Will Richey has made a name for himself in the Charlottesville food and beverage scene with ventures such as Revolutionary Soup, The Whiskey Jar, The Alley Light, and The Pie Chest. With a family farm and new restaurant in the works, Richey never stops evolving to meet the requests of his staff and patrons.
We took a trip to The Whiskey Jar to catch up with Richey and discuss the finer points of his ever-progressing industry.
Interview: Will Richey
How long have you lived in Charlottesville?
I have been here since 1998. My mother grew up in Charlottesville and my Grandmother still lived here. My father was a UVA grad and my Brother had moved to Cville in the early 1990's so I had a lot of ties here. I was in college at the time and moved to transfer to UVA because of the family ties and because I loved the town from my many visits.
Can you give us a little background into your career in the restaurant business?
Ha, well I worked at an ice cream shop when I was 16 and started managing it soon after, then I starting working at a deli which I managed through High School. In college I did not work food but I started educating myself about wine, reading books, buying magazines and tasting all I could.
When I moved to Charlottesville I began working at a bakery and continued learning about wine. I began working at The Wine Warehouse and fully steeped myself in wine education. Then, in 2001 I started working at l'etoile restaurant and soon became the front of house manager and wine steward. I left l'etoile to distribute wine for 2 years and then returned and teamed up with an old friend Josh Zanoff who moved to town to work with me at l'etoile. We began a catering company and he taught me to cook while I ran the wine service and hospitality side of the business. At this point I thought wine would be my career but then after several years of trying to turn our business into a restaurant I ended up buying Rev Soup on my own in 2005 and started working there as the cook.
Josh came in for the first year to continue to help me develop as a cook and establish a solid menu. We then opened Rev Soup corner in 2007. In 2008 my son Alston was born and I got to be a stay at home dad with him for 3 years.
During that time, to keep my mind in the game, I started The Wine Guild of Charlottesville with my good friends as it was a good wine business model that I could run from home while I raised my son.
In 2011 the Rev Soups were going well and were then some of the top locally sourced food restaurants in the market. It has always been about working with local food, people and community. My wife and I bought a Farm in Esmont called Red Row Farm where we would grow the majority of our Summer produce for the two Rev Soups along with some pigs, rabbit, eggs and ducks. In 2012 the opportunity to open The Whiskey Jar appeared.
I wanted to do a restaurant that spoke of my family place like the French wine I so admired spoke of it's place in France. Most of my family is from the South, North Carolina and Virginia. I wanted to be regional, seasonal and locally sourced on a whole other level and that was what we did with the Whiskey Jar. For the first 2 years I was the executive chef of the Whiskey Jar working lunches and expediting dinners cooking recipes mostly from my family. It was and still is awesome and an amazing place to work and eat.
In 2014 I was able to back off from the line at Whiskey Jar some and wanted to open a restaurant that appealed to my earlier more formal side, I put myself back in the front of house as wine steward and opened The Alley Light with long time friend Jose De Brito as head chef cooking the food I had always loved from France, the food that best went with the wines I love.
Last year, in 2015 we had the opportunity to open The Pie Chest. This came about due to the extraordinary baking talent of Rachel Pennington. I really had no place in a baking kitchen expect for the business know how. The Pie Chest was a way to feature the talents of a good friend and an extraordinary gift. Now we are opening the Bebedero, another restaurant that I will be a business, aesthetic and service consultant in.
How does owning and operating a farm influence the decisions you make as a restaurant owner?
It is hard to coordinate. No restaurant staff likes not knowing what they are getting and will have to cook. In the 5 years we have been farming every season has been different. Some years there are abundant crops and I show up with my truck full and I ride around to each restaurant and ask them what they can take. Sometimes they don't want it all so I find out which restaurant has the most bandwidth and take it all there and stay to help them develop specials that will feature an abundance of fresh produce. It's a funny system and sometimes my team gets mad at me but it is the only way to keep up with nature and be as local as we can be without waste.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced since opening your restaurants?
Staffing is hard, Partnerships are hard, meeting customer expectations are sometimes challenging but it is all the stuff of restauranting. Dealing with Government agencies can be the most challenging, changes in regulations, tax increases that seemed focused on our industry, restaurants often seem a target for taxes. Even the regulatory departments like health and abc can be challenging at times if you end up with a difficult agent.
How has the “farm-to-table” approach impacted your cocktail menus?
It has really helped us carve out a regional flavor here. More interesting then what is grown for cocktail preparations is what is foraged in the mountains around this area. I guess that's not farm to table as much as woods to table but it is in a similar vein and has really made a more exciting and distinctive flavor for what our bartenders are putting together. The freshness of locally grown herbs, fruits and produce make a difference in a large way as well. Good cocktails rely on aromatics, something that itself relies on freshness which is hard to get from a commodity vendor.
Of the 125 rye, bourbon, scotch, Irish whisky, and whiskeys featured on The Whiskey Jar’s menu, do you have a favorite?
Wild Turkey Rare Breed is my favorite whiskey and Bourbon is my favorite spirit.
Any projects coming up that you are excited about?
The Bebedero will be our Mexican restaurant and will feature an exciting Tequilla and Mezcal program.
What are your favorite dishes in each restaurant?
The Pork Chop at Whiskey Jar. The 90's Club at Rev Soup, The Sweet Breads at Alley Light and Lemon Chess Pie at Pie Chest.
Do you have any advice for a the new restaurant owner or someone who is thinking about opening their own place?
This is not a business, it's something one does for the love of service, hospitality, the art of food and libation and the joy in creating a memory for people to enjoy and we are grateful to carve a living out of this joy. Also a good ability to endure prolonged chaos is helpful.
- 2 oz. Belle Isle Premium Moonshine
- 1 oz. fresh grapefruit juice
- 3/4 oz. honey syrup (1:1)
- 1/2 oz. yellow chartreuse
- 1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 oz. Aperol
Shake and top with ice, garnish with lemon wheel.
Recipe courtesy of The Whiskey Jar
Photography by Alexander Kreher.