Hilda Staples has opened six restaurants in as many years with Top Chef contestants Bryan Voltaggio and Mike Isabella. She dishes on the differences between DC and RVA and how she makes the magic happen.
This is not Hilda’s first rodeo. Since 2008, Hilda Staples has opened six restaurants. Today, her latest, Mike Isabella’s Graffiato Richmond opens to near-Beatles-level anticipation. But for Hilda, the process of opening a restaurant in Richmond has been frustratingly long and uniquely taxing, despite her extensive experience.
“I’m kind of terrified of Richmond,” Staples says with a quick laugh. “It’s been pretty horrific. I’ve opened about half a dozen restaurants. This has been the single worst experience of my life,” she admits. “VOLT was right up there because of the historical renovation,” she says, comparing the ordeal to her first restaurant project, VOLT in Frederick, MD.
When I met Staples in 2008, she was standing on the front steps of the Houck mansion, an imposing Victorian building on Market Street in Frederick, MD. Staples was radiant with energy and confidence. Over the next few months, she and Bryan Voltaggio, his sous chef Graeme Ritchie, beverage guys Neil and Aaron, and a staff of 30 oddballs and novices–including myself–would painstakingly transform the 200-year-old mansion into a culinary destination. We memorized menus. We swept fresh drywall dust off the new marble tile as more sprinkled down on us. It was hot and dusty and weird, full of anticipation. Almost every relationship in the restaurant was new; no one knew what to expect. Hilda was there every day, it seemed, often on the phone or directing contractors with a purposeful sense of urgency.
“There, we were dealing with a historic property, and the costs of opening a business there were really bad,” she recalls. Her experience with VOLT would pave the way for Staples to open three more concepts with Voltaggio as well as the original Graffiato with Voltaggio’s Top Chef buddy, Isabella. But in Richmond, Staples says redundant and conflicting permitting issues from the city stalled the Graffiato opening date on several occasions. In one instance, Staples explains, the city refused to allow a lighted sign to replace the existing Popkin sign, citing a prohibition on lighted signs. The Popkin sign lit up Broad Street for four years, but sure, OK.
The decision to open in Richmond was largely Hilda’s husband’s, Jonathan Staples: “He loves Richmond. He grew up here…He pretty much signed the lease [on the former Popkin Tavern space] and said ‘You’re doing it.'” Jonathan’s enthusiasm for RVA and a friendship with fellow Richmond advocate Travis Croxton (of Rappahanock Oyster Co) made the river city an obvious choice: “[Jonathan] has a big sense of place and where he is and has always loved Richmond. It’s a great town. He loves the town. You can’t help but get sucked up in his passion for something.”
Despite the logistical setbacks, Staples says the hiring process in Richmond was actually much better compared to the highly competitive atmosphere in DC: “In DC, it’s torture because there’s so much growth, there’s so much competition. We had excellent turnouts at our open houses. Compared to DC, it’s been fantastic. There was lots of great talent here.” Graffiato’s staff is made up of mostly locals, with about ten percent coming directly from Graffiato DC’s management team, and several, including beverage manager Tatha Ismael, splitting time between the two. “If there’s something you love at Graffiato DC, it will be here too,” Staples notes.
Hilda’s not finished with Richmond yet. She will open Family Meal with Bryan Voltaggio at Willow Lawn early next year. Ultimately, Hilda says she’ll be better prepared for round two: “What we’ve learned is that we have to put people who are qualified for the job in the job from the start.” And after this, her first ‘long-distance’ relationship with a restaurant, Hilda has learned the value of being on the ground personally. “The lesson learned is, if you’re not there 24/7, you have to get someone who knows what they’re doing.”
In the early days at VOLT, Hilda’s presence in the dining room was a cause for attention. She’d often entertain friends and investors from a table directly overlooking the open kitchen. The chefs, Bryan included, would adjust their posture when she entered the kitchen and would prepare to answer her questions as gracefully as possible. She was genuinely interested, curious; and we all wanted to impress her.
Six years later, she is even more commanding and confident. Over drinks, Hilda casually mentions that she’s adopted five children from Burma. Maybe I should be surprised, but I’m not. She retells a heartbreaking story: Three years ago, she read about a family who escaped from Burma to the US. Within weeks, the five children, ages 12 – 19, lost both parents leaving them facing separation from one another in the child services system. Hilda and Jonathan reached out to the writer at the paper to see how they could ‘help’ the kids and eventually took them in and made them a part of their own family.
Balancing seven restaurants and seven kids may be a Herculean undertaking, but when I ask her how she manages it all, Staples downplays what she does and credits technology and a well-trained staff for her success: “For me, it’s not like I work the floor everyday. Thank goodness for technology. I can see everything that happens all the time by looking at one screenshot. I have some wonderful people who work for me…It’s huge, but again I can do it from one central location. I don’t need to be on-site at every restaurant. It goes back to hiring really great people who can do something like that on their own.”
Photo by: Greg Powers