It has been more than 15 years (!!!) since I was a full-time book publicist (being a publicist is only part of what I do now as a freelance communications pro), and worked with the #OGBossBabe herself, Rachael Ray. I occasionally look back on that time and think about how today's media landscape is different, and ask myself, 'Would I do the same things today that I did then to create and execute a publicity plan?' Yes, and no. Social media, of course, has changed everything, and one's strategy should adjust accordingly. Now, 9 times out of 10, you'd need a sizable social media following to even secure a book deal in the first place, much less land your own television cooking show, if all other elements were left in place.
Love her or hate her, Rachael made a huge impact in the food and media worlds by making cooking even more accessible to millions. No, she's not a trained chef, but neither are most people - you don't have to be to make good food. And it's that confidence that she gives people, along with a level of authenticity, accessibility, reliability and likeability that has made Rachael what she is today - an undeniable, through-the-roof success.
I worked with Rachael in 2000-01 on two of her cookbooks (Comfort Foods and Veggie Meals) for Lake Isle Press, her publisher at the time, and created a publicity plan that landed her her first national television appearance on NBC's "Today" show, and shortly thereafter, her first national television show on the Food Network. Below is an article that first appeared on Mediabistro.com (who I later worked with as their freelance Morning Newsfeed Editor) that outlines how it all came together.
Hey, How'd Your PR Plan Introduce Rachael Ray to the Food Network?
This former publicist describes how she ushered the popular chef to TV stardom
By Jennifer Pullinger/ Rebecca L. Fox – August 9, 2007
While she may make near-hourly appearances on the Food Network these days, there was once a point when the nascent network aiming to reach home cooks didn't have the ebullient E.V.O.O. slinger-cum-magazine editor on their radar. Back in 2001, then-publicist Jennifer Pullinger was charged with getting Ray TV and radio appearances to promote the cookbook she'd just released. With an aggressively strategic approach and lots of videotapes, Pullinger scored Ray a coveted Today Show segment and a meeting with a Food Network programming exec. She tells us just how she did it, and shares her key tips for crafting publicity campaigns to catapult promising unknowns to stardom.
In 2001, as a publicist at National Book Network, you were assigned to work on two early Rachael Ray cookbooks, Comfort Foods: Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals and Veggie Meals: Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals. How much publicity work had you done prior to that assignment? Did these books/Rachael Ray represent any special opportunity for you?
At that time, I was new to book publicity. Before I was hired to be a book publicist at National Book Network (NBN), my professional experience in the media consisted of working as a volunteer media and marketing director for a small film festival in Orlando, and as a radio news reporter at WINA-AM in Charlottesville. Both, however, prepared me for the fast pace of book publicity. The "foodie" craze then wasn't what it is now, but it was gaining popularity.
I had been with NBN for less than six months when I was assigned to work on Lake Isle Press' Comfort Foods and Veggie Meals. Since the publication date for Veggie Meals was pushed back, I was primarily publicizing Comfort Foods.
To start off, NBN's publicity director and I met with Rachael and her publisher in New York City (we were based in Lanham, MD) to discuss the publicity plan. I think everyone in the room, including the NBN sales rep who attended the meeting, knew that Rachael had the innate talent and personality for TV, so it was a great opportunity for me to develop a publicity plan that had lots of potential.
Describe the publicity plan you crafted for Rachael and the two books she was releasing at this time. What kind of resources did you get from Lake Isle Press to do this?
The publicity plan involved equal parts strategy, a talented, charismatic author, and luck. The publicity plan was about being in the right place at the right time, and hitting the right synergistic notes. I like Woody Allen's quote: "80 percent of success is showing up," and I think that applies here. It wasn't quite that simple, but the plan was successful in part because I got the information about who Rachael was into the hands of the right people. Rachael took it from there by just by being herself.
The cookbook itself was the kind that wouldn't daunt your average cook. That's part of the reason why people like Rachael — her style of cooking is fairly easy and doesn't intimidate. My pitch focused on Rachael's personality and likeability, and how compelling she was on camera and in person.
My assignment was to secure Rachael radio and television interviews and appearances—no print. I also set up some book signings for her in upstate New York, where she was from, because they loved her there. At the time, she was a local television personality with WRGB-TV in Albany where she hosted a weekly cooking segment. So she was known regionally. I was given roughly 25 to 30 video cassettes as a demo to send to television producers. I sent about 20 of them to the Food Network. I just blanketed the place as much as I could, and started with follow-up. I sent them to shows that I thought would be open to a guest host or guest cooking segment. I also sent the tapes to the three major network morning shows, among others. For radio, I used the contacts that Rachael provided me, and also researched other topical radio shows that I thought might be interested in having a cookbook author on to talk about such.
What exactly did it take to land Rachael an NBC appearance? Walk us through the back-and-forth between you and the network, as our understanding is that nabbing a publicity opportunity like this is no small feat.
