Over the river and through the woods, Bon Air has become a destination for young families, and several restaurateurs are following their lead.
With promises of better schools, bigger homes, and lower taxes; counties surrounding Richmond city are filling up with young families looking for a more comfortable lifestyle. With the changing demographic, places like Bon Air are beginning to adapt and reflect the tastes and preferences of new residents. Local, independent stores and restaurants are on the rise. Three of them–Perk! Bon Air, Southbound, and Brew Gastropub–are set to open by the end of 2014.
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Driving from her Bon Air home to her sons’ preschool every morning, Christophile Konstas was starved for options. She could have her choice of big chain coffee drinks and sad pre-packaged food, but that’s not what she wanted for herself or her kids. In those precious, tenuous hours of life called “The Morning” when survival is uncertain, Konstas was constantly frustrated by the lack of decent, independent establishments in the neighborhood.
She and friends Jay Metzler and Elizabeth Ellen decided to do something about it and set about the process of opening Perk! Bon Air in the Buford Shopping Center. “We all have kids now, and we all have less time now. We’re spread thinner with work, home, and all the activities in between,” says Konstas. “But we still crave a great cup of coffee and homemade food alternatives.” All three of them have spent extensive time living in more urban environments and craved the independent options they’d grown used to there. “We felt that was lacking in Bon Air.”
“Just because a lot of us have left the city for the space and comfort of the ‘burbs doesn’t mean we want to surrender our tastes to the big-box corporate machine,” says Konstas. “And we especially yearn to support local and independent businesses.”
Konstas and Metzler, who both live in Bon Air, have been busy connecting with their local community at town meetings and school events, such as the upcoming Bon Air Village Fair. “Everyone has been so encouraging and supportive,” notes Konstas. “We can’t wait to open and help sustain that community spirit!” All three owners are parents of young children, and creating a space for them at Perk! was a big priority: “Because we are all parents, it was really important for us to create a family-friendly space. We plan on tailoring our menu to offer many kid-friendly options, and we will have a safety-gated tots corner in the back,” Konstas says.
The trio anticipates a mid-December opening date and are launching a Kickstarter campaign to finance the purchase of their Nuova Simonelli Aurelia II-2 Group Semi Automatic espresso machine. It’s essentially the Sophia Loren of espresso machines, and, as would be expected, it comes with a hefty price tag. Rewards range from your standard merch, to free coffee for a year, to (drum roll please) a private dinner for six, prepared by James Beard nominated chef Lee Gregory. So, if you are wondering what to get me for Winter Holiday, now you know.
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Speaking of Lee Gregory, much like the Perk! crew, southsiders Lee Gregory and Joe Sparatta were tired of having to cross a bridge for good food, and they knew they weren’t alone. “Lee’s lived out here for a couple more years than I have,” explains Sparatta. “And once we really started being friends, he kept ringing in my ear, like, ‘You should open in Southside one day…'”
The chefs agreed there weren’t any restaurants that excited them in their neighborhood. “There are a couple that have been around but nothing new or…progressive,” says Sparatta. “Galley is doing a good job, but that’s kind of the only place that people can really go in Southside, in general. There really just aren’t a lot of options.” The two knew they weren’t going to be satisfied unless they took matters into their own hands. They announced earlier this year they would join forces to open Southbound in the Stony Point Shopping Center.
Both Gregory and Sparatta are family men and felt it was important to provide, not only good food, but food for the whole family. The Southbound menu will include a separate kids menu, with dishes featuring organic produce and house-made pasta: “We’re going to try to make it so it’s actually some healthy options as opposed to chicken fingers and all the fried nonsense that they’re accustomed to,” explains Sparatta.
“We want to encourage people to have a place to bring their families and be comfortable,” says Sparatta. “There are a lot of families that live out here, and it’s important not to exclude them. We’re going to try to provide options for picky kids and adventurous eaters.”
Southbound, which is set to open in November, will reflect Sparatta and Gregory’s culinary styles, under the direction of current Heritage sous chef Craig Perkinson and a team of service and bar managers that are currently in the process of training the front-of-the-house and kitchen staff. Sparatta explains how he and Gregory will run Southbound in addition to their responsibilities at Heritage and The Roosevelt: “Lee and I are developing menus in conjunction with Craig. We’ll be in there getting it how we want it to be, especially in the beginning.”
Like Perk! and Brew Gastropub, Southbound will call a shopping center its home, specifically the Stony Point Shopping Center, not to be confused with the mall, which is its own thing. “I never thought I would ever want to do anything in a strip mall, but it certainly made sense, at least in this area.” Property management has made the process of opening Southbound much easier for the two chefs than what they were used to in the city. Being on private property has made the process of creating an outdoor dining area, for example, much easier than it would be on if the restaurant opened onto a city sidewalk. “They want to have us there, and they’ve made it pretty nice to be entering this area.”
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Same song, third verse! For everyone in the counties looking for local coffee and non-chain restaurants, there was at least one fuzzy-bearded Bon Air transplant wondering where he could find his beloved craft beer. So it’s fitting that Chesterfield’s Brew Gastropub would choose the fringes of Bon Air for its second location.
Brew manager Jessica Brown describes their new spot at the Shoppes at Bellgrade: “It’s a great location, and there’s not really a lot [of restaurants] doing the same thing we are. It’s new for that area,” says Brown, who also lives in Bon Air. Her friends and neighbors are eager for Brew’s November opening date: “People are really excited, calling us every day, asking when we’re going to open.”
The reason for the buzz is familiar: “You have to go to the city to get what we have,” says Brown. “Craft beer is exploding right now. We’ve got that covered.” More than doubling their already impressive 30 taps with a staggering 70 taps of craft beer and cider, the newest Brew Gastropub is ready to deliver what the people want.
Bar manager James Vance will oversee beverage programs at both locations. The additional taps will continue on the theme of high-quality craft beer from around the world. Attention to the smallest detail will be as important as ever, down to the house-made mixers and sugar cane sodas.
As for the food, Brown says the second Brew will offer the same style but some different selections and likely, eventually, brunch as well. Brew’s menu will continue to focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients, prepared from scratch because that’s what their customers have come to expect. Brew owner Karen Verdisco adds, “Brew is a beer-centric restaurant, but we are as passionate about our food offerings as what we put on tap.”
Like the teams at Perk and Southbound, connecting with the community is a top priority. Creating a welcoming environment close to home is essential to their success: “We like to feel like a family. We know the majority of people that walk in our door, and we want to continue to focus on that.” Verdisco adds, “We are successful because we have great loyal customers that appreciate our offerings and support our vision. They come back and bring friends.”
Photo by: TownMapUsa.com