Shockoe. The only fast food restaurant in the area is a single McDonald’s, testifying to the area’s preference for healthy, family-owned merchants. Fast, unhealthy food “is not something that is needed or wanted,” she says. Half of what customers order at Aziza are vegetarian and vegan options. They tell me that a successful business anywhere, but particularly Shockoe, requires business owners to research their environment, and to really know and appreciate the community that they serve. But not everything in Shockoe is wine and roses for businesses.
“I wouldn’t want to walk down 18th Street at night with my girlfriends,” Stephanie says, with a polite bluntness. She’s very much aware of the often raucous and rebarbative behavior that emanates from Shockoe Bottom’s party area. With so many bars and clubs and people drinking, “things are going to happen.” Although she maintains that there is a “great police presence,” sometimes “it can be a bit of a nuisance.” She refers to the almost regular closing of streets by uniformed officers. This is done as a crowd control measure, but it makes navigating Shockoe’s already congested streets even more vexing. “We definitely appreciate [the police] being down here,” she says, but adds, “I don’t think we’re benefiting from them closing off the streets.” She says this, despite still having 25 parking spots in the rear of the building for both businesses. Businesses that solely rely on street parking for their customers, however, are left with no convenient alternative.
Despite this, Philip Gibrall, remains optimistic about the future. While on hold with various support technicians, cradling the phone’s headset on his shoulder like it’s his conjoined twin, he acknowledges the potential for crime in the area, but also reminds me of the many apartments and condos I drove past coming into the Bottom. There’s a lot of money on the line, he tells me, and people aren’t going to just kiss that money goodbye. They’ll fight to get enough people in at a reasonable price to make the area even more vibrant as Philip and Stephanie Gibrall, as well as Erin Helland think it can be.
When I talk to these people, I get the impression that Eftekhari-Asl blaming Shockoe Bottom was a cop-out. But there is no animosity towards him. Erin Helland tells me of the camaraderie shared between businesses in the Bottom for the “emotional ride” that comes with being business owners. And when one business leaves, it’s felt by remaining merchants. “We have a mourning process,” Helland tells me. “It’s a very emotional process. We feel what they’re going through.”
What I get from others, not the owners with whom I spoke, but everyday people, is that Boom Boom Burgers had expensive prices, scant portion sizes, and upheld the unusual practice of not accepting cash. Yet, not all business are immune to the slumping sales that Boom Boom Burgers experienced. McCormack’s Irish Pub, nestled in the heart of Shockoe’s party area, once averaged a monthly revenue of $25,000. It’s now down to $13,000.
But not all businesses suffer from a depleted customer base. Perhaps a current bellwether for an even brighter Shockoe future lies in Juleps. This past Thursday, May 12, the restaurant celebrated their 8-year anniversary. Owner Amy Cabaniss has seen Shockoe improve in the eight years she’s owned Julep’s. She tells me that the city still needs to minimize police presence, enforce existing building codes on dilapidated structures, and improve the quality of the farmers’ market. Virtually all Shockoe business owners agree with her. I ask her how she envisions Shockoe, and she pictures something similar to the historically beautiful and trendy Old Town Alexandria in northern Virginia. She wants to see a “concerted effort” to bring some national chains to the Bottom to encourage traffic, thereby supporting local business by their close proximity. I then ask her about revenue, having already assumed that she’s seen a downswing in business. She hasn’t. “Best year we’ve ever had,” she says.
- Richmond.com: Boom Boom Burgers Closes
- Richmond.com: Mr. Boom Responds
- Shockoe News: Bye-Bye Boom Boom Burgers
Photo by: chucka_nc