As any good book publicist does, they send their titles to the book producers at the major morning news outlets — The Today Show,Good Morning America, and The Early Show. I did that, but the book producer at The Today Show turned Comfort Foods down at first. She must have passed it on to a colleague, because shortly thereafter, a special projects producer from the show called me to see if Rachael was available to do a cooking segment. It was winter, so it was the right time for Comfort Foods. It's just the kind of stuff people crave when it's cold outside. I don't mean to make it sound that simple, but the back-and-forth kind of was. Because it wasn't that long before the book producer passed and the special projects producer called me to book her, at that point it was just a matter of nailing down the date and time, and then Rachael getting to the Today Show studios. Seeing Rachael on tape was likely what cinched it for the producer, as well as the timeliness of the release of Comfort Foods. Any time you have good video that shows how well your author presents themselves, make sure to include that in the press materials you send out.
At the time, how did you and Rachael think her first TV appearance went? Did it seem to either of you that she had great TV potential? Why?
Within days of her Today Show appearance, Comfort Foods shot to the top five in Amazon.com sales, so I think it went really well! As a publicist just starting out, I couldn't have been more thrilled. You could tell Matt [Lauer], Katie [Couric], and Al [Roker] liked her a lot too. She came across as real and approachable and full of energy. But as I said, even before her Today Show appearance, I thought she had national TV potential. She was a natural before the camera as demonstrated by her WRGB tapes and I always got positive feedback from the booksellers who wanted her at their store for a signing—nothing like I had experienced with the authors I had worked with up until then.
How did the NBC spot lead to a meeting between Rachael and the Food Network? Back in 2001, the Food Network had a far more minor media presence than it does now — how did Rachael, in that stage of her career, and the network complement one another? What was the original thinking on what a collaboration between Rachael and the Food Network might look like?
It was synergy. As mentioned, I sent as many demo tapes as I could to the Food Network, so if they hadn‘t heard about her by then, then they would by the time I started follow-up. That "blanket" strategy paid off, I believe, because a day or two after her Today Show appearance, I scheduled her to be on WAMC Public Radio's "Vox Pop" in Albany. This was a contact of Rachael's. Someone associated with the Food Network was listening to the WAMC interview, liked what they heard, and called some other folks at the Food Network, who, fortunately, had already heard about her because I had sent them the tapes and press materials. So her appearance on The Today Show, coupled with her next-day WAMC Public Radio segment, led to her first meeting with Food Network executives. Right place, right time. Right around that time I also got her an interview on WHYY radio in Philadelphia, and I'm sure that didn't hurt either.
It was a day or two after her Today Show segment that I got a call from Bob Tuschman, vice president of programming and production at the Food Network, inquiring about scheduling a meeting with Rachael. This meeting would involve discussion beyond the scope of publicity — it was to talk about a possible opportunity for Rachael to host her own show. So I had accomplished my goal for Rachael, the cookbook, and more. The 2001 publicity plan for Comfort Foods was what got her foot solidly in the door at the Food Network, and she took it from there.
What's the nature of your relationship with Rachael Ray, currently? Do you keep in touch? Does she acknowledge that you were instrumental in connecting her with the Food Network? What is your title/affiliation now, and how did it evolve from what you were doing at National Book Network back in 2001?
A few months after the Comfort Foods campaign, I moved to Atlanta to attend graduate school at Georgia State University, where I studied communications. I didn't keep up with Rachael, other than what I saw or read in the media myself. In her book, Rachael Ray: 30 Minute Meals 2, which came out in 2003, she does thank me. As to what I do now, not long ago I was a freelance writer and book/film publicist, but soon I will join the staff of a publisher in Washington, D.C.
Are there any other clients you've seen since Ray whom you believe has the same kind of star power, and is poised to break out as significantly as she has? What are the qualities or elements that lead you to believe someone has this kind of potential?
I have worked with some authors who have a great story to tell, but may not be as compelling as an in-person interview. And there are others who have something unique to say, but beyond the release of their book, will only be of value to the media as news warrants. Some of the recent breakthroughs for me professionally have come from the publicity campaigns I contributed to in the indie film arena when I was a full-time freelance publicist.
I think the most important quality in an author or potential media personality is to know what you are talking about inside and out, because people can tell when you are full of hot air. Having a certain presence is important. It doesn't hurt to be likable on some level too. Then again, there are a lot of unpleasant personalities in the media today that people are drawn to, so maybe it's not always critical to be likable. But overall, it's hard to list specific "star power" qualities, because I imagine it's the same instinct that casting agents have when they see talent. They just know.
Jennifer Pullinger holds a BS degree in marketing from Virginia Tech and a MA degree in communications from Georgia State University. She has been a media professional for over 10 years.
I have an overabundance of basil on my porch garden already - and it's barely summer. That's okay, because I LOVE BASIL. But I have to think of more things to make with it than just regular ol' pesto and Caprese salads/sandwiches. A few years ago, I concocted an Apricot Basil Whiskey Smash, and as I remember, it was dee-licious. So I trust my instincts to make a thoughtful attempt at "inventing" something new with this culinary herb.
