Ericka Burke (Volunteer Park Cafe, Chop Shop) knows both realities. “Chop Shop’s going great,” she says of her chophouse in Capitol Hill’s Chophouse Row, a restaurant so beautiful it just got loved up in the March issue of Elle.
“We’re pretty stoked,” Burke told me by phone Friday. Though the piece focuses on the design of Chop Shop, not its food, Burke suggests that the food must be doing its job, luring a solid dinner service and slowly building a lunch trade. “But once construction is done…” she says, her voice trailing off in the familiar way of frustrated business owners across the Hill. “I think the development on this side of Pike, with Renee’s new places”—Bateau, Bar Melusine, General Porpoise—“and the brewery”—Optimism Brewing Co.—“…it’ll take people awhile to realize it, but they’ll find us.”
Different story for Canal Market, Burke’s urban mercantile/gourmet grocery/takeout she opened in the Portage Bay neighborhood in May—and closed two-and-a-half weeks ago.
“It’s a business model that just didn’t work in that neighborhood,” Burke explained. “It wasn’t zoned for a restaurant, which we knew going in.” In spite of its takeout and grocery trade, says Burke, every time the city came they said, “It feels like a restaurant!”
“So I was like, okay, ‘What are the ratios you need for seats-to-kitchen equipment?’ but they never gave me a definition. So I had to keep scaling back the business model. In the beginning I had all the sandwiches and salads like at Volunteer Park Cafe, but then I went to premade stuff in the deli case.”
Add to that the neighborhood perception that Canal Market was too pricey, which Burke says she tried and failed to shake—and the enterprise was doomed. “I thought this affluent neighborhood would support really high-end food, but I kept hearing things like, ‘Gosh, your goat cheese is so expensive!’ when it was hormone-free. Turned out a lot of the neighbors wanted a community store: batteries, firewood, light bulbs, that kind of thing.”
Burke is sad about the closure, especially since the space—a former grocery in a residential neighborhood—was right in her wheelhouse. She allows that she probably could’ve poured more energy into saving it, as she did when similar neighborhood-vs.-commercial zoning conflicts nearly killed off her first former-grocery-in-a-residential-neighborhood, Volunteer Park Cafe.
But in the end, running one neighborhood destination, one promising newbie, and one blended family proved energetic enough.