Ipanema's Staying Power

Guest Post By Megan Marconyak, Marco Style

Ipanema is at 917 W Grace St. in Richmond, VA

Ipanema is at 917 W Grace St. in Richmond, VA

In 2014, six restaurants around Virginia Commonwealth University shuttered their doors. You may have seen this article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about it month ago. You’d think restaurants opening in this area would be destined for success with a pre-determined population of students who don’t have time to cook—but apparently not according to the business owner quoted in that article.

It made us think of one restaurant that has remained a stalwart at this Harrison-Grace Street VCU student hub.  Ipanema. 

Ipanema was Richmond restaurant entrepreneur Kendra Feather’s first business. After working in the restaurant occupied in the space as a waitress and manager, she purchased the business and opened shop in 1998.  

That’s 16-and-a-half years of successful business! Today she owns that restaurant, along with The Roosevelt (with Lee Gregory), Garnett’s and WPA Bakery (with David Rohrer). We caught up with the busy lady and asked her a few questions about Ipanema and its staying power. 

While the area still has music venues, resale shops and diners, as well as that urban school-mixed-in-with-the-city vibe, chains like Chipotle and Panera, as well as a new Wal-Mart have popped up and are vying for students’ precious dining dollars. 

“Grace Street was the center of Richmond's counter culture back then. It was punk rock; it was very much the wild side of a liberal arts school. We had music venues, the art supply store, the old porno theater, a strip club...”  

Ipanema is nothing like any of those shiny, new shops. In fact, one of the keys to the restaurant’s success might just be the unique atmosphere.

“Every town needs that spot that’s just different, and there's something appealing about the basement itself,” Kendra said. Anyone who’s descended down the dark staircase into the cozy wood-toned walls of one of Richmond’s only vegetarian establishments to sink their teeth into a BBQ Jackfruit sandwich knows Ipanema is not quite like anywhere else.

“We have local art, sometimes,” Kendra added, “We're a little bit of a dive, sometimes. Every generation needs a place to go that's counter to the mainstream.”

While the atmosphere may have changed on Grace Street, she notes that students have always been part of the business.

“Try your best to create a unique voice for your restaurant, your voice. Be unique, and true to yourself.”
— Kendra Feather

“Things kind of change all the time, but we stay consistent and it works for us. We always have a new, younger crowd, and then we have people who have been coming in since they were the new, younger crowd.” 

In each of her restaurants she manages to create a unique atmosphere that doesn’t feel quite like anywhere else. Ipanema is that slightly offbeat and bohemian restaurant that manages to feel comfortable and welcoming whether you’re an art student or a Fan employee looking for a drink after work. 

The Roosevelt feels a bit like the Southern Grandma you never had is inviting you over for dinner, except she makes elegant pork cheeks and bad-ass cocktails. Garnett’s is that amazingly delicious, homey sandwich shop complete with a counter for dining at that’s always filled with eye-candy pies you wish you’d had in your childhood home town… but probably didn’t. And WPA is that elusive bake shop wafting with delicious smells and stacks of treats that always make your mouth water. 

Perhaps that ability to create a unique personality, an idea we diners have in our heads but haven’t quite found in person yet, is part of her ability to create a lasting establishment. To that point, Kendra's advice to fellow aspiring restaurateurs is simple: “Try your best to create a unique voice for your restaurant, your voice. Be unique, and true to yourself.”

Kevin ClayInterview