In addition to sweet and purple basil, I have fennel, mint, chamomile, lemon verbena, and rosemary growing in the porch garden - all chosen because I love the taste of each, and because they contain properties that aid in digestion. Each of these herbs are also ideally suited for infusing in water, and I'm always trying to up my water game and get more H20 in my system to stay hydrated, so why not try a basil-infused water?
I have already been experimenting with infusions simply by adding bitters to my water - I like Urban Moonshine citrus and chamomile digestive bitters (I get mine at Ellwood Thompson). BONUS: These bitters actually aren't all that bitter-tasting. Also among the various shrubs, bitters, and syrups I have in my fridge was a bottle of Bittermens Celery Shrub (which I initially thought was bitters, but is not). And not to "muddle" the thought processes up here too much, I recently had one of Cava's Basil Limeades, which I thought was super-tasty and refreshing, and at some point I made a mental note to try to recreate that at home.
So with the gobs of basil in my garden area, a taste for lime, some celery shrub, and a few other ingredients (like lemon verbena to add to the citrus flavor), I have created this recipe for Basil Celery Limeade Soda. . . or Basil-Celery-Lime Herbal Tonic. . . Or Basil-Mint-Celery-Lime Agua Fresca. I just don't know what to call it - but I do know that I'll be recreating this cooling, healing drink more than once this summer.
Basil Limeade Herbal Tonic
Handful of lemon verbena
Handful of basil
Handful of mint
1 qt. or more of carbonated water of choice
1/4 cup squeezed lime
4-5 droppers of celery shrub or bitters
. . . add a splash of Prosecco if you're feeling it.
Add all the ingredients together and let cold-steep overnight, then sip leisurely.
What do you do when you only have 15 hours in Beaufort, S.C. (with half of that time asleep)? You just let the day take you where it takes you. . .
Driving in to Beaufort, I was surprised by all of the new commercial development that had sprung up since the last time I was there - so many fast-casual joints now. But keep driving through the you-ve-seen-it-all-before sprawl and you'll get to the unique historic charm and coastal antebellum homes downtown.
Beaufort is the second oldest city in South Carolina (Charleston is first), and is the very definition of lowcountry. The city is surrounded by rivers, swamps and marshes that are made for waterfront living and breezy porch views, mint julep or sweet tea in hand.
During my brief visit on my way up from Savannah to Wilmington, I spent the morning hours on foot, walking around downtown, and fantasizing about living in any of these gorgeous old homes - and taking mental notes of the gardens and "curb appeal" to bring back to Richmond.
If only Palmetto trees could grow in Richmond, life would be perfect. But they don't, so to get that lowcountry-coastal look in RVA, here are my suggestions:
There is obviously plenty more to do in Beaufort than home-touring, all of which you can find here. I didn't get a chance to check out the beaches - I wanted to visit Hunting Island State Park because I keep reading that it's the most popular state park in South Carolina. Must have something going for it if that's so, right? Next time.
If you missed my last two blog posts on my N.C.-S.C.-Ga. road-trip, you can find them here: Charleston + Savannah. Next up: Wilmington.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I pretty much can't get enough of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, re: Charleston and Savannah. The last time I had the opportunity to go was May 2015. My 2017 trip was designed to be a much-needed getaway and reward for a jam-packed winter and early spring. And rewarding it was.
Wormsloe Historic Site
"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea," goes the old adage. And Charleston and Savannah, with stops in Beaufort and Wilmington, was exactly what the doctor ordered. My first stop after arriving in Savannah from Charleston was not the beach though - it was Wormsloe Historic Site, about 10 miles from downtown.
I don't like to over-plan when I go on a trip, rather pinpoint a few places to visit, and leave the rest up to strategic yet aimless wandering and exploration. So I hadn't planned on visiting Wormsloe, until I was mindlessly Instagram-scrolling a few days before and happened upon a photo of Wormsloe's much-photographed, Spanish moss-draped, live oak entrance. TIP: Visiting somewhere new? Let other people do the research for you by clicking on Instagram's geo-tag (or, of course, city hashtag) of the place you want to visit, and you'll often find solid insider tips on what you should see or do.
Wormsloe features the ruins of the colonial estate of one of Georgia's earliest settlers. In addition to the structural remains, you can explore more of the former estate along the nature trails, which meanders next to some scenic marshes. TIP: Be prepared for wildlife; I spotted at least one snake, and was greeted by one friendly lizard that didn't hesitate to attempt to scatter up my pant leg.
Bonaventure Cemetery is to Savannah what Hollywood Cemetery is to Richmond, a historic garden cemetery that invites walking, visiting, exploring, and learning about the past. The well-known "Bird Girl" statue featured on the cover of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," was originally located at Bonaventure, but has apparently been moved to the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center. (P.S. The book's cover photo was taken by Jack Leigh, one of my favorite photographers.)
