The tap has been turned off. After 30 years, Mike Byrne, one of city's most outspoken and politically active restaurateurs, is leaving Shockoe Slip after closing Richbrau Brewery Co. last week.
The loss of Richbrau, in addition to the Taphouse Grill next door, also owned and operated by Byrne, comes after two years of struggling through the worst recession in 70 years, Byrne says. Coupled with the recent snowstorms and a severe decline in weekday lunch traffic, Byrne says, the restaurant had become unsustainable.
“It's a perfect storm,” says Byrne, who got his start in the Slip as a bartender at Sam Miller's in 1980, becoming general manager three years later. “It was the worst snow that I've ever experienced in Richmond. Even though that was tough, it was just the overall effect of a really stressed economy at every level.”
It wasn't just the restaurant. Richbrau, which launched at the height of the microbrewery craze in the mid-1990s, sold its beer in local grocery stores. The company also had a healthy corporate catering business.
While Richbrau became a mainstay in the Slip, Byrne gained a reputation as one of the city's most politically outspoken business owners. He served on the Wilder-Bliley Commission, which led to a new city charter and the election of an at-large mayor, and served as a close confidante of former Mayor Doug Wilder, serving on his transition committee and helping to select former Richmond Police Chief Rodney Monroe, and later worked with the committee that hired Police Chief Bryan Norwood in 2008..
Byrne also stood up to City Hall and served as one of the lone voices from the business community protesting meals-tax increases, tax incentives for competing economic-development projects such as the Shockoe Bottom ballpark proposal, which some saw as a potential drain on existing restaurants and businesses.
“Mike is not only a restaurant owner, he was an advocate for local businesses and did a lot for nonprofits,” says Bob Holsworth, longtime political analyst and founder of Virginia Tomorrow, a Web site dedicated to political commentary. “My sense is when the economy rebounds, he'll rebound.”
Byrne hints that he's not done in the restaurant business, but rules out reopening Richbrau, which he and former partner Tom Leppert, who owns Sam Miller's, purchased out of foreclosure in 1995. For now, he's noncommittal.
“What I do know is having a locally made product in a very historic building in an historic neighborhood was a very special thing,” Byrne says. “Richmond should be proud of its neighborhoods.”