Seventy miles west of D.C. in Rappahannock County, is Washington, Va., a town of only 135 people, at least for now.
D.C. developer Jim Abdo is the mastermind behind a plan to transform the quiet, postage stamp-sized town into a buzzy getaway for visitors from D.C. and its suburbs. He’s buying up properties along Main Street and bringing in restaurants and shop owners as partners.
Abdo may be leading the changes coming to the small town known informally as Little Washington, but the nascent transformation is far from a one-man affair. Meet some of the other faces behind the small town with big things in store: Brian Noyes, Daniel O’Brien, Patrick O’Connell and John Fox Sullivan.
In the kitchen of Red Truck Bakery on Good Friday, there are cakes to be made, and mid-morning they are being slathered with pastel frosting as customers come in to pick up their coffee or coffee cake by the front counter.
Noyes, a former art director for The Washington Post and Smithsonian Magazine, started Red Truck when things got sour in the newspaper industry, buying a 1954 pick-up truck as a logo on wheels and opening his shop in a former Esso gas station in Warrenton Va. in 2009. The truck was purchased from Tommy Hilfiger; it might as well be painted red, white and blue.
The gas station fits Red Truck’s quaint country image. Built in 1921, it has two bays for cars which now serve as home to Noyes’s kitchen. Noyes shows guests where mechanics used to descend to a lower level to service vehicles and the door outside that once was the path to the ‘colored’ rest room.
Red Truck might be far from the city but it has been discovered by many, winning accolades from the New York Times and Oprah Winfrey and an order for a sweet potato pecan pie for the Obamas. Though locals love stopping in for their daily caffeine fix or a bag of granola, Noyes nows ships 2,000 orders a year around the country.
The back of an Esso station isn’t made for that kind of an operation. There are only a few parking spaces out front and a small space in back serves as the company’s offices, more a place for staff to dump purses and coats. More pressing, is little space to box up cakes, which has the staff wandering about Warrenton looking for space during busy times to get shipments ready for the UPS driver.
“We’re carrying cakes down the street to wherever space is available to use for boxing and shipping,” he said.
The constraints on shipping force Noyes to shut down Internet orders during the busy season and lose out on business. Get your Christmas order in early. “Each year we’ve had to cut off orders earlier. I’ve had to shut it down by Dec. 5 or 6 because of how difficult it was to get it out,” he said.
So Noyes began looking for places to expand.
The search found the ears of Jim Abdo as he assembled his vision for Little Washington. Once Abdo’s White Moose Inn opened, Abdo or his wife came by to Red Truck on the weekends to pick up a paper bag full of baked goods for the guests.
One thing led to another and Noyes eventually decided to establish a headquarters in Little Washington, in the former offices of the Rappahannock News, a local paper that happens to now be owned by another former Postie. Small town.
Early admirers of Daniel O’Brien’s cooking followed him from when he started cooking meals in his Logan Circle house, to his ice cream and sorbet club, to his D.C. restaurant and market, Seasonal Pantry, which opened in 2010 with the unique feature that all its guests sit at a single farmhouse-style table. It is now one of the more difficult reservations in town.
He is asking fans to take one more step.
Next year, O’Brien plans to close Seasonal Pantry and open a new concept in Little Washington, tentatively named Farm to Long Table. It would seem a jarring turn for someone who carefully cultivated a community of foodies in inner D.C. neighborhoods.
He will be leaving a location on 9th street in the emerging Shaw neighborhood for what is currently a dilapidated former tavern and possible brothel from the 1830s that is 70 miles away.
And it isn’t just his work that is moving, it’s him, though he not sure where he himself will end up yet.
“I have to,” he said. “I leave D.C. as a total, as whole.”
O’Brien, who turns 34 this month, worked at Equinox and became an executive sous chef at Bibiana before going out on his own. He said he isn’t certain about what his concept will be — Italian-inspired “peasant food” is an early description –or how much of his small staff will follow him. But he thinks that at least his loyal flock of around 150 customers will.
“I feel like I can build a community,” he said. “I can fit myself into that community that’s already established and I can get my customer base that’s already established here to come out and see me in Little Washington.”
O’Brien also isn’t interested in doing things that are easy, as evidenced by his choice of the stone building. Abdo, who owns it, pitched him earlier on a building that was a lot closer to inhabitable. O’Brien thinks about food the same way.
“If I don’t put something on my menu that doesn’t risk something anymore, that’s not challenging me and my staff, I don’t give a [expletive],” he said.
