Shops may come and restaurants may go, but the local vibe on the Corner carries on.
The recent closing of the College Inn, a restaurant with a 53-year history on the quaint strip of commercial properties across the street from the University of Virginia, has caused concern on social media among long-time residents and UVa alumni.
The loss of the eatery, combined with last summer’s closing of the Corner’s iconic Littlejohn’s Deli, has some worried about a change in atmosphere in the university-centric shopping district.
Chris Engel, Charlottesville’s director of economic development, said it likely won’t change that much.
“This happens with some regularity every few years, and sometimes the turnover is more apparent,” he said. “We’ve seen a little more turnover than we’re used to seeing and some popular, long-time businesses are leaving. It’s a turbulent time for restaurants across the country, and it’s no different on the Corner.”
In the last year, the Corner saw the closure of Littlejohn’s and an unsuccessful crowdfunding effort to get it reopened. Michael’s Bistro and Taphouse also closed. The Sheetz convenience store and restaurant shuttered as its parent company pulled the plug on its café project on college campuses.
Engel said he believes tenants will quickly be found for the open storefronts.
The College Inn already has a replacement in chain restaurant Chipotle Mexican Grill. The restaurant’s alterations to the location were approved recently by the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review.
“The changes proposed in this submittal are intended to embrace and preserve the history of the building and the Corner historic district while incorporating an appropriate level of trade dress for the Chipotle Mexican Grill brand into the overall design,” a staff report presented to the board states.
The College Inn’s departure was a combination of the restaurant proprietors deciding to retire at the same time their lease was up and building owner Amorgos LLC, headed by local businessman and restauranteur Terry Vassalos, securing Chipotle.
“We’re closing tonight at midnight, permanently at this location. It remains to be seen if we’ll ever return. Thank you for your support,” College Inn proprietors wrote June 12 on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “Lease is up. New tenant coming … current owners retiring.”
Vassalos, who once ran the College Inn himself, could not be reached for comment.
Still, it’s not all bad news for those who like their Corner steeped in history. The White Spot, Charlottesville’s quintessential hole-in-the-wall diner that was founded in 1953, will continue its long history of supplying townies and gownies with its fried egg-topped cheeseburger.
The diner has been bought by an investment consortium of about two dozen UVa alumni, including former Cavalier and professional basketball star Ralph Sampson.
The late Tom Ferrell, former UVa rector and head of Dominion Energy, and his sons also invested in The White Spot.
The collection of investors is less interested in a big return than keeping a local institution alive and grilling, said Bert Ellis, an entrepreneur, investor and owner of several TV stations who organized the group.
“No one is going to go broke on their investment. I didn’t allow anyone to put the widows and orphans fund in the place,” said Ellis, sitting at The White Spot’s picture window facing University Avenue. “We’re all basically equal partners. I expect us to see a small return on our capital, but no one is putting their money in here as a big venture capital investment.”
Ellis said the investors are all graduates who have fond memories of the diner and the Corner. Several of them worked at The White Spot during their undergraduate years, according to the diner’s website.
“We have lots of stories and we hear lots of stories from customers,” Ellis said. “Some people got engaged here. When I got engaged, we immediately came over for a Gus Burger. The lacrosse team would come in here and get breakfast, or guys would take breakfast back to the dorms. There is a passion for this place.”
Ellis said The White Spot has never lacked for customers nor has it been financially challenged. He credits the intimate seating arrangements — some might call it cramped — and diverse clientele with keeping the diner in the black.
“We have an equal number of town people and students who come in here. Our pandemic business initially fell off 90% but by the end of the pandemic year, it was almost normal,” he said. “Now we’re having as good a year as we’ve ever had.”
Ellis, whose business card title is the Big Gus, said the lack of big parties and football games during the pandemic made last year difficult.
“We’re looking forward to that changing this fall,” he said. “During football games, our revenue is just a function of our 36-inch grill and how much we can cook.”
In financing the purchase of the business, Ellis said investors built in some room for expanding the restaurant. That includes the Gus Bus, a food truck offering fare from the restaurant.
“I see a big demand for the Gus Bus, whether it’s at vineyards or brew pubs or parties or receptions,” he said. “We’re the only food truck that has a direct association with UVa. There are a lot of good food trucks, but they’re about food. The White Spot has a UVa connection because of its location and its history, and the Gus Bus is a nod to that.”
What makes The White Spot a business worth investment for Ellis and company is also what makes the Corner likely to continue to be popular, profitable and ever changing, Engel said.
“Most of the property owners are local and have owned their properties for a long time and they are aware of the history,” he said.
“There has always been a mix of old and new, local and national on the Corner, and I think that will continue,” Engel said. “Change happens on a regular basis, but what hasn’t changed is that the Corner is an excellent location for retail and for restaurants.”