Scuffletown Garden, the restaurant that opened this summer in the former Strawberry Street Café space in Richmond’s Fan District, is closing.
The restaurant will shut at the end of brunch service Sunday.
Some fans of the previous restaurant were rooting for the new restaurant’s failure. Scuffletown Garden’s co-owner said he has received “close to death threats” since news broke a year ago that the restaurant at 421 N. Strawberry St. had new owners, and they intended to remove the cafe’s signature bathtub salad bar.
But that’s not the reason for the closing, co-owner Derek Salerno said.
“Scuffletown Garden is closing because we did not live up to investors’ expectations,” Salerno said. “With the closure of Strawberry Street Café and unexpected renovation costs, we started with a lot of disadvantages. So after a very stressful few months, we’ve decided to move on to other projects.”
With the closing, the restaurant’s roughly 25 employees will be without jobs; finding those workers future employment is his primary concern, Salerno said.
“We were very lucky to have some lovely and passionate people who we met at Strawberry Street Café who stayed with us till the end,” he said. “I owe all of them everything and all of our success.”
Salerno opened Scuffletown Garden in mid-June after three months of overseeing renovations of the space, which was home to Strawberry Street Café from 1976 to March 2019.
Salerno and his business associate, Octavio Camacho Andrade, bought Strawberry Street Café and its building in December for $1.375 million. The restaurant had been quietly on the market for years but was publicly listed for about two months when the sale was announced.
The last owner of Strawberry Street Café had been rolling out menu changes, additions and small renovations for about four years in an attempt to combat waning business and an increasingly competitive local dining scene.
One co-owner bought out another in 2014 and, the following year, more beer taps, craft brews and a chef-driven burger menu were added; two years later, another menu change and an interior renovation came about; and the next year, the restaurant publicly hit the market.
Following the news of the sale last year, there was an immediate outcry from Richmonders to save the restaurant concept and the bathtub, and many people declared in online postings that they would boycott any restaurant not called Strawberry Street Café — and not featuring a bathtub.
“If there’s one huge takeaway for me in this endeavor over the last year, it is that nostalgia can drive people to be very nasty — and closed to good, new experiences,” Salerno said. “[There were] a lot of people wishing me a secure space in hell — for wanting to open a restaurant that didn’t serve canned sausage gravy.”
Strawberry Street Café was an iconic Richmond restaurant for more than 40 years. A central location in the Fan, an approachable and affordable menu of American fare, and its years in operation meant that most Richmonders had dined there or were at least familiar with the restaurant.
But it was the restaurant’s bathtub salad bar — that is, salad ingredients presented in bowls resting in an antique clawfoot bathtub — that propelled the restaurant to iconic status, especially once the bathtub salad bar was featured on TV’s “Jeopardy!” in the 1990s.
The bathtub salad bar was an accident.
The original owner, Colin Eagles, opened Strawberry Street Café in 1976, and the bathtub salad bar was a last-minute addition. Eagles was nearly out of money and needed a structure to hold the salad bar, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch archives.
At a friend’s suggestion, he went to the architectural salvage business Caravati’s and bought a used clawfoot tub for $115. He painted the tub and filled it with ice and bowls of produce.
It was a hit. And remained so for decades.
And the new owners considered keeping it and the overall concept when they took over the restaurant and ran it as-is from last December through this past March.
“After many months of listening, soul-searching, and figuring out our next move, we have decided to close Strawberry Street Café and completely rebrand during our planned renovation,” Salerno wrote in a statement before closing Strawberry Street Cafe at the end of March.
When it opened in June, Scuffletown Garden kept the bathtub — repurposed for an outdoor garden.
“Much like the space, chef Adam Campbell’s food feels like a natural, living, breathing thing. His ideas are fresh and botanical. And nearly all his dishes have such an organic ease to them that you can forget how sophisticated and thoughtful they truly are. The refreshing sense of naturality and effortlessness here reminds me of beloved establishments such as Prune in New York City and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.
“Campbell’s dishes are, for the most part, remarkably polished. They’re so comfortable in their own skin, in fact, you’d never guess the restaurant has been in operation for only a few short months.”
But sometimes, a positive review — and a repurposed bathtub — aren’t enough. Scuffletown Garden’s last day of service will be Sunday. The restaurant will be closed Tuesday for a planned private event and open at 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. It will be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for weekend brunch service.
Co-owner Andrade could not be reached for comment Monday.