One of the more prominent figures buried at Bonaventure is singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer - of course, the Mercer name is integral to Savannah's history, most notably tied its founding history and to the Italianate-style Mercer-Williams House Museum downtown. . . . . .WHICH I am just learning re: Mercer House, was the scene of the murder in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" (bringing those connections together!).
What I love about Savannah, in comparison to Charleston, is its "grittiness." Charleston is all fun-loving, breezy, and sunny, while Savannah is a little darker, more Gothic, and eccentric. But don't all Southerners harbor some eccentricity?
One could spent all day in downtown Savannah, ogling the historic homes. If you are crunched for time though, my suggestion would be to first stop at Forsyth Park, the city's most popular park, where you'll spot loads of gorgeous old manses and homes along the perimeter. There isn't a ton of shopping around this area, but you should make a point of stopping into gift and home furnishings store, One Fish, Two Fish, which is near this park.
Much of the downtown area is built on a grid or city square scheme, designed for easy-of-navigation and community (which today's city planners, in my opinion, really need to get back to, instead of miles-upon-miles of asphalt and high volume highways like Broad or many suburban areas. The Fan is a good example of that grid-square-parklet pattern, where if one street is blocked off, you can just go down another and be on your way. If you are just dying to know more about community/suburban/urban planning, read "Suburban Nation.").
The above house is the aforementioned Mercer Williams House Museum. While you're scanning the next set of historic homes, know that there is shopping to be had in Savannah. You'l want to head to Broughton Street for that, and to a lesser extent, River Street. Savannah has all of the shops you'd expect to find in any trendy city, like Free People and Urban Outfitters (where a girl has GOT to get stocked up on her beauty/face masks, even though I can get the same thing in RVA), but it also has some fun shops like Paris Market, Savannah Bee Company, and Nourish, where I snagged some all-natural bath bombs and aromatherapy shower steamers in Mint Julep and Orange Blossom, and some summer-y hydrating mist in Coconut Lime.
The most popular beach around Savannah is Tybee Island, about 20 minutes from downtown, and after a long day of walking around, it was a great way to end my single, solitary day in Savannah. (Sorry - no photo! What was I thinking. . .) Until next time, Savannah! Stay tuned for recaps of Beaufort, S.C. and Wilmington, N.C.
If it's not yet clear that I LOVE the south, then perhaps the next series of posts will drive that point home. I recently road-tripped to the lowcountry yet again, with stops in Washington, N.C., Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., Beaufort, S.C., and Wilmington, N.C. I've covered a fair amount of tourist-y territory on previous trips (I used to live in Atlanta, so had access to the coastal deep[er] south more easily then), but I still trod some of that same high-traffic ground this trip, with some side excursions to see some things I hadn't seen before.
My most immediate, got-to-go-to-now visit (after a pit stop in Washington, N.C., where my brother lives in a prime river house on the Pamlico) was the Angel Oak on John's Island, about 12 miles from downtown Charleston. If you look it up online, Google describes it on its map simply as "an iconic photo opportunity of a large tree." That's plainly accurate, but I'd swap out "large" for "majestic" or some other sweeping word to describe this aged Southern live oak.
The Angel Oak is estimated to be 400-500 years old, and it was impressive to see it in person, to say the least. It's a stunner. I was there on a Sunday, and my goal was to get there as soon as they opened at 1PM so I could snap some photos before it was overtaken by sight-seers. Don't do that. Everyone else was thinking the same thing. After everyone got their selfie or group photo in, the throng of tourists and park-goers thinned out, and I got my shots (still had to erase/clone out a few objects and people). In sum, my advice if you want to see the tree is to get there at least an hour after it opens.
Caw Caw Interpretive Center
My next stop was the Caw Caw Interpretive Center, and while that may seem too "educational" for a vacation, it actually offers a great opportunity to explore lowcountry nature a little more, in contrast to the bustle and gleam of Charleston. I was told that I may see some alligators while walking around, and I was really hoping that'd happen, but c'est dommage, I didn't spot any. (If you go to Middleton Place, you'll probably have a better chance of seeing some lurking in the ponds.)
The Caw Caw Interpretive Center, now a wildlife preserve, is part of a former rice plantation situated in an expanse of cypress swamps. It features more than six miles of trails, with wetlands, boardwalks, and wildlife- and native plant-viewing.
How can you not be seduced by Charleston? This time of year (April), jasmine is in bloom, and Charlestonians LOVE it. It was covered on brick walls, gated entrances, trellises, wrought iron fences - just about everywhere - and the hot and humid air intensified the scent. Could not inhale enough.
I did the requisite tour of the Battery, near Rainbow Row and lots of stately antebellum homes and structures. Suggestion: Take a detour off the "main" roads re: off Bay and Murray and head down the alleys to see how homeowners have decked out their "backyards" and back porches. It's often with more southerly pomp than what you see on the "tourist-facing" street side.
