NEWS- Problems, problems: Rifkin eyes success at smashed Café

Some nicknames are obvious. Take the forlorn overgrown parcel at the corner of routes 250 and 240 just east of Crozet. An ambitious dreamer once planned a restaurant called Café No Problem where a gutted eyesore now stands.

But in 1995, that dreamer, Richard Cooper, was shut down by Albemarle County, and Café No Problem quickly evolved into Café Big Problem, both literally and figuratively.

Nearly three years later, when the county finally approved his site plan, Cooper no longer had the money to start a restaurant. The property went on the market in September 1998, where it languished off and on until July 8, 2004, when Five Guys Burgers and Fries partners Bill McKechnie and Melton McGuire, trading as Mechum's Trestle LLC, bought the derelict site for $275,000.

Although their plan was to build someone's dream restaurant on the site, today– more than two years after their purchase– the wind is still whistling through the wall-less framework. The tattered structure stands at the confluence not only of two major roads but also of Lickinghole Creek, Mechum's River, and an elevated railroad bridge. And now another dreamer has stepped forward to take on the challenge of what some might call Café Big Problem.

That would be local real estate agent Stu Rifkin, who thinks his restaurant creds will spell success where so many others have failed.

"I move in those circles," says Rifkin, who created West Main's noted Northern Exposure and recently bought the Nook. "Sometimes you need a facilitator."

Rifkin is trying to find tenants for the LLC, which will build to suit. And it doesn't have to be a restaurant.

"I'm just doing the leasing," says Rifkin, "whether it's a veterinarian's office, a dental practice, or a restaurant." He points out that Crozet is a growth area so "lots of people" need convenient services.

Rifkin says the $60,000 a year rent is a pretty good deal for a 4,000-square-foot facility built to order in a prime location. "That's a lot cheaper," he claims, "than if someone built it themselves."

Better yet, the landlords guarantee the septic will work, a worry previous owners faced in the early 1990s, when Ridge Restaurant discovered the septic field had washed away, and waste was going into Lickinghole Creek. Eventually, the Board of Supervisors granted a rare exception and allowed the building to hook up to the main sewer line, the Crozet Interceptor.

"The perception is that the site's wacky," Rifkin acknowledges. But he doesn't foresee a tenant having any of the problems that bedeviled prior owners. "We have every reason to believe the county will approve something on the current footprint," Rifkin says. "We know what they'll accept."

For decades, the site was a diner called Pop and Ethel's, and for much of the 1980s, it was the home of an upscale French restaurant called Galerie. The county has long desired a more welcoming structure on such a visually prominent site than the current skeletal wreck, which last had walls 12 years ago in January.

Former owner Cooper, reached in Jamaica, sees no reason why someone can't succeed at that site. "It's just a matter of everything aligning to make it go through," he says, "and I think everything is aligned."

No problem.

No problem? Stu Rifkin thinks he can build at the 250/240 intersection.