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A Fresh Take on Richmond Highway

New eateries bring frugal fun to Mount Vernon Plaza.

Sitting on a couch beside a fieldstone fireplace in a wood-paneled room walled on two sides by floor-to-ceiling windows, customers at the new Just Fresh in Mount Vernon Plaza can be pardoned for feeling a bit disoriented. For years, no one would have associated this atmosphere with a business on Richmond Highway; and diners across America still may not be used to fireplaces inside a restaurant that serves, essentially, fast food.

Brett Melvin, the owner of Just Fresh, says his restaurant occupies an increasingly sought-after niche between fast food and sit-down restaurants. It offers healthy choices — salads, gourmet pizzas, wraps and sandwiches stuffed with fresh vegetables — but customers still stand at a cash register and order off a menu on the wall. The prices are only a few dollars more than what one would pay for a hamburger and fries. Most items cost $5 to $7. And then there’s the lounge - where people are encouraged to bring a book or a laptop.

Melvin calls it “business class service at an economy rate.” The airplane metaphor is an apt one for a business on Richmond Highway, a commercial climate that shows signs of soaring. Just Fresh, which opened on Nov. 1, is one of three restaurants that have opened within a few hundred feet of each other in the last year. All focus on a quality experience as well as quality food. They are signs that Richmond Highway can become a destination for family outings or business meetings as well as running errands.

“This area, south valley, has been so neglected for so long. There’s nothing down here like this,” said Melvin, who has lived in Mount Vernon with his family for 12 years. “We just see so much opportunity down here.”

The Melvins also own a Just Fresh at 18th and K Streets in D.C. There, they sell a lot of salads and cater a lot of corporate functions. Here, Melvin said, they’ve been selling pizzas and reubens and participating in school fund raisers and other community events. They will be offering free catering at the United Community Ministry’s fundraiser with the Capitol Steps at the end of January.

Besides the décor, the Melvins, try to create a welcoming environment by paying higher wages to attract upbeat employees. “Getting good employees is the key to everything,” Melvin said. “You can have great food, a great location, but if you have surly employees, no one wants to come back. Your cashiers are the very first connection with the customer.”

Melvin said he and his wife want the restaurant to become a destination that encourages families to gather together and eat. “Food time is a sacred time,” he said.

AFTER TAKING AN ORDER for “Birthday Cake Remix” Coldstone Creamery manager Jackie Jackson uses a small scraper to clear the frost from a spot on the black stone slab that runs the length of the counter. Cooled from below, it gives the chain its name and is vital to its practice of mashing delicacies together.

Earlier in the day, Jackson had mixed sweet cream and yellow cake mix and poured it into a machine. “I press the ice cream button and poof,” she said, fresh ice cream in seven minutes. Now she is using two shallow scoops to dig out and press together a ball of birthday cake ice cream. She places it on the stone and presses one scoop into its top to create the “divot.” She adds a brownie, fudge and rainbow sprinkles and uses the scoops to dice the concoction together and smash it into a single sweet mass.

Coldstone Creamery makes all of its ice cream fresh, and encourages people to mix in ingredients. The ice cream costs $3.50 - $5, and the selections of flavors and toppings range from the traditional to the obscure.

Jackson has been here since Coldstone opened in Mount Vernon Plaza in April. She said she’s not surprised by the popularity of dishes like Birthday Cake Remix, it’s her favorite. But she can’t explain the popularity of some other combinations she’s frequently asked to make, like bananas and pineapple. “It astounds me.”

But she’s learned not to be surprised by the flavors people order. “We have a lot of older people come in here and get bubblegum ice cream and cotton candy mixed,” she said. One 60-year-old repeat customer orders bubblegum, raspberry and a brownie.

Robert Solomon and his wife own this Cold Stone Creamery and three others. He said they were looking to expand at the same time the Mount Vernon Plaza’s developer was looking to add an ice cream store. Both Solomon and Jackson can attest to the store’s loyal following. “At all our stores we have customers that come in almost daily, believe it or not,” Solomon said.

“It is the best ice cream on the planet,” he explained. “But really what I think our customers value is the what I call the x-factor, the experience you get inside the store on top of the ice cream.”

On one particular day, the “x-factor” sounded something like this (to the tune of “Row Your Boat”): “Tip tip tip your crew,/ we’re mixing your ice cream./ We’ll make it any way you like/ and then you’ll hear us sing.”

Coldstone doesn’t interview its applicants, Jackson explained after her performance, it holds auditions. The scales of judgment are tipped towards enthusiasm rather than skill. Jackson had no problem during auditions and after eight months she’s still happy to sing after every tip that drops into the jar by the cash register. “I’m a crazy person,” she said of her auditions, “so I was just like, ‘Let’s do it.’”

STEVE WALKER, the director of operations for three Moe’s Southwest Grills in northern Virginia, said that when employees of the Moe’s in Mount Vernon Plaza walk into the checkout line at the Shopper’s Food Warehouse across the street, they occasionally get a shock.

“Welcome to Moe’s!” the Shopper’s employees scream. They are returning the treatment they get when they walk across the street on their lunch break. “It’s contagious,” Walker said. A hearty greeting for its customers is part of the Moe’s aura. “We want to be the neighborhood family restaurant people have a fun time coming to.”

Moe’s specializes in big burritos. Customers specify exactly what they want in their meals as their food is prepared in front of them. Walker said the choices are healthier than the typical fast food fair. The burritos, tacos, fajitas, quesadillas and salads are stuffed with beans, rice and vegetables.

“People are looking for an alternative to fast food,” he explained. On one Friday afternoon, nearly every table seems to have a child or two seated at (or running around beside) it. Walker credits the fun atmosphere and the special kids’ menu for the stores popularity with parents.

Since opening the store in September, Walker said his biggest surprise has been the level of community participation. He was impressed by customers’ response to the store’s request for items to send in Christmas care packages to troops. Moe’s has also been encouraged by the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce, hosted a sponsorship night for UCM, and sent food to several school programs. Walker fondly recalled how one older resident carefully questioned him about whether his restaurant was suitable for inclusion in a neighborhood phone book (it was).

The store’s most popular menu item, Walker said, is the “huge” “Homewrecker” burrito. “I always say to myself, ‘Next time I’m not going to finish it.’ But for some reason I always finish it.”