The next day, I made my way to King Street, which is by and large the "Carytown" of Charleston, where you can find a mix of locally-owned boutiques along with regional/national retail shops, like J. Crew, Madewell, Blue Mercury, Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, etc. I was happy to stumble into Roberta Roller Rabbit, where I spotted some boho embroidered tunics I wanted to snag, but resisted. I of course scouted out some new and old favorite bakeries, like Saffron and Bakehouse, both on E. Bay St.
I managed to make time for a beach visit in each city. In Charleston, my pick was Folly Beach. . .
My hotel was on the Mount Pleasant side, and I learned that the town had a seemingly new (or new to me) outdoor space called Memorial Waterfront Park, which offered one of the best up-close views of the Arthur Ravenel Bridge. (There is no way I cannot think of Thomas Ravenel from Bravo's "Southern Charm" - the bridge is named after his congressman father... Yes, I watch that show, and yes, I'll be watching "Southern Charm: Savannah" too.)
I had a full day-and-a-half in Charleston - not enough to see and do everything I wanted. It's never enough time to soak in this gracious, fun-loving, decadent southern city. Up next: Savannah.
When I'm in need of some sort of takeout lunch that doesn't taste like "takeout," my gastronomical inclinations lead me to Church Hill. That instinct has been so finely honed - and quite frankly spoiled - by a wealth of neighborhood grub options, namely Proper Pie Co., The Dog and Pig Show, Alamo BBQ, Sub Rosa Bakery, Union Market and Stroops Heroic Dogs - a diverse, distinctive and uncommon group of takeout "joints" all within a one-mile-ish radius. . . eateries you'll find no where else, which should make RVA proud.
They run the spectrum of cuisine - some are new and some are "old," but each have in common a desire to cater to what Richmonders crave - Southern comfort - while the owners weave in the seasonal, the experimental and the outlier dishes drawn from an affinity for a certain style or origin of cooking. Another thing is also for certain - you won't be disappointed by whatever they have cooking up, so don't merely rely on your "go-to order" when you order to go - branch your tastes out a little. [Note: Menus vary at each establishment, sometimes day to day and/or on the chef's whim. And you don't HAVE to get your order to go - each has seating for in-shop dining.]
Proper Pie Co.
Here's how good Proper Pies' (2505 E. Broad St.) creations are. . . I was having a crappy day, the kind where you're "in your head," overthinking, and a visit to Proper Pie turned my outlook around. I may have even uttered to myself, "That pie just made my day." Yes, consuming delicious, savory pie (correction: New Zealand-style savory pie), can act as a mood-lifter. If a theatrical documentary were ever made of the story of Proper Pie, the owners are free to use that as a review quote.
The mouth-watering Pork Chile Verde I had that particular day was filled with succulent pork, spiced with a tinge of heat and wrapped in a biscuit-textured, flaky pie crust. This pie will pick your arse up off the floor and put a spring back in your step. Beyond the Pork Chile Verde, choose from a wide-ranging menu that includes Broccoli & Smoked Gouda, Roast Pork & Apple, Mince & Cheese, Chicken & Vegetable Pie and almost everything in between, as well as all manner of sweet pies from Lemon Meringue and Blueberry Apple to Coconut Cream and Chocolate Chess.
The Dog and Pig Show
I have already made it known that I am a big fan of The Dog and Pig Show (314 N. 25th St.), and it should come as no surprise that pretty much everyone else in Richmond is too. In addition to making the best unconventional shrimp & grits ever, you'll find a thoughtfully limited menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts that reflect the owners affinity for South Central Asian and Southern-inspired dishes.
A few weeks ago, I ordered one of the newer-appearing menu items, the Bangkok Bun, which was stacked with layers of meat - house-made Thai sausage, thick-cut bacon, over-medium egg - combined with curry ginger mayo, creamy avocado, and pickled cucumber on a potato roll. The spicy, tangy flavors merged into something exotic yet familiar, true to the restaurant's culinary ethos of Asian-Southern fusion.
The Dog and Pig Show also makes some of the best pastries and baked goods in the city. This day I opted for a milk & cookies bar, which had a substantive coffee cake-like texture, sweet and rich, flaky on top, soft in the middle, with a light, buttery crust on the bottom. You'll also be tempted by salted chocolate chip cookies, chocolate whoopie pies, chocolate babka, espresso marshmallow and chocolate brownies with oreos and bourbon pecan bread pudding, to name just a few of the sweets that have appeared on the menu.
When I visited Alamo BBQ (2202 Jefferson Ave.), specialists in Texas-style Q, for the first time not long ago, I decided to just go for it and order the Texas Train Wreck. I mean, what could go wrong? This menu item is a tasty, southern gut-buster for sure, with a large enough of a single portion to share. I went for the pulled pork, which came with mac and cheese, cowboy beans and cornbread topped with diced onions and jalapenos. Don't worry about keeping each side separated from each other - in fact, let them co-mingle. Mix and mash them up, then shovel a heap into your maw and enjoy, because quite frankly, the Texas Train Wreck was designed for gluttonous pleasure.
