Getting to the Bottom of Boom Boom’s Closing

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.


Photo by: chucka_nc

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Justin on said:

    Excellent article and great reporting, Nathan.

    My favorite part of this whole thing is that Eftekhair-Asl’s business was only open for 3 months, and he blamed “changing” conditions in the Bottom for killing it. Business conditions in the Bottom haven’t changed significantly in just three months. Regardless of whether his conclusions were wrong or right about which businesses thrive in the Bottom, he should have come to those conclusions by researching the area before he even opened his restaurant.

    Kudos to Nathan and RVAnews for giving a voice to business owners who succeed in the area, and for not shying away from a difficult topic.

  2. Tony on said:

    In my opinion, it’s not the clubs that drag Shockoe Bottom down, but rather the sheer volume of run-down, empty buildings and seemingly abandoned lots. Imagine what good a modern minor-league ballpark would do down here.

  3. Tweeter on said:

    Tony – I haven’t seen “sheer volume” of run-down buildings in Shockoe…

  4. Chris Munton on said:

    I think one of the mistakes being made done in the nottom for the clubs is allowing 18+ to come in. I get Richmond needs places for its 18-20 crowd, but when you try to mix a club that sells alcohol and cater to the underage its tenuous at best on keeping it contained.

    I personally worked at a club for 8 years in the bottom and can tell you I experienced more problems, incidents and disruption when we had a combination crowd. I am not saying it is the lynch pin of why Shockoe Bottom isn’t working but it does lead to many issues.

    I feel that most of the business owners are working towards making the Bottom a better place to come. Either by creating more businesses or just making an impact and cleaning it up.

    The Farmers Market has to be addressed. I used to love coming down and buying fresh produce from the market. Currently the market is a hit or miss. Some days you may get some great produce others it scarce and empty.

    Not sure what the final answer is, and really I now very little about what is “Truly” going on there. I just hope changes can be made.

  5. Robert on said:

    The night club part of the Bottom is so F’ed up, that it might be fun again to hang out in the Bottom. Viva violence, race riots, and open air sex!

  6. Sarah on said:

    Boom Boom could have thrived if not for the incredibly small menu offering, high prices and inconsistent service. Church Hill residents would LOVE to have more businesses open in the Shockoe area with a locally-sourced philosophy, it just needs to be executed better to last longer than three months.

  7. Sara on said:

    I’m not saying Boom Boom didn’t implode because of its own internal volatility, I know nothing about the business itself, other than they sold burgers.

    What I can comment on is the fact there is indeed a decline happening in The Bottom.

    I lived at 17th and Walnut Alley for over 3 years, and this is just scratching the surface of what I observed…

    This even more disturbing footage happened relatively recently at 18th and Cary (you will have to sign in to see it because of its graphic nature)…

    I have driven an ambulance for almost 14 years in this city, trust me… Which thing in particular caused a local eatery to close is largely irrelevant- there ARE real problems in that community. And they need to be addressed.

    I fought for years to stay rooted as a resident of Shockoe Bottom, and patronize its establishments, but I gave up. I now live elsewhere.

    I would go back in a heart beat if The Bottom got its act together.

  8. Congrats to Nathan for threading the needle on this article and dealing straight up with peoples concerns and managing not to sling mud or throw stones.


    After decades of development Shockoe Bottom still has stretches of rundown and vacant storefronts. That’s a real downer nearby business owners and potential customers who are spooked away.

    Sarah, I think you are right on the money. The bottom will never reach it’s potential as an entertainment hub till it addresses real problems of public safety. It just takes one bad night to spoil months of hard work trying to clean things up. Shockoe Bottom should be jammed each night with something other than late night club crowds. We can strive for better than a culture of “intimidation, violence, and sexual glorification”

  9. Alix B. on said:

    Lot of effort that went into this Nathan. Excellent work.

  10. I love this! Excellent reporting! I live in the Bottom, and have often wondered why some places seem to be closing and attributed a lot of it to the rowdy clubs and the fact that the space needed a lot of other improvements as well.

  11. A really useful addendum to this story is Cafe Gutenberg’s clarification about their decision to close at 17th and Main. They were unfortunately mischaracterized in recent press (and BoomBoom’s notorious parting shot). You might be surprised by their feelings about Shockoe Bottom.

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