Sitting outside Virtue Feed and Grain on a beautiful spring day, you would think it was business as usual. Yet even with people walking up to the local staple, business is far from normal right now. Staff walking around in masks and gloves serving take-out orders on their second day working, having reopened after taking a month off to help with flattening the curve. That was not the vision Will Smith and his family had when taking over the restaurant two years ago, but this is their (hopefully temporary) new normal.
Virtue is located on the beautiful historic waterfront of Old Town Alexandria, which made it the perfect location for the Smith family to expand their restaurant portfolio which included restaurants in Key West and Louisiana among others. Smith’s father was a Navy Pilot which made him slightly familiar with the area before his daughter asked to attend Episcopal High School, officially bringing the family up from Key West and opening this chapter in their lives. “The location checked off everything we were looking for: historic district, lots of foot traffic, and on the water. We are very fortunate to have a lot of tourists, but our locals are very important for business. We want to be the local place, tourists go.” Smith explains. The team at Virtue feels more like a family and have definitely made a name for themselves with locals who come in to see their favorite servers, bartenders and managers just as much as they come in to enjoy the food or one of the most robust bourbon selections in the area.
When COVID19 started hitting the news and businesses began to figure out their strategies to keep their customers and staff safe, the Smith family decided to shut their doors for a short time. Smith says their number one goal was to keep the team together. “We didn’t want to let anyone go if we could. We have a great team and we wanted to keep them together.” The Smith family managed just that and continued to pay their staff as if they were still working from their mid-March shutdown until they reopened for carryout on 1 May. “They were getting paid to stay home, but our team wanted to get back to work, that’s how much they love what they do.” says Smith.
Director of Operations and Executive Bourbon Steward, Tom Gale, AKA Big T, emphasizes the family feel of not only the staff but the community. “This is a family owned business. We’re family oriented and we wouldn’t serve anything here that we wouldn’t serve our own families. There is something for everyone from chips and dip to Louis XIII.” Extending the family feel even further, Smith talks about how there is no competition in Old Town. “Other restaurants are colleagues, not competition. It’s a small town in the middle of a big city. If we run out of something, we can walk across the street to another restaurant and they will help out and we do the same for them.”
Looking forward, Smith and Gale know the restaurant industry is going to have to make changes. Currently running curbside pickup and delivery is the name of the game and they don’t see it going away in the near future, but they want to maintain their focus on the experience. “It’s the historic building, the decor, the service, it’s an experience to come to Virtue and that’s what people love. We hope to get back to that.” For now, they will continue to give the best experience to their customers from a safe distance and with all the extra precautions possible to keep their staff and customers healthy and happy.
Story by Jeanette Wages | Photography by Bobbi Wages | As published in the May 2020 Issue of VIP Alexandria Magazine