Alamo's menu also features tacos, burritos and sandwiches - I don't consider myself a pretentious eater by any means, so the loaded quesadilla (BBQ, pressed flour tortilla, cheddar jack cheese, Texas caviar with guac, salsa, and sour cream) has my name all over it.
Sub Rosa Bakery
Sub Rosa Bakery (620 N. 25th St.) has become the darling of local and national food media - and one taste of their luscious croissants will have you vouching for the praise. Everything is baked on-site in the shop's wood-fired masonry oven while the flour is stone-milled in-house. More often than not, I go for the savory pastries, whether its a salami and cheese or fig and manchego croissant, with the crust shearing apart into rich-tasting, well-toasted, stratified layers in your hands.
When I moved back to Richmond in October 2013, Sub Rosa was still in recovery mode after a fire damaged the bakery's building earlier that April. They reopened in January 2014, and have continued to put Church Hill on the map as a food lovers' destination. The New York Times, Washington Post and Food Network's Alton Brown have raved about Sub Rosa - the Post referred to them as a "the stuff of carb lovers' dreams," which I think is a mild understatement.
Union Market (2306 Jefferson Ave.), among one of a handful of neighborhood grocery stores that are sparking an urban grocer revival in the city, also houses a tiny, patio-ed eatery, where you can order breakfast, lunch and snacks after 5PM. Hearty lunch sandwich options include BLT/TLT (bacon or tempeh, lettuce and tomato), pimento cheese, smoked trout, Muffuletta, hummus wraps and more, with a variety of salads, sides and soups to accompany your sandwich or stand alone.
If you want a little break from the norm, get the pastrami sandwich, which is a classic lunch menu item, but Union Market's version is still a departure from the conventional, featuring grilled pastrami, kimchi and creamy smoked Gouda with Russian dressing on toasted Billy Bread. I'm not sure where the fire-breathing heat emanated from, but the sandwich had some extra pep in it, tempered by the layers of pastrami, cheese and bread. Before you head out, stock up on your beer, wine or cocktail-making accouterments, or other sundry, locally-made supplies and snacks like Nightingale Ice Cream Sandwiches, Lecker Baking Company pretzels, or Chocolates by Kelly for the home fridge.
Stroops Heroic Dogs
When Stroops (2709 E Marshall St.), makers of hand-crafted hot dogs, sodas and stroopwafels, recently unveiled its new seasonal menu, I trekked over the valley and up the hill to check it out. I ordered the Floral Pork Dog, and the flavors came at me from all sides. The sweet taste of the cornbread and honey contrasted nicely with the delicate spice of the pepper romesco and lime pickled onion - just enough cool and heat to make you break a little brow sweat, which a swig of celery seltzer soda will help diminish. Bite, drink and repeat.
And if hot dogs aren't your thing, a visit to Stoops is a must anyway, if only for the hard-to-resist, aforementioned craft sodas, like the grapefruit basil elderflower and watermelon pink peppercorn, featuring sprightly flavors that are the very definition of fresh and balanced sweetness.
As a self-professed "bakery devotee," I tend to keep track (or at least I like to think I do) of "what's trending" in the baked world. First, I was ga-ga over cupcakes. Then, I fell for donuts. Next, sweet was out and savory was in. And while I still swoon about all things frosted or glazed, right now, I'm fixated on biscuits. So a few weeks ago I started working on a blog post about the two local bake shops that specialize in biscuit-making - Early Bird Biscuit Co. and The FANcy Biscuit, both located in the Fan District. I added a third - Saison Market in Jackson Ward - because they seemed to have established themselves as THE place to go for the oh-so-southern fried chicken biscuit - and because odd numbers are better than even.
. . .Then I saw Stephanie Ganz's "Better Know a Biscuit: Vol.1" feature on RVANews.com. If you want a hard-target guide to some of the best biscuits in Richmond, you must read her article (in anticipation of Vol. 2!). While my wallet and stomach had a limit to how much I could reasonably consume in the course of writing my blog post, I love that Stephanie has created this comprehensively-researched, hunger-inducing catalog of where to snag these little baked necessities.
Early Bird Biscuit Co. & Bakery
As mentioned, first on my list was Early Bird Biscuit (119 N. Robinson St.), which just moved from Lakeside to the Fan. I ordered up the house-made pimento cheese and applewood smoked bacon biscuit. Like an onion, this biscuit has layers. The top had a lightly salty, buttery, soft, yet crispy epi-layer, like all the best biscuits have (IMHO). Your teeth sink further into the mid-layer - a cloud of fluffy, baked, down-home goodness - then into the heat of the pimento cheese and the savory crunch of the applewood smoked bacon. Early Bird needs to sell mini-tubs of the pimento cheese because IT IS DECADENT. Inside and out, I appreciate the shop's vintage decor for which it was become known, from its old-school desk (literally) near the entrance, the screened front door that slams shut behind you, and of course, the much-Instagrammed, illuminated "Butter" sign.
