A Shockoe Bottom restaurant space is swapping a brick oven for deep fryers as a Cajun beignet food truck goes brick-and-mortar.
Cafe Beignet RVA has signed on to open in the former Carmela’s space at 3 N. 17th St. near the 17th Street Farmers Market. Brittany Williams is behind the concept, which will be a new stationary offshoot of the mobile fried pastry business she’s had on the road locally since last year.
Williams, a self-described military brat, said she spent stretches of her childhood in Louisiana and Mississippi with her mother’s family, where she learned Cajun cooking from a young age.
“I’ve been cooking since I was literally out of the womb,” she said. “We all are very rooted in food. That’s the topic of all events and gatherings.”
After studying pastries and baking at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Williams said she took jobs in the medical field and at the Defense Commissary Agency. She worked in those fields for over a decade but always held onto the idea of eventually opening her own food business.
“I knew I’d get to this point someday, it was just very hard to get there,” Williams said. “After working for a while, I said, ‘OK, it’s time to take that leap of faith and start the business.’”
Williams’ food truck first rolled out in early 2021, and her beignets were well enough received that by last spring she left her job at Johnston-Willis Hospital to operate Cafe Beignet RVA full-time.
However, despite being able to focus solely on the food truck, the warmer temperatures presented an unexpected challenge.
“In the summer, oh my gosh. The heat and the humidity makes my dough rise like biscuits. They get huge and very difficult to handle. I was having to put ice under each tray of beignets,” Williams said, laughing.
“People don’t know even half of the struggles that I had to go through. I’d get up at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. every morning to make the dough because it’s a long process and I had to make so many.”
With the new, roughly 1,100-square-foot space, Williams said she can now get started at normal bakers’ hours of about 4 a.m.
Williams is also planning to expand the menu to include Cajun dishes like gumbo and red beans and rice for lunch and dinner at her restaurant. She said she’s also planning to be open a little later on weekends and offer Sunday brunch.
One South Commercial’s Ann Schweitzer-Riley worked the lease that put Cafe Beignet RVA in the space. It was left vacant last year by Carmela’s when the pizza joint closed after about two years in business. Williams said the space is in pretty good shape and only needs some new equipment and aesthetic renovations.
“They’re removing the brick-fire oven, and I have to replace the fryers and mixers and all that stuff,” Williams said.
Williams said Cafe Beignet RVA is self-funded with no outside investors or lenders. She is, however, looking to crowd-fund part of the renovation cost through a GoFundMe that’s looking to raise $20,000.
Cafe Beignet RVA is aiming to open in April, and Williams said the brick-and-mortar’s opening won’t spell the end for the food truck. In addition to some festivals and weddings she’s signed on for, Williams said she wants to continue hitting the suburbs, the areas she said really helped her build the business.
“The HOAs (homeowner’s associations) have really been my bread and butter. They’ve really kept me afloat. I don’t want to completely abandon them.”
Cafe Beignet RVA is the latest in a flurry of local food trucks to go brick-and-mortar in recent months.