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City Isn't at Fault for Restaurant Closing

I read, with a great deal of interest, the comments of Je Depew on the Back Page ("Bad Aftertaste," Dec. 26), where she outlined her failure to maintain her restaurant in the neighborhood I have called home for a number of years.

Residents of Church Hill and Union Hill have always been on the outskirts of the activity of the city's nightlife, so when a new outlet opens, we are delighted to support and encourage its operation. Jumpin' J's Java was a great addition to the neighborhood, and all the neighbors were eager to support the venture.

Her comments concerning her failure surprised me, however, when she centered her failure on the actions of the city. While we have all had our moments of angst in dealing with City Hall, we seem to be able to work within the system and get things resolved. The recent addition of the neighborhood to the list of old and historic districts shows that we can work the system. My dealings with the planning department, architectural review, health department, assessors' office, etc., have not been easy, but have reached a satisfactory resolution.

It seems that the root of her failure is not in the city's actions so much as in her own. My visits to her restaurant have been experiences of well-prepared food, exceedingly high prices and appalling service. The success of a restaurant is tenuous, in the best of circumstances, so a business plan that takes in the essence of one's neighborhood is necessary to make it in this market. Je never got it.

I live a block from her restaurant. I would have wanted to go there on a regular basis if the meals were comfortable, reasonably priced and I felt welcome when I went there. Her apology for being surly was a very telling point about the reception many of us got when dealing with her.

She says that Richmond is not a city that embraces change. I disagree. Change is all around us. Look at the successes on Broad Street in the arts district. Would a Comfort, a Tarrant's Café, a 27 have succeeded five years ago? Probably not. Richmonders will accept change, as long as the change-maker provides a service or a product that warrants its loyalty and support. Je never got it.

I'm sorry that Jumpin' J's failed. It is a loss for our neighborhood and a loss for Richmond. I hope we will attract some visionary souls to take on the goals that attracted Je to start her business in our thriving part of town.

Bill Hartsock

Je Depew's story is an awfully familiar tale in the restaurant world of Richmond … tragic, yet predictable. As a veteran of three restaurant openings within the city limits (Zeus Gallery Café, '91; Avenue 805, '00; Café Rustica, '07), I've experienced the inadequacies of the municipal machine and luckily persevered.

The left hand of Richmond's Department of Community Development is apparently not acquainted with its other left hands of zoning and permits, and so it requires a lot of corrective handshaking, cajoling, head-banging, aspirin, shouting, spitting, name-calling, unnecessary photocopying, attempted bribing and baked goods.

While I have no idea what nine other restaurants or in what other places and under what circumstances Ms. Depew opened the ventures she mentioned, I'm sure none of them came easily, but no restaurant does.

Despite the need for businesses in the Church/Union Hill neighborhoods, it's not the city's fault that her café went under, nor the residents of the city that ignored her business. She opened in a questionable location for the product she was providing (quality coffee, tea, scones and other baked goods) on the main thoroughfare from City Hall to the last public housing courts in the city. It's a very tight and kind neighborhood (I lived there for 10 years), but it's still not ready for a full-service, funky/chic eatery.

It's a labor of love and/or desperation for any small, independent restaurant to survive under the best circumstances. Doing your homework, weighing the odds, canvassing the neighborhood and clicking your heels three times helps, but being an entrepreneur is always a gamble. Je Depew was a pioneer in starting her shop on Jefferson, and bless her spunk for the attempt, but she's got no business whining about her loss.

Andy Howell

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