The FANcy Biscuit
When I heard the owners of Shyndigz were adding another biscuit haven to the city with The FANcy Biscuit (1831 W. Cary St.), I was naturally happy. Okay, giddy. But then they made us wait. . . and wait. . . and wait some more. Newly opened in April 2016, it was worth the wait. During my inaugural visit, I ordered the Black Dog - a heaping helping of shrimp & grits with Tasso ham gravy over a warm, billowy biscuit - comfort food at its finest. I am a big fan of grits, so I also ordered a side of Cheese Grit Tots, quite possibly one of the greatest culinary inventions ever. The accompanying dipping sauce had the right amount of tang to set off the mellowness of the grits. I also loved the modern yet all-American, red-white-and-blue vibe of the decor and inventive yet still traditional menu - other "Fork & Knife" biscuit plates include the Big Apple (fried chicken, blue cheese, apple slaw, and apple BBQ sauce) and the Freshy-Fresh (collards, cheddar, tomatoes, and poached egg).
When Saison Market (323 N. Adams St.) added the fried chicken biscuit to its menu, the food media took notice (here, here, here, here, and here). So does it live up to the hype? A resounding YES. These biscuits are made with love. Cushioned between a soft and buttery, scarf-worthy biscuit is a tender, juicy slab of brined and battered fried chicken that makes the combo hard to put down. Luckily for you and I, they have more biscuits on the menu - the "Fancy" Chicken Biscuit (Nashville-style fried chicken, sausage gravy, and sunny side up egg) as well as biscuits with your choice of sausage or bacon sandwiched with egg and cheddar cheese. Even more than the fast casual dining-oriented fare and walls of craft beer and wine is that Saison Market, which opened in 2014, has provided a much-needed, personable, urban respite amidst the concrete and charmingly faded edges of Jackson Ward.
In sum, you can't deny that Richmond has fallen in love with the humble biscuit, all over again. So is it fair to call biscuits "trendy"? Nope. But biscuits ARE back, y'all, and they are anything but subdued.
You've been to Maymont. . . Richmond's favorite family-friendly park, known for its 100 acres of green space, Dooley estate museum from the Gilded Age, owls, bears and gray fox exhibits – and killer hills that are SERIOUS quads and glute-builders. And we of course all know and love Maymont for its formal gardens. May is when the peonies start poppin' around Richmond and at Maymont, so it's one of the best times of the year to experience the park.
While many tend to gravitate towards the Italian Garden at the top of the hill with it's always Instagram-worthy vine-wrapped pergola, or the Japanese Garden at the bottom, with its Zen-inducing Koi pond and waterfall, the Herb Garden (where you'll find Bee Balm, Geranium, Chinese Mint, Costmary, Pineapple Sage, as well as more traditional herbs) in front of the Stone Barn and the Children's Farm Vegetable Garden are not to be missed as spring turns to summer. Here's an ICYMI review of what's in the garden in May.
When I was a kid, my family spent a number of summer vacations on the Eastern Shore – we would stay at a hotel right off the bridge near Cape Charles. It had a rooftop deck with wide open bay views, which, in that pre-mobile-crazed entertainment era, was absolutely thrilling to me. Miles and miles of water as far as the eye could see! Other out-of-school seaside retreats were spent further up on Chincoteague Island, which as an adult, I can appreciate so much more now for its out-of-the-way, less accessible peace and solitude.
Chincoteague is the ideal remote getaway, one that feels worlds away from the chaos and commercialism of Virginia Beach, and is as equidistant from Richmond as that other beloved beach hotspot, the Outer Banks. Driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel sets the stage for escape – the 20-mile crossing hovers over an expanse of sun-gleaming, blue, bay waters, dropping you off on the edge of the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge.
Keep motoring for another 65 miles until you arrive in wild and wonderful Chincoteague. In April, the town is still emerging from its off-season dormancy – many shops operate on "If-I-am-there, I'm-there" hours, while others are only open three days a week, but that should only encourage you to spend more time in the wildlife refuge, which features acres of protected beaches, marshes, forests and wildlife, including it's world-famous wild ponies.
Around town and at the refuge, there are plenty of wildlife hiking and biking trails to explore and nature to experience up-close-and-personal. Fishing, boating, and cruising are, of course, other recreational options. Or get your hands dirty, drop a line with a chicken bone in the water and go crabbing. (Honestly, leave your fancy resort-wear and your noses-in-the-air behind, because this isn't the place.) Plan to end your day with a sunset view – you'll be hard-pressed to not find a prime spot for twilight-watching.
In search of dining options, you'll find ample restaurants, sandwich shops, barbecue pits and more than enough ice cream parlors. I like Mister Whippy for soft-serve (Isn't Mister Whippy the CUTEST? He reminds me of a cone-shaped Stay Puft Marshmallow Man...) and Island Creamery – the ice cream is dolloped generously in a waffle cone, just what you need after hoofing the nature trails in 75-degree spring heat.
Later in the growing season, you'll want to hit up some of the local farmers markets, like Church Street Produce, get your coffee fix at Main Street Shop & Coffeehouse, or grab some DEE-licious hot donuts from the Sandy Pony Donuts food truck.
