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Richmond’s evolving restaurant scene sprawls out to the suburbs

The restaurant industry experienced significant technology and operational changes since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurant owners reconsidered their location in proximity to customers, and in the face of rising costs and evolving consumer choices. Cities that created food scenes now struggle to hold on to them.

Capital News Service

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By Parker Barnes and Sam Bradley

The owner of Tarrant’s Cafe in downtown Richmond is a 20-year veteran of the city’s food scene. She started out waiting tables – now she owns four Richmond-area restaurants and is the CEO of RVA Hospitality.

Liz Kincaid maintains her urban locations, And Dim Sum, Tarrant’s and Bar Solita, but she’s also found success in the Henrico County suburbs with Tarrant’s West.

“Compared to my downtown restaurants, it’s more successful with sales, its guest counts are higher, people are more willing to go out there,” Kincaid said.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant industry has experienced significant technology and operational changes. Restaurant owners reconsidered their locations based on proximity to customers, rising costs, and evolving consumer choices.

In recent years, nearby suburban markets have competed with the city’s nationally recognized culinary scene. The number of food permit requests in the city has decreased compared to pre-pandemic numbers. Meanwhile, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health, food permits in suburban Henrico and Chesterfield counties have trended up compared to 2019.

Both of Kincaid’s Tarrant’s locations have the same menu, so parking and meals taxes are two factors customers consider when they choose which location to dine at, according to Kincaid.

Richmond charges a 7.5% meals tax on all tabs collected within city limits, while Henrico’s tax is 4%. Both collect a 6% local sales tax.

That means any item in Richmond receives a 13.5% cost increase once the bill hits the table.

A beer in Henrico isn’t considered a meal, whereas the same customer’s beer in Richmond would get the meals tax.

Nearby Chesterfield does not have a meals tax. It recently celebrated its first annual restaurant week to showcase local eateries.

Market Impacts

Richmond’s dining scene took a hit during the pandemic as more office employees began, and continued, to work from home.

“We used to do a lot of catering; our lunch business was really thriving,” Kincaid said. “It was 30% of our sales at Tarrant’s Cafe and it’s just never returned, we just don’t have enough people down here in the office to maintain that.”

Food service employees do not have remote work options, which posed a unique problem during lockdowns, according to Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant Lodging & Travel Association.

At least 67,000 less Virginia employees worked in the food and beverage industry in July 2020 when compared to the previous year. That is an almost 22% drop, based on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Employment numbers that took mere months to drop have taken years to climb back.

Washington, D.C. business owners have similarly cited a slow return of in-person government work, according to a report by Restaurant Business.

Closures have amounted to 3,700 industry jobs lost in the district, according to Terry.

“We also had closure of a restaurant a week in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

The district recently passed legislation to change the tip credit system, which allows employers to pay below the minimum wage if tips cover the difference. The base wage for restaurant workers in the district will be raised in July to $10 an hour, plus tips. The base wage was previously $8. The minimum wage for non-tipped workers is $17 an hour, going up 50 cents in July.

 Prices increased in almost all Washington-area restaurants following the pandemic, with an average menu price increase of 16%, according to data from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. The increases followed higher wages and restaurant costs.

 Increased menu prices drive away potential customers, which has negatively impacted tip wages, according to Terry.

 “The way that the tipping world has been set up is that you, the consumer, pay the wages of the server,” Terry said.

Terry points to a price increase of “anywhere from 12% to 18%” to explain why Virginia restaurants have been able to keep doors open.

 “Most restaurants are probably seeing their revenues about stable from before, but the customer counts are down,” Terry said.

Restaurants and Customers Try New Things

The food industry had to pivot due to changes in labor, food selection and technology, according to Mahmood Khan, a Virginia Tech professor of hospitality and tourism management. His most recent book covers restaurant franchising.

Many workers left the industry for other jobs, and the workforce has only recently climbed to near pre-pandemic levels. Restaurant hours have changed, and employees have asked for more scheduling flexibility.

Workers now earn more. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly earnings for Virginia’s leisure and hospitality employees, which includes food services, bumped up to $18.93 last year from $14.82 in 2019.

The coronavirus spurred innovations in the dining experience in an industry historically slow to adopt changes. Established spots were motivated to adapt, and new concepts debuted.

During the height of the pandemic, some restaurants gave out their recipes for quarantine chefs to cook themselves. Others sold groceries when they had supplies stores lacked, according to Khan. Everyone pivoted to takeout.

Delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats have become ubiquitous in the food scene. Restaurant designers now incorporate parking spaces for delivery drivers and shelves at the front for food pickup.

Tips were “significantly sadder” for Amanda Philipp when Sheppard Street Tavern stopped dine-in service. Philipp, a bartender in Richmond for 10 years, says patronage and tips have begun to return.

Philipp hopes customers will approach this return to normalcy with patience for the employees who provide food, drinks, care and hospitality.

“As long as we’re here, we’re still gonna be that smiling face,” Philipp said. “We’re your friends, we’re that face of humanity that hopefully will never go away.”

Richmond-Area Dining Community

Customers respond to these changes with their wallets. Many are more conservative with their funds than before the pandemic, according to Robey Martin, a longtime local food writer and host of the Eat It, Virginia! podcast.

“Discretionary dollars are not what they were,” Martin said.

Martin covers the food scene in Richmond and other areas of Virginia. She knows the industry’s challenges, ebbs and flows — and impact of the “relatively large food tax.”

“It’s killing our city restaurants,” Martin said. “It’s astronomical.”

According to Martin, breweries and distilleries help support fledgling suburban markets. These community spaces give new opportunities for restaurant concepts to visit the suburbs.

“Those have brought a lot of liveliness to the suburban areas,” Martin said. It gives you a place to gather and get food you wouldn’t normally get because it’s a food truck or a pop-up.”

Experienced chefs relocating past city limits are another boon to the suburbs.

This trend began before the pandemic. Walter Bundy, former executive chef at Lemaire, opened Shagbark in 2016 in the midtown Libbie Mill area, just west of city limits. Acacia Midtown also opened nearby last year, run by Richmond Restaurant Week founders Dale and Aline Reitzer.

Michael Lindsey’s Lindsey Food Group opened Farm + Oak West End in Henrico late last year.

“He’s probably the largest Black-owned restaurant group on the East Coast,” Martin said. “He’s pushing some wonderful restaurants out into those areas that don’t often see local ownership.”

The experience is what it’s all about, regardless of location, according to Martin.

“It’s never, ever about the food – it is always about the companion,” Martin said. “It’s always about the service, and it’s always about what the memory is.”

Although there are some “burgeoning” suburban food scenes, Martin’s reviews don’t have as much impact beyond city limits, she said. The city is still hungry for its food scene and the competition and community it brings.

According to Kincaid, Richmond’s downtown restaurants have benefited from an increase in tourism in recent years. A strong percentage of her business comes from out-of-town visitors to the nearby convention center and hotels.

Yet, Kincaid appreciates being part of a close-knit restaurant community in the Richmond area. She is in an email chain with over 50 owners, where they ask for recommendations and can count on each other for help if needed.

“I don’t always see that in some of the bigger cities; it can be very competitive,” Kincaid said. “So I think we’ve still got that small-town mentality to help each other out.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.