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High-Test Tensions at Gas Station Café

Apparently, his gripe isn’t all just sour grapes. The Henrico County Health Department reports it found “several dead roaches throughout the facility” while investigating a complaint Sept. 5. The complainant, who claimed to be a regular customer, wrote in an e-mail to the health department: “Last week I had a roach (German Roach) in my salad and saw a large rat during the same visit.”

The health department didn’t find any rats or mice, and in a follow-up visit later that month found that the roach problem had been solved.

Justin Andress, director of retail operations for Pit Stop Convenience Stores, says the company is “aware of the situation” with Birchall and the health report.

“We’ve made a lot of positive changes,” Andress says. “If anyone has any concerns for any reason, come by and take a look for yourself.”

Andress wouldn’t discuss Birchall’s termination.

He says the recent issues are just “one snapshot” of the Market Café, which opened in 1999 with much fanfare. It was one of the first — if not the first — gourmet restaurant/gas station to open in the country. And in its early days it drew hefty lunch crowds with its upscale food, and wine and beer selections.

“Right now, I have a very bad taste in my mouth,” says Birchall, who’s hired a lawyer. “I’m lying in bed awake thinking about everything that has happened to me.”

Things started to go downhill in late summer, he says, when the restaurant’s gourmet chef, Ken Barber, left the company. Formerly a chef at The Tides Inn in Irvington, Barber designed the menu and was a centerpiece for the 4-year-old restaurant/gas station, which is owned by Pit Stop Convenience Stores, a subsidiary of Mechanicsville-based Woodfin Oil.

Birchall says he built the company’s catering business from practically nothing, about $2,000 a month when he first started in the summer of 2002, by ramping up its corporate business. By December 2002, he says, the catering business was bringing in $25,000 a month. But the company refused to give him the resources to do his job, he says, and the relationship became more strained after Barber left.

At Innsbrook, the gas-and-gourmet concept continues. “I’d just like everybody to stop by and see for themselves,” Andress says. “Very soon, we plan on having an open house to go over some of the new things that we have.” -- Scott Bass

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