In-season, yes, there is shopping to be had, and by then, merchants should have regular hours. Pop in to Sundial Books and peruse some new and used beach reads, The Brant for island gifts, laid-back fashions, and Christmas ornaments (there is always at least one shop at the beach that celebrates the holidays year-round), and Hollyhocks on Main for vintage treasures and beachy home decor.
If you like a slower pace while on sabbatical, Chincoteague is for you – the speed limit rarely exceeds 30 miles per hour anywhere on the island, so if you are one of those types who gets itchy and impatient driving, walking or otherwise mobilizing around, go to Nags Head or Virginia Beach. Here, you soak in nature at your leisure, unhurriedly appreciate the egrets and sandpipers, purposefully breathe in the salty marshes and just, relaaaaaxxx. Chincoteague is still a small fishing village, and it still is the "best kept secret" in Virginia's tourist industry, and, even though I'm writing about it, I hope it stays that way.
I'm not sure when my interest in small grocers became a full-blown fascination. . . Maybe it was when I decided to work for myself as a freelancer, and I began to empathize a little more with small businesses in general. Then again, there is something enticing about walking into a specialty grocer like Zabar's in New York City or Feast! in Charlottesville and knowing you are going to find things there that you can't find anywhere else, mainly, because they reflect the unique tastes of the community as well as what is grown locally.
Now, larger-scale marketplaces like Union Market in Washington, D.C. or Italian food mecca Eataly are becoming epicurean destinations unto themselves, where you could literally spend half the day, hopping from aisle to aisle or artisan to artisan and not just devouring food but consuming knowledge about food and how it is made.
Fortunately for me and the rest of Richmond, the city is now in the midst of a renaissance of sorts in the small-scale, urban grocery store. In the past year, several highly curated neighborhood markets have sprouted up on the scene, each as distinctive as the neighborhood they represent: Little House Green Grocery in Northside, Union Market in Church Hill, Harvest Grocery + Supply in the Fan, Saison Market in Jackson Ward and Yellow Umbrella Provisions (which has actually been around for quite a while) on Patterson Ave. Included in that mix is standard-bearer Ellwood Thompson's - we are all spoiled rotten for having access to a store like that.
Adding to the burgeoning neighborhood market comeback is Stella's Grocery (1007 Lafayette St., next door to sister restaurant Stella's), which opened in April 2015, followed a few months later in June with the arrival of Kohlmann's Market (109 E. Grace St., next door to sister restaurant Perly's).
At Kohlmann's, you can find cheeses and charcuterie galore, plus a wide selection of tea, sodas, wine and craft beer, plus Blanchard's coffee. They also stock items that one might typically find in a "regular" grocery store, like fresh fruit, frozen foods and household sundries, sharing shelf space with locally-crafted products from Maven Made, Pickled Silly and Texas Beach Bloody Mary Mix. Stella's Grocery is similarly stocked.
The main attraction, for me, at least, are the prepared foods (because, while I like cooking, I admittedly don't schedule the time in to do it often enough). At Kohlmann's, load up on house-made Summer Pasta, Chicken Penne Pasta, Tortellini Pesto Primavera, Orzo Chick Pea Salad, and Baked Mac and Cheese. At Stella's Grocery, you'll find similar grab-and-go fare, like Greek Penne with Chicken, Pork Souvlaki, Stuffed Peppers and Mushrooms, Heirloom Tomato & Goat Cheese Pasta, White Bean & Tuna Salad, Black Kale Salad, Greek and Mediterranean staples like spanakopita, tabouli, hummus and tzatziki, and more.
And the sandwiches. . . A quote from 30 Rock's Frank Rossitano comes to mind: "What's that? You've never heard of Sandwich Day? Why, it's the most wonderful day of all!" And Kohlmann's and Stella's have some tasty, freshly prepared choices, from Kohlmann's pressed Kuban and Kaprese (yes, spelled with "K") to Stella's Arnaki (roasted lamb, kasseri cheese, arugula, red onion, mint and Dijon on a baguette) and Corfu (feta, tomato, cucumber, kalamata tapenade, red wine vinegar, olive oil, oregano and basil on a baguette). Craving caffeine? You'll find some of the best coffee in the city at Stella's.
I know we are all excited about Wegmans opening up soon in Short Pump, but there is something special about walking around the corner or taking a short drive to your neighborhood market and picking up something for lunch or dinner. . . I'm sorry. I was just distracted by Stella's Instagram gallery filled with images of Rosewater & White Chocolate Macaroons, Baked Dill & Cheddar Scones and Fig Prosciutto Croissants.
So what was I saying? Oh, yes. . . Both Perly's and Stella's are beloved local restaurants, and adding a market component to each is a great way to make the distinctive cuisine that they serve even more accessible. Clearly, the neighborhood market "movement" here is on a roll, reflecting the health of the overall food/dining/restaurant community, which is pretty much anyone who likes to eat and support the comeback of the city of Richmond as a whole.
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