Before Siren permanently shut its doors, unable to overcome the restaurant’s mountain of debt many attribute to former owner and embattled restaurateur Hunter Smith, owner Laura Fonner took the stage at her beloved eatery one last time.
“This sucks. These terms suck,” Fonner said to a large crowd of admirers Wednesday night.
But as hundreds of people poured into Siren for its “Buy the Bar” event, supporting the staff and the oft-swearing chef who has become a champion of the Charlottesville restaurant community, Fonner saw a silver lining.
“The love that everyone is showing to my staff is just unbelievable. You know what it does? It gives me energy to do the next f—king coolest shit,” Fonner said to cheers.
Throughout the bittersweet evening Fonner was awash in hugs, kisses and condolences from loyal supporters. The outpouring of love was both beautiful and overwhelming, she said. But it may have been painful too, a reminder of what was lost and what could’ve been.
Much of the city has rallied around Fonner after she announced earlier in July that Siren would be going out of business. She blamed Smith for its demise. In a Facebook photo that has since been converted into a T-shirt, Fonner stands before her restaurant with two middle fingers raised in front of a sign bearing Smith’s name.
Fonner said she and Smith have not spoken since she signed the papers to take ownership of Siren. She was given full control in February.
“I can’t imagine he wants to speak with me, and the feelings are mutual,” she told The Daily Progress on Wednesday night, a glass of white wine in hand. “There’s nothing left to say.”
Their relationship was deeply damaged last December, when Smith’s Champion Hospitality Group gave Fonner and Siren general manager Erin McGowan access to the restaurant’s financials.
“We started going through the books and finding all kinds of not-great stuff,” McGowan told The Daily Progress.
Among that stuff, McGowan said, was a long list of unpaid bills and a bank account with negative $10,000.
Fonner said she took out a loan to get the account back to positive in December. When she was given ownership of Siren she knew of $80,000 in unpaid bills. She said she made good on them all.
McGowan said the team was scrappy. Despite the restaurant’s financial woes, Fonner made sure Siren had enough money to pay all of its employees, according to McGowan. A profitable December helped.
“So even though [the account] was negative when I took over, it didn’t stay that way long,” McGowan said.
With bills and vendors paid off, a positive bank account and enough money to be sure staff wouldn’t miss a paycheck, the team saw a light at the end of the tunnel.
“We were going to be OK,” Laura said. “And then we got a lien put on our bank account from back taxes from before I signed papers.”
McGowan said the lien virtually wiped out the bank account. Just as they started to recover, another unexpected bill appeared. This one for $9,000 in unpaid unemployment taxes from 2021-2022.
“That was kind of the nail in the coffin,” McGowan said. “We were making money, but we just couldn’t get out from under all the shit that he put us in.”
Smith did not respond to request for comment from The Daily Progress.
Fonner briefly considered pushing on, but said she didn’t “want to do exactly what I’m fighting against.”
“I had to make a responsible decision that I can’t keep asking my loyal people that have stuck through everything to work when I don’t l know if I can pay them,” she said. “Tonight is their payment.”
The proceeds of the cash-only event went to staff.
“Give them all your money, because I ran out,” Fonner told the crowd.
Patrons enjoyed alcohol, bluegrass and heavy metal bands, a silent auction and a “live mermaid.”
Mermaid Mirage sat atop a table in the dining room, her ornate red scales and tail dropping to the floor.
Siren did seafood “perfectly” said the mermaid, who attended the event to show Fonner’s mermaid-themed restaurant her support.
“It’s sad to see a restaurant that did everything perfectly fail,” she said.
Everyone at the event was working class, Fonner said, a group she feels like she’s fighting for.
“They don’t need to come give me their money. They’re poor like me,” she said. Their attendance, she added, was proof that she is “fighting the good fight.”
“I guess I’m the new advocate in Charlottesville for the restaurant business,” she said.
Fonner’s boyfriend, Jimmy Stelling, told The Daily Progress he is excited for her future, particularly with the strong showing on Wednesday night.
“I know she’s going to take off,” he said.
Still, Fonner said the wound from losing her restaurant was still raw.
“I can’t stand that she poured her guts and soul into it and it was all stripped from her,” Stelling said.
While Siren staff was the focus of the evening, no love was lost for the restaurant’s former owner.
“I’ll put it this way,” one patron standing outside was overheard saying. “Not one of us is here to support Hunter f—king Smith.”
Fonner has not been shy when speaking about Smith, claiming that she’s simply vocalizing what other people are thinking.
“I’m not a woman scorned, I’m a partner scorned. I’m just the one that’s willing to talk about it,” she said.
“He’s done this to more than one person,” McGowan said. “There’s going to be a line of folks looking for money, so Laura knows she may never see it again.”
Asked what’s next in her career, Fonner first said she will spend the next couple months working a temporary consulting job while she figures out her future.
“But the real answer is big things,” she continued. “Really big things.”