The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

After Only Eight Months, University Cafe Closes Doors Unexpectedly

4 min read
Anne Elder/Bullet
Anne Elder/Bullet

The University Café in downtown Fredericksburg closed its doors on Jan. 4, after only eight months of operation.
Opening in May of 2009, the University Café boasted a diverse menu, a laid back atmosphere, and what then-General Manager David Allen referred to last May in the Bullet as “an exchange of ideas and concepts.”
The café hosted numerous live performances, including Jazz nights and open-mic nights. The walls were adorned with painted murals and original multimedia works by members of the UMW and Fredericksburg community.
Yet due to the current economic climate and what former employees characterize as management misteps at the café, the 409 William Street lot is vacant, at least for now.
According to former General Manager Denise Clancy, the problems began with her predecessor, David Allen.
Clancy said Allen brought in a restaurant consultant in October to go over operations. According to Clancy, the consultant came to the conclusion that the central problem was Allen’s management.
Former University Café property and business owner Tommy Mitchell echoed Clancy’s sentiment.
“The place was mismanaged from the beginning,” Mitchell said. “By the time we had the right manager in, the business had fallen off.”
Allen declined to comment.
After having worked at the café only a few weeks, Clancy was promoted to the position of General Manager. According to Clancy, the level of prior mismanagement became clear immediately.
“A lot had been pushed to the side,” Clancy said. “Most of November was a lot of discovery. There were no systems in place. No food costs, labor control…”
Clancy also expressed her frustration with owner Mitchell’s confidentiality in certain business matters.
“It took me almost a month to just get the financial information,” Clancy said. “It was like pulling teeth.”
Clancy and her team, including two floor managers, a bar manager, a kitchen manager, the restaurant consultant and the wait-staff started making changes.
Management scaled back the menu and hours of operation in an effort to establish a level of consistency.  Although the sales weren’t as good as they had hoped, Clancy and her team were confident that they were making headway.
However, with the combination of the heavy snow fall and college students leaving over winter break, business decreased markedly in December.
Then on Jan. 4, Mitchell called a meeting of the café’s managers. He informed them that, effective immediately, the café would be closed for business, citing “sins of the past” and a steady drop in consumer volume.
Mitchell made the same judgment when he spoke to the Bullet.
“This was not the right time to open the restaurant. Of course the economy plays a big role in this,” Mitchell said. “We didn’t have enough volume coming through the door. It was just a business decision.”
Although he mentioned the economic downturn and lack of business, Mitchell declined to provide the exact amount of money the café was losing.
“We were actually putting together a new menu,” Clancy said. “I paid $100 at Kinko’s that morning to make copies of the new menus.”
She went on to comment on the nature of Mitchell’s decision.
“I think that there were other things going on. Mr. Mitchell was a very private person,” Clancy said. “Mr. Mitchell told me in December ‘I will not close this place.’”
For the employees, the café’s closing came as a complete shock. The suddenness of Mitchell’s decision left many employees without any immediate options.
Server Trish Greene, who had worked at the café since it opened, was left without a job.
“I basically tailored my class schedule around the cafe’s hours and there aren’t a lot of places that would be that accommodating,” Greene said.  “We had absolutely no warning that we’d be losing our jobs, so it really caught us off guard.”
Floor Manager Joseph Fox, who had worked at the café since May, was critical of Mitchell’s decision.
“Closing was too hasty,” Fox said. “The owner wanted an immediate profit, which is impossible. We finally had a great team.”
Regardless of the reasons behind Michell’s decision to close the University Café, many UMW students had grown accustomed to the café as a downtown hang-out.
“It was convenient and seemed safe,” said senior Megan Thompson, a café regular. “I’m going to miss it.”
Junior Kat Hopkins, another regular, saw something deeper in the presence of the University Café in downtown Fredericksburg.
“It was part of Fredericksburg and was accepting of the university students,” Hopkins said. “A lot of Fredericksburg likes to pretend that we are not a college town. And it was a place that integrated both residents and students.”
For Clancy, her main issue with the café’s closing has less to do with monetary concerns, and more with to do with the relationships she made at the restaurant.
“I’m really sad about the café closing,” she said. “I’m 37 years old, I have six kids. And I had 30 more kids at the café.”