The Fan restaurant Six Burner will soon become Heritage, thanks to chef and New Jersey native Joe Sparatta, who with two partners last week bought the eatery from owner Ry Marchant.
Sparatta, 30, moved to Richmond in 2011 and has spent the past year working at Marchant’s other restaurant, Pasture, on East Grace Street. With their newly acquired majority stake in Six Burner, Sparatta, his wife, Emilia, and brother-in-law Mattias Hägglund will close the restaurant at West Main and Vine streets next month and reopen it in October as Heritage.
BizSense caught up with Sparatta last week to chat about Heritage, his background and what it takes to run a successful restaurant in Richmond.
The following is an edited transcript.
Richmond BizSense: How does your deal with Ry Marchant work? Do you now own Six Burner?
Joe Sparatta: We’re buying out the majority of the business. Ry is still going to be a partner. He owns the building, and he’ll be maintaining a minority share.
RBS: When did you find out it was for sale?
JS: It was never really up for sale. He approached us with an offer. I’ve been working at Pasture for the past year, but since I started there I made it very clear that I wanted to open my own restaurant.
It was challenging to find a space with limited funding, and he had managed to successfully use historic tax credits to open Pasture. We wanted to get his advice, so the three of us approached him with our idea. My full intentions to find a space for a restaurant were put out there. That’s when he brought up the idea of buying Six Burner.
RBS: Why was he selling?
JS: He’d put a lot of himself into that restaurant, and I think he was ready to take a step back.
RBS: Why did you move from New Jersey to Richmond?
JS: My wife’s family is from here. We had a couple of offers to open a restaurant up north, but it’s just really challenging as far as financing goes. At Elements, the restaurant we opened in Princeton, N.J., our liquor license was $750,000, and the build-out was $5 million.
Aside from that, I’m really loving the sense of community [in Richmond] — especially the chef community. Everybody is really trying to help each other out. It’s not always that way up north. And I think there is a lot of room for growth here. I think Richmond is becoming the kind of dining destination that Charleston, S.C., is.
We really need to try and connect those dots. A lot of times people coming from New York City will stop in D.C. but will skip Richmond on their way to Charleston. I think we can add to the growing body of great chefs and restaurants doing great things here in Richmond.
RBS: When are you shutting down Six Burner?
Saturday, Sept. 8, is its final service. We’ll get in after that and do some renovations. We should be open Oct. 2.
RBS: How’d you get into the restaurant business?
JS: I’ve been doing this since I was 14. My father was a chef, and I was sort of forced into the restaurant industry to keep me off the street and out of trouble.
My father was the chef at the Ryland Inn. [The Ryland Inn was a well-known French restaurant in Whitehouse Station, N.J. It closed in 2007 after a flood cracked one of the load-bearing beams in the building.] I worked there for a time, and after that I knocked around the typical Italian restaurants in New Jersey.
I was getting pretty tired of it all. So I walked into the Ryland Inn. I talked to Chef Craig Shelton, told him my father had worked here, that I had lived on the grounds and I convinced him to let me help out. I started out working for free for several weeks, and then I started making $6 an hour there for about a year. But it was an incredible learning experience.
I learned to cook in the traditional French style, which is pretty much forced labor and you work your way up. But it was great experience. They were all about teaching and growing cooks into real chefs. By the time I left, I had worked at every station in the kitchen.
RBS: The restaurant industry is notoriously difficult. What’s the secret to a successful restaurant?
JS: It’s really just focusing on your margins and keeping your costs down. The people who just want to throw food on a plate or mix drinks without costing things out — that’s when you fail.
It’s a huge risk, and we know what we’re getting into. The margins you make are slim. But you don’t get into this job to make a lot of money. If we make enough to live and be happy with what I do, that’s enough for me. We’re going to really monitor our costs and focus on getting people in the chairs.
We know we have to keep the price points low. It’s challenging, going from a $32 halibut entree to an $18 flounder entree. And even that’s a lot for down here. Money is tight right now for everybody, and it’s important to remember that.
RBS: There are a lot of restaurants opening locally. How are you going to stand out?
JS: The food we’re doing is going to be elevated. I think Mattias also brings a lot to the equation as well. His cocktail work is some of the best in Richmond, some of the best in Virginia. Up at Elements, he was getting a lot of national press.
He has a great taste for affordable wines. My wife has a great palate for wine, and we’ll have a great wine list. Most people are lucky to have two of those things: a great menu, great cocktails and wine list.
I think having the three of us as a team — we have some serious training.