One Sunday evening in mid-December, a small group gathers around a table at the Broken Tulip restaurant but it’s not ordering dinner. Instead, it’s taking a class on gingerbread house decorating with local event planner, Katie Taylor. It’s one of many regular events at the Broken Tulip that are more about community than food.
It’s a promising strategy in a year when Richmond has more than doubled its rate of restaurant openings, according to the Virginia Department of Health. That means restaurants face increasing competition to attract both customers and employees. Combine that with the looming threat of an economic downturn, and it’s clear that not all local eateries will survive.
Some neighborhood restaurants are digging in on that neighborhood part, holding community events where the food is sometimes incidental. While that may be a smart strategy for long-term business survival, it’s also just plain fun.
“The more we work in restaurants, the more meaning we look for outside of what people generally consider a restaurant,” says Sariann Lehrer, co-owner of the Broken Tulip. “The most rewarding part of our job is building relationships with people that are tangential to putting a plate of food in front of someone.”
Lehrer and her husband, David Crabtree-Logan, moved to Richmond in 2017 knowing only her dad’s college roommate. They created the social eatery aspect of the Broken Tulip as a way to meet people and they’ve quickly integrated into the community. The restaurant’s busy December calendar included markets featuring local artists, several holiday food and decorating workshops, a cookie swap and contest, and a regular Wednesday night knitting group and wine tasting.
“Everyone knows that running a restaurant is really freaking hard. So we built in things to make it a sustainable way for us to live our life,” says Lehrer, an avid knitter. “Events bring people into the space, they see it’s really nice and cozy, and they come back for dinner.”
The restaurant’s December cookie exchange felt like a family holiday party. Guests arrived bearing platters of homemade cookies and exchanged hugs as they set up one of the restaurant’s long communal tables. Armed with glasses of wine, people got creative at a glittery cookie decorating station. Crying babies were passed around while older ones toddled through the room. Crabtree-Logan chatted with guests through the kitchen pass-through window while Lehrer topped off wine glasses.
Lehrer’s motivation may have been as much business as social, but at the Shaved Duck, marketing director Lauren Wrenn appreciates the power of making local connections.
“It’s very personal,” Wren says. “We are family-owned and operated so getting to know the people is just as fun as having a full restaurant.”
The Shaved Duck has played host to events with a dozen nonprofits over the past year, including the Richmond’s Alzheimer’s Association, Golden Retriever Rescue Education and Training and Bike for the Blue, a police organization. Wrenn invites the organization to attend and help promote the restaurant’s brunch, including presenting or sharing literature during the meal. The restaurant donates 10% of that brunch’s proceeds to the charity.
“It’s a great way to get to know leaders in the community,” Wrenn says. “Then these contacts will call us back for private dining. It’s a relationship. We support one another’s position as an organization.”
The Shaved Duck also holds events with Yaymaker, a local company known for its paint nights and other group craft events. Guests purchase tickets in advance, then attend the event in the restaurant. Although they usually purchase food and drinks while painting or crafting, that’s not the primary business goal for the evening. Wrenn has her eye on more long-term profits.
“They tell you the magic number for restaurants is three years, and we are at two, in the thick of the hardest part,” Wrenn says. “These events are great because we get exposure to different areas about town. It’s excellent when you work with different groups because they have supporters all over the place.”
Wide support is what keeps a small business operating, and smart restauranteurs recognize that they need to think more like business owners than chefs or food experts. As food competition increases in Richmond, this kind of community cross-pollination may be the key to long-term survival.