Last week, Carmello's Ristorante on Fontaine Avenue abruptly closed for "non-payment of rent."
A recently proposed a plan to make up for the school budget shortfall involves raising the meals tax from four percent to five or six percent. Some restaurant owners aren't happy about that.
Last February, Carmello's, the venerable Italian restaurant that was located for 19 years at its familiar Emmet Street location next to the EconoLodge, moved to Fontaine Avenue into the former site of Ludwig's Schnitzelhouse and Arirang Restaurant. At the time, owner Bill Hedges, along with his head chef wife Stella, was excited about the possibilities, given the space was three times the size of the old restaurant. He planned on doubling his staff and creating a little piece of Italy on Fontaine. Last week, however, those plans came to an abrupt halt.
According to the office of landlord Paul Boukourakis, Carmello's was evicted for "non-payment of rent."
No answer, of course, at the restaurant, and we've been unable to reach Hedges, who also opened the Downtown Deli on the Downtown Mall the same year of the Carmello's move. A sign at the Deli's 5th Street location says they are closed for "remodeling."
Court records show that Hedges also had some difficulty paying meals tax and food supplier bills. The restaurant business in Charlottesville, as any owner can confirm, is pretty competitive these days. Anyone who can keep one going for nearly 20 years deserves a medal. So long Carmello's. You'll be missed.
Of course, the fate of the Hedge's two locations, Fontaine and 5th Street, may be up for grabs for an enterprising entrepreneur. We'll keep you posted on developments.
Speaking of meal tax
Meanwhile, with restaurants like Carmello's struggling to pay rent and meals tax bills, Charlottesville City Council recently proposed a plan to make up for the school budget shortfall by raising the meals tax from four percent to five or six percent.
According to vice mayor Kristin Szakos, who suggested the idea during a council session last week, the plan could be a win-win for restaurants, foodies, and the community. The plan would be attached to a marketing campaign, informing diners that every time they eat out they are supporting area schools. Szakos said a similar plan was launched in Roanoke.
"Saying this may benefit the restaurant in the long run is ludicrous," says Fellini's #9 owner Jackie Dunkle. "This is not going to encourage people to go out to eat to support the schools."
As Dunkle points out, the dining market may already be saturated.
"All of us are struggling to keep up with the increased number of options in this city," she says. "I think this tax would be unfair and unequal. Since the expense is passed on to the customer, it seems unfair to make diners, who support local restaurants, pay for this shortage."
As Councilor Dave Norris points out, Szakos was the lone councilor to have suggested the proposal, and he's not inclined to support a meals tax increase.
"Most localities have had to either increase tax rates and/or make substantial cuts in basic services over the past several years," says Norris. "Charlottesville has avoided having to do either. I would like to see us continue in that vein."
Norris thinks that through a combination of spending cuts and short-term City support, the schools can "close their projected deficit and continue their forward momentum."
"In my mind, the proposal would be more politically palatable if Albemarle County were looking at taking a similar step," says Norris, "so that our City businesses are not put at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis County businesses."
Tasty Mex on Greenbrier
Although we've mentioned the opening of El Tepeyac on Greenbrier Drive, there wasn't much ink about the new Mexican eatery. We caught up with owner Maria Gracia recently and got the skinny.
"We're a local family owned restaurant that started out as a small taqueria about three years ago," says Gracia. "Staying true to our roots, we are committed to serving the most authentic Mexican and Salvadorian cuisine– using recipes that have been in our family for years."
In addition to traditional basics like tripe tacos, tinga (chipotle-sauced chicken) burritos, homemade Mexican longaniza tortas and Salvadorian pupusas, you'll find heartier traditional entrées like chicken, steak, and shrimp fajitas, chiles rellenos, and carnitas on the weekends.
"We also recently got our liquor license so we will be adding a variety of margaritas and mojitos to our menu," says Gracia.