FOOD- THE DISH- Caffeine corner: Fox Park coffee worth a hike

Rick Johnson opened Fox Park this month.

The paint's barely dry, and the permanent signage wasn't up last week, but the Corner's newest coffee shop, Fox Park, officially opened for business Wednesday, October 17, in the courtyard behind Baja Bean.

"It's been a goal for three years," says owner Rick Johnson, who moved to Charlottesville from Nebraska two years ago when his wife enrolled here in graduate school.

For much of that time, Johnson was a manager at the Preston Avenue Bodo's, but last December, he prepared to take the self-employment plunge, signing a lease on a space that once served as storage for a tanning salon. Johnson and his father, a Nebraska contractor, did the upfit themselves, and the result is a sleek space painted blue and chocolate brown with orange accents. 

As for the name, Johnson says it might have been different if his original plan to propose to his girlfriend hadn't been thwarted.

Hiking in Colorado in 2005, Johnson, ring in pocket, was aiming to reach a scenic overlook on the Buchanan Pass Trail when the couple's path was blocked by "two scary deer with full heads of horns."

Johnson considered pushing on, but when the deer held their ground, he thought better of it. "I didn't want to challenge them," he says. Instead, he headed back, got down on bended knee at a section of thre trail called Fox Park, and popped the question.

While 27-year-old Johnson admits he's "easily intimidated" by wildlife, he's much braver when it comes to another type of beast.

"I'm not afraid of Starbucks," he says, recalling numerous questions from friends and acquaintances about his decision to set up shop just blocks from one of Charlottesville's four Starbucks locations.

Fox Park's Free Trade Haitian coffee will be a draw, Johnson believes, as will the "local color" he hopes will make the shop unique, including rotating art on the walls, and music and menu items eventually picked by employees and regulars (right now, Johnson is his own staff of one). Johnson says the espresso he serves is inspired by the best espresso he ever tasted– on his honeymoon in Rome. 

As for the other Corner coffee competition– Higher Grounds, with one kiosk in Plan 9 just a few doors down, and two more in the Medical Center– Johnson also isn't worried. In an area overrun with students and exhausted doctors and nurses, there should be plenty of coffee demand to keep all caffeine purveyors solvent.

"I'm surprised there aren't more coffeeshops around here," he says.

Uh, there were, until Starbucks arrived.

Wined and dined

Enoteca's been whetting wine-lovers' whistles with Italian vintages for several months, but it won't be the only business of its kind on the Downtown Mall for long. Construction in the former April's Corner space is slated to begin late this week or early next week to make way for Siips, a wine tasting and wine retail store.

No, that extra "i" is not a typo prompted by Dish nipping in Siips' cellar. Instead, says co-owner George Benford, the double vowel helped push the name through the trademark process.

Benford is co-owner of a West Virginia-based travel company, and he's been coming to Charlottesville from his home near Charleston nearly every weekend for the past eight years to watch UVA games and stroll the Downtown Mall. Two years ago, he says, he decided to make the move and put his love of wine to work. He expects to be a full-time Charlottesville resident by November 10, and his business partner, Springfield, Virginia-based businessman Fran Imbriglia, may also relocate to be closer to his college-age children.

Can the Mall handle so much wine tasting? After all, VaVino– the original wine tasting room in Enoteca's space– didn't make it. But Benford says the time is ripe for more wine.

"I've spent a lot of money in Enoteca since I've been coming to Charlottesville," he says, noting that at times he's seen a line form for seats inside. "I think there's enough demand for a nice place with wines that we don't have to be competing with each other." 

He points out that while Siips' business model is similar, Enoteca focuses solely on wines from Italy, while Siips will feature a wine region of the month– France, Spain, California, South Africa, and, of course, Virginia.

Benford describes the atmosphere of Siips as "cozy contemporary," and plans to offer lunch– "upscale salads, exotic soups, and European sandwiches"– in addition to a tasting menu that accents the wines starting mid-afternoon.