As a child O’Brien spent a lot of time on his grandparents’ 500-acre farm in upstate New York, which may be of little surprise to those who have visited Seasonal Pantry. He cooks with simple, fresh ingredients. The metal rolling track for the restaurant’s door came from a family barn, courtesy of his father, who hauled it down.
Abdo won O’Brien over on the vision during a visit to a 400-organic farm nearby that will supply O’Brien’s new joint, which could open next summer. Being down the street from O’Connell was a draw as well. “Just to be a neighbor of Patrick O’Connell will be one of the coolest things ever,” he said.
The newest outpost of the Inn at Little Washington was opening at five o’clock that evening and Patrick O’Connell was nervous.
Draperies were going up and the last of the furniture — much of it handmade or meticulously re-purposed antiques — was being brought in by movers, who were wearing only socks on their feet so as not to mark the carpets.
The building is a family home from 1837 that had been re-purposed as office space before O’Connell purchased it and spent millions of dollars turning it into an extension of his inn. He calls it the Parsonage.
For all the inn’s grandeur and success, its guests are sleeping in buildings that once served as a gas station, brothel, tavern or mortuary. While Jim Abdo was rehabbing and re-using historic buildings in Logan Circle on H Street NE, O’Connell was doing the same thing in Washington, and he offered the developer some advice when he arrived in town: “The first thing you do when you buy land here is get the appliances out of the front yard.”
O’Connell remembers the days when there was bumper-to-bumper traffic from visitors headed to Shenandoah National Park. Although he doesn’t see as many park visitors as in previous years, he said the inn welcomes close to 30,000 people a year and business is up 15 percent from last year.
“There are Eastern Shore lovers or mountain people,” he said. “So you divide yourself into two camps, water or mountains. And those who go to the Eastern Shore usually buy property out there, and that’s their getaway. And those who love the mountains and the beautiful scenery here come this way.”
O’Connell is hoping that Abdo will succeed in adding restaurants, shopping and the like that will encourage guests to stay more than 24 hours, or in some cases more than a weekend. After 36 years in business he said he has not slowed down a bit and doesn’t want to see Little Washington do so either. While opening the Parsonage he gestured toward a book about Chautauqua, a town of 4,500 in western New York named this year by Smithsonian magazine as the best small town in America to visit.
“It’s wonderful to have an example of a town that this town should become,” he said.
John Fox Sullivan
The consummate Washington insider, a man who published the National Journal for 40 years and who lived and worked in the notorious Watergate complex, returned to his car after lunch to find three of his closest associates waiting for him.
Spaniels, all of them, wag their tails wildly.
John Fox Sullivan began vacationing in Little Washington in 1986, moved out seven years ago and was re-elected in May to a second term as mayor by a tally of 28-1. “One person just doesn’t like me,” he said.
For all the wealthy diners the Inn at Little Washington attracts, the town surrounding it has not always been flush. The population actually declined by one-third from 2000 to 2010, Sullivan reports, and about 10 percent of buildings were vacant when he was first elected.
John W. McCarthy, longtime administrator for Rappahannock County, said there is an acknowledgment that the area is in need of some new blood. “The demographics of the county are graying substantially,” McCarthy said.
Things are changing by way of some $10 million that has been spent on real estate in Little Washington in recent years — much of it by Abdo — and one of Sullivan’s main charges is trying to revive the quaint main street without it morphing into a place year-round residents don’t recognize.
Abdo is not the first deep-pocketed businessman to swoop in with big plans, and Sullivan said there is good reason for residents to be wary.
“Some people wish there would be no change, some people want it, some people are just a little bit– nervous—I think is the word I would use, about what’s it going to mean,” he said.
This time will be different, Sullivan expects. Abdo has more experience salvaging old buildings than the previous entrepreneurs and there was a revival underway, he argued, via Ken Thompson and partners who purchased the town’s coffee shop, Tula’s, and turned it into a full-service restaurant. “There’s a tremendous economic rebirth that is taking place,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan, 70, and his wife Beverly drive around town in their Suburu, with a vanity plate on back: WASH VA. They own a prominent home off of Main Street first built in the mid-1700s, where they host parties and fundraisers.
Sullivan also invests in the vision he supports as mayor, having bought and renovated a building that became the new headquarters for the Rappahannock News. But he will keep an eye on the growth as it arrives, and he knows the standards on which he will be judged: “A stoplight would be a metric of failure.”
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz