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The Siren returns: Hunter Smith's empire is dead, but Laura Fonner isn't

It’s only been a matter of weeks since she closed one Charlottesville restaurant, and Laura Fonner is already standing in the doorway of another one.

The former owner of the Siren seafood restaurant — who has placed the blame for that restaurant’s demise on former business partner Hunter Smith — confirmed to The Daily Progress that she is moving on to her next project, this time at a prime location on the Downtown Mall.

The property at 422 E. Main St. is a step up from Fonner’s previous real estate, in the rear basement of the Staples office supply store in the Vinegar Hill Shopping Center. But it’s more than that.

It’s also the location of the shuttered Passiflora, a Latin-inspired restaurant that was also once part of Smith’s eat-and-drink empire in the Charlottesville area before all of that crumbled.

Fonner told The Daily Progress that a dumpster would be arriving this week to collect some of the things left behind by the previous tenant. She declined to provide further comment.

Allan Cadgene, the building’s landlord, confirmed to The Daily Progress that the property has been re-rented to a collection of people, Fonner among them, that plans to open a restaurant in the location.

That group includes at least one investor who happens to be one of Fonner’s old friends from high school.

The investor declined to have their name used, asking that the focus be on the restaurant, its food and Fonner.

“I know she had a rough go at it with Champion [Hospitality Group],” the investor told The Daily Progress. “She’s so talented and I’ve always supported her. I used to sit at the bar and dine at Duner’s and we’d always talk about dreams of maybe partnering up together.”

Fonner left Duner’s in 2021 to join Smith’s growing Champion Hospitality Group. While the move ultimately let her own a restaurant of her own, she took over Siren from Hunter Smith not realizing the full extent to which the business was saddled with debt. With one unexpected bill after another, Fonner said she eventually had to make the difficult decision to close up shop.

Speaking to The Daily Progress during Siren’s “Buy the Bar” event in late July, Fonner expressed both sadness at the closing of her business and gratitude for the outpouring of support she received from the public.

Asked what was next for her, she said she had a consulting job lined up.

“But the real answer is big things,” she continued. “Really big things.”

It appears those “big things” may very well be underway. And after all those conversations at Duner’s, she and her high school friend’s dreams may soon be realized.

That friend had cautioned that their plan was “still very embryonic” while lease negotiations were going on, but after Cadgene confirmed the deal was done, it’s now possible Fonner could be serving diners at the old Passiflora space in less than two months.

The quick turnaround is possible because, although Passiflora is closed, it’s not empty.

From the outside looking in, it is clear the bar remains stocked and furniture is still in place.

“Downstairs of that space is pretty much turnkey,” said the investor. “It would just be the upstairs rooftop that needs to be built up in time for the spring,” referring to the outdoor rooftop space that was once Sky Bar when Passiflora was a new American eatery called Commonwealth.

The goal would be to open by November or even October.

“I think she could pull it off,” the investor said.

Fonner’s partner said they hope to strictly work on the financial side of the potential business, leaving Fonner to handle what she does best.

“She just wants to focus on food and delivering out