917 W Grace Street | Richmond
Owner, Laura Lee’s
3410 Semmes Avenue | Richmond
Owner, Garnett’s Cafe at Park Avenue + The Valentine
2001 Park Avenue | Richmond
1015 E Clay Street | Richmond
Co-Owner, The Roosevelt
623 N 25th Street | Richmond
Game of Thrones: How three queens of the Richmond dining scene acquired — and hold onto — their seats at the table [an excerpt]
By Genevelyn Steele
Ipanema wasn’t spawned from vegetarian idealism, nor from the chance to capitalize on a dining vacancy after Grace Place, a nearby meatless bistro, closed. Instead, Kendra Murden’s herbivorous hideaway, which began frying goat cheese and grilling portobellos in the late 90s, was a Walter Mitty fantasy in the flesh. Before owning her own restaurant, Murden waited tables at Bittersweet, a struggling coffeehouse in the heart of VCU. She was convinced she could make that basement bar successful — if only it was hers. She launched Ipanema in the same location in 1998.
The initial menu showcased gourmandized standards of the era: fancy grits and grilled romaine hearts. Murden readily axed animal proteins and exalted side dishes. Legumes and grains starred on thrift store plates. Ipanema was hip, yet affordable. Bassist John Campbell tended bar there before touring with Lamb of God. Murden was on her way to building an unplanned empire.
“I was a waitress,” says Murden. “Everyone second-guesses their boss, thinking ‘If I ran this place, I’d do it this way...’ I said that when I worked at Bittersweet, and I got cocky and did it. It was easier then. There were infinitely fewer restaurants and no social media. I started Ipanema with roughly $7,000.”
Even with little upfront financial investment, it took years to make Ipanema profitable. Murden learned about food costs, general repairs, and bookkeeping on the job, not always getting it right. She waited tables in lieu of a salary. By 2009, when the Garnett’s space became available, Murden had socked enough away to open her second restaurant. The Roosevelt followed, along with WPA Bakery (she’s since sold her shares), Laura Lee’s, and Garnett’s at The Valentine. Here’s a taste of what she knows after twenty years of ownership.
“Pay everyone else first,” says Murden. “You’ll have to be really good to have any money left for yourself. I didn’t turn a profit for six years. I survived off my tips.” Also when hiring, always call references.
Empower your employees. Murden regularly talks through ideas and issues with her managers. “I have five businesses, and I can’t be at all of them at once,” says Murden. “And, I always find someone who likes to Instagram to drive social media.”