Down the rabbit hole: Talented C’ville restaurant staff in demand

Local restaurateurs say their employees have been approached by an out-of-state hospitality company that's staffing a new restaurant under development in the Graduate Hotel. Local restaurateurs say their employees have been approached by an out-of-state hospitality company that’s staffing a new restaurant under development in the Graduate Hotel.

Are representatives from an out-of-state hospitality company trying to poach some of Charlottesville’s most talented restaurant staff?

According to local restaurant owners, the answer is yes. According to the out-of-state guys, the answer is hmmm, well, that wasn’t their intention and they’re sorry for the misunderstanding.

Will Richey, owner of The Whiskey Jar, The Alley Light and Revolutionary Soup, says he received an e-mail from the staff at Rabbit Hole Magazine—an online mag created by a Chicago-based hospitality and restaurant company called Element Collective—that said a representative would be in Charlottesville and he wanted to feature photos of two of Richey’s popular eateries on their site.

Richey agreed, and though he was unable to make the photo shoot, he says he set one up with his bartender at Alley Light and Chris Dexter, the representative from Rabbit Hole Magazine.

Later that week, Richey says he stopped by Alley Light and his bartender said the photo shoot went well—and that Dexter had offered him a job at an up-and-coming rooftop bar. The bartender said he turned down the offer, but did accept a consulting position, says Richey, who was offended that someone would come into his restaurant under the guise of publishing a story and attempt to steal his staff.

Richey sent an e-mail to other local restaurant owners to warn them about his experience with Rabbit Hole Magazine and Michael Keaveny, owner of Tavola, replied, saying he had a similar experience.

According to Keaveny, members of his staff said Dexter had come into the restaurant, chatted with them and eventually asked for the manager’s phone number. Dexter asked a few employees to act as consultants for his new project and took one of them to its site at the Graduate Hotel, Keaveny says.

Dexter says his company, Element Collective, is working on food and beverage concepts for the Graduate Hotel, the newly renovated hostelry that took over the old Red Roof Inn on the Corner. In two to six months, he says, the hotel will have a restaurant component and Element Collective will be overseeing it, “Hopefully in a collaboration with one of the top restaurateurs/chefs in C’Ville,” Dexter wrote in an e-mail. He denied he had offered jobs to any of Richey or Keaveny’s staff members, and wrote that he was “disheartened and upset by the accusations,” and that he had reached out immediately to “set the record straight.”

Not all local restaurateurs are as troubled by the idea that Dexter offered jobs, says longtime Charlottesvillian Peter Griesar, owner of the new Brazos Tacos at the Ix property. While restaurateurs have a tacit agreement to not aggressively go after each other’s employees, the concept of poaching isn’t new—and it isn’t unfair, he says.

“Employees are human beings and they have the right to get any job they want,” says Griesar, who does agree that going into someone else’s restaurant and making job offers during an employee’s shift isn’t the way he’d recommend doing it.

Dexter says he is eager to smooth over the misunderstanding and, as “the food and drink talent here rivals any city across the country,” he looks forward to “becoming actively involved in the tight-knit scene and getting to know each and every person involved on a more personal level.”