Virus brings Tazza’s Big Kitchen concept back to life


John and Susan Davenport have revived their drive-thru concept in Scott’s Addition. (BizSense file photo)

While many local restaurants have closed abruptly during the coronavirus downturn, one Richmond restaurant group quickly reopened an outpost in Scott’s Addition it had closed when the economy was stronger.

The owners of Tazza Kitchen have revived their Big Kitchen prepared-meals-to-go drive-thru concept at 1600 Altamont Ave., after previously closing it in favor of a new restaurant they were creating before the pandemic struck.

Early last month, co-owner Susan Davenport said they stopped the conversion and scrambled to clean up the drive-thru bay to get the kitchen back online. Now they’re operating with a skeleton crew and increased sanitation standards. They made the move just in time to try to pick up business in the age of social-distancing-driven to-go orders.

“It was a mess. We had construction equipment everywhere. But we got the kitchen back up and running, and resurrected the drive-thru for prepared meals,” Davenport said. “We guessed that people would be interested in this sort of thing again.”

The initial wind-down of the year-old Big Kitchen in Scott’s Addition began last fall after Davenport, along with co-owners John Davenport, Jeff Grant and John Haggai, decided it was time for a change. In January, the group began converting the space into a new full-service restaurant, but still operated the Short Pump location of Big Kitchen.

Then in February, after a few of the group’s partners went to Los Angeles to do research for the new, still-under-wraps concept, Susan said they began bracing for the pandemic, long before most others.

“By the end of February we got the sense something was going to change, and put the whole new concept on hold. We started hunkering down,” she said. “We said we should slow down and watch this virus.”

Davenport said they began making preparatory changes at their six Tazza Kitchen locations before closing them in early March, which was a hard pill for their employees to swallow.

“We were watching restaurants in New York and Seattle. It was a little bit harder for our employees to absorb. They were like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ But they’ve been wonderful and great and understand that this is a global crisis,” she said.

In addition to changing course and bringing back Big Kitchen, they also decided to reopen their Tazza locations for curbside pickup. The switch to delivery and takeout has been mandatory for many following an executive order by Gov. Ralph Northam last month. Breweries and craft beverage producers have followed suit.

Davenport said Tazza and Big Kitchen business has been solid, but far from profitable.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised at how steady the business has been, but the overhead in a restaurant on that kind of real estate, it’ll never be covered just by to-go,” she said. “We make our margins on alcohol sales and volume, and you’re never going to make that on to-go with a limited menu.”

She said the need for more packaging also has cut into their margins, that packaging is becoming harder to get and that craft breweries soon may face that same issue.

Healthcare workers and others directly affected by the virus have comprised a large client base for Big Kitchen. Davenport said last week they sold around 100 meals to VCU Health workers and another 50 to people staying at The Doorways, a nonprofit providing lodging to patients and families who need to be near hospitals.

The group’s plan is to eventually close the Big Kitchen in Scott’s Addition and continue working on the new concept. But for the time being, they’ll keep the Big Kitchen running to provide revenue as well as a sense of direction by providing food for those who need it now.

“It’s not a long-term model, but we’re hoping we can keep it up throughout this whole time period. We’re working with some other nonprofits around town, too,” Davenport said. “You always question, are we doing the right thing? But this has been really meaningful.”

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