083 – Justin Ross, Parallel 38
“You have to learn from your mistakes. But don’t dwell on your mistakes.”
Reimagining Work. With Labneh. And Wine. Welcome to Episode 83 of Edacious and a conversation with a restaurateur who has a chance many folks don’t get. A second chance to open his restaurant in a new space. What does this mean for his staff? His customers? His bottom line? Meet Justin Ross of Parallel 38, a gentleman and scholar who had the courage to get vulnerable and real about the effects a closing, then a reopening has on the hearts, minds, and spirits of everyone involved. Recorded on August 1st when only a few regulatory papers lay between him and a grand opening. Anyone who’s ever opened a restaurant can certainly commiserate with this sense of anticipation.
I spoke with Justin early on in Edacious history so it was intriguing to converse at this stage of the restaurant’s development. Parallel didn’t close due to lack of business, in fact, the last two weeks of service there wasn’t an empty seat in the place. Because now, as then, Justin’s primary focus is on the customer, making sure each one is treated not as a commodity but as a guest. Giving them the best dining experience possible.
On guests: “We’re there for them. Whether you’re front of house or back of house. If they don’t come to the building, there’s no reason to be there. We need to make sure we take care of them even before they walk through the door. Anticipating their needs.”
“There are going to be people you cannot please. And maybe noone pleases those people. But I think part of what we are here to do is to find out how…Every single one of those customers should be a learning experience.”
The old spot in Stonefield presented challenges. The new spot, in the old L’Etoile space on West Main, presents new ones. We talk about the delicate navigation involved in overcoming obstacles with regard to the customer base, parking, kitchen size, square footage. As in real estate, location is key. The new space is much smaller. How do you go from airy to cozy? What do you have to change? We talk about it.
“We never want to force our concept into a space. We want to find a space that fits whatever concept we have in mind. We saw that space and we fell in love with it. We thought it was the perfect spot for Parallel…The building has a lot of charm to it…It’s an old building. It’s really amazing to go into a space that has been a restaurant for 35, 40 years…and put our mark on it. I think people are going to be wowed by all the differences inside.”
I’ve seen the new space and it’s terrific. The outside patio has been doubled and somehow, the interior seems bigger! There’s a gorgeous wall-sized wine rack at the top of the stairs, clever lighting, judicious use of barrels, and the bar downstairs promotes lingering. I haven’t even mentioned the gorgeous walls, stripped to bare brick, covered in graffiti-style murals. Pair that with all of your favorites some old, some new, those amazing cocktails and that great wine selection, and the new Parallel 38 looks to be a great addition to the West Main Street restaurant corridor.
One thing that hasn’t changed? The concept. Food and drink served mezze style, tapas, small plates, originating from countries that lie along the 38th parallel. Sourcing? Most of it locally, like pork from Autumn Olive Farms, a past podcast guest. What about the menu? Johnny Garver heads up the kitchen once again and yes, all of your old favorites are here, including some new ones. During Friends and Family Night, we inhaled ALL of the spreads (I love you, labneh!) and enjoyed grilled octopus, fried sardines (YUM!), and lamb skewers sous-vided to perfection. The flatbread is now made to order and while some menu items have disappeared I spied the same blistered shishitos, charcuterie, salads, and that awesome pork belly Parallel. The sauce on it is new and I like it even better!
On the menu: “You’ll probably see less pizzas. You’ll probably see some pastas but not to the extent we had to there…We’re going to balance our menu based on who’s coming to the restaurant but we just think we have the opportunity to be a little more adventurous in our menu now…Our menu will probably we a bit more rustic, a bit more approachable, but with some really fun things.”
What role did the Stonefield folks play in his grand reopening? What lessons did Justin learn? What perfect storm had to happen for him to reopen so quickly? Why does it say, “No finished products!” in his hiring ads? Why does it say “Busboy” on his business card? Will Parallel have the same great barrel-aged cocktails and wine? How will all of the Main Street development affect Parallel? What is Justin’s favorite unsung hero wine region? Can we please bring back the Main Street Festival? And what piece of advice does he give new business owners? What must you be willing to do and not do?
“Change is inevitable. Growth is optional. Surround yourself with people smarter than you.”
If it’s one thing I took away from this conversation it’s how important it is to thank your host, your server, your bartender if you’ve had a tremendous eating experience. Because you never know. The next time you go to make a reservation your favorite spot might be closed. You’ll be left reminiscing about all the good times you had. This is a tough business and restaurants “fail” (note the quotes) because of a myriad of reasons.
I absolutely loved Parallel 38 in its old incarnation. When I learned of its closing I wrote a heartfelt thank you post and paid my respects, thinking his place had met the fate of so many other beloved establishments in Charlottesville. Whether its the location, the challenges, or the persnickety nature of the customer base, many restaurants just don’t make it. When I discovered it would reopen? After finishing my Happy Dance I contacted Justin. Welcome to a very special episode and one I know I will remember and return to time and again. Get your tissues. You’ll need them.
SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:
- Thank You Parallel 38 – Remember to appreciate your favorite restaurants while they’re still open.
- Justin was on the podcast in its infancy!
- This is Charlottesville – Sarah Cramer Shields has created something wonderful here!
- Lovefest! Between Parallel 38 and L’Etoile on Facebook
- Just Showing Up – Episode 25.
- Dirtwoman was on NPR – Dirt’s dirt and dirt don’t hurt. RIP Donnie Corker.
- Virginia Distillery Company – On October 21st, VDC will release it’s Cider Cask Finished Highland Malt Whisky!
- Caromont Farm Dinner – This October! Ian Boden from The Shack is the chef this go round. I’ll be recording. It will sell out. Get your tickets now.
- Help Scotty Recover – My best friend has Stage 3B colon cancer. Bills are piling up. He can’t work. Can you help? Share! Donate! No amount is too small. Thank you and BIG LOVE to everyone who donated and shared the Big Love Bake Sale and Big Love Birthday! Next up? Tee shirts! Look for them soon.
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