An iconic, eight-sided building where farmers and butchers hocked their wares in the late 1800s, only to stand dormant years later like a brick-and-mortar time capsule, re-opened its doors last month in a flourish of optimism driven by an award-winning restaurateur.
Frits Huntjens, a James Beard Award finalist, and one of the visionaries behind the effort to restore and revive the 1879 octagonal farmers market building in the heart of Petersburg, Va., has been smiling ear-to-ear since he opened the Farmers Market Restaurant & Bar in late January.
The place has been jammed every night, he says.
Old timers and new swap stories of their experiences in the 10,000 square-foot building, which served as a dance hall after the farmer’s market closed, and as a scene-setting backdrop for several movies, including Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln and PBS series Mercy Street.
Now the plan is to help breathe new life into the downtown area following a $2 million revival effort led by Huntjens along with local developer Tom Wilkinson and Alexander “Sandy” Graham Jr., according to an article in Richmond Biz Sense.com.
In this week’s Recipe for Success Q&A, Huntjens discusses the odyssey of his new restaurant.
Q: Why did you open a restaurant in a large, octagonal farmers market?
Sandy Graham, an attorney from Richmond, has another historic building right across the street. He restored it and allows people to hold small weddings there. He spent a lot of time looking at this building when he came up with the idea, about four-and-half years ago, to renovate it and make it something of a tourist attraction.
Q: It was pretty famous in its heyday.
Twenty years ago it was a type of dancehall that served food. It was very popular in the whole region, and we found that out when we opened our restaurant at the end of January, when all these people came back to see our restaurant. And it seemed everybody had a story about the place.
It’s one of the most iconic buildings in Petersburg, and is situated in the middle of our historic district. We have a Civil War era railroad directly behind us, and battlefields and fortifications nearby.
Q: It sounds like a natural tourist destination.
As entrepreneurs we’re hoping to capitalize on the historic significance of the area and put up billboards on I-95 to attract people. We’re hoping our restaurant will help generate more traffic into Old Towne. All the businesses are on board for this, and very supportive of what we’re trying to do.
Q: What about the dining experience?
We’ve tried to take our menu to the next level, going above what people might expect, or be used to. We have a wow building, wow food, and a wow bourbon selection.
We have seating for over 200 and serve seafood dishes like crispy rockfish, broiled flounder, raw oysters, lobster and clams. We also serve pork belly, duck breast and braised beef.
Q: What has been the great challenge in this new endeavor?
We have 55 employees and we’re still adding to that number. Our challenges have been more technical, dealing with our systems for point of sale and data entry. If you make one small mistake in the data entry, it changes the price. So we’re working on that, and also on training people properly.
Q: How did your late January opening go?
It went extremely well! We’ve had 300 people every day, and that’s a significant number. We’re open for lunch and dinner and we’ve been hopping since we opened. — Farmers Market Restaurant & Bar uses Boxerbrand’s Linen Naturals and Iridescents in its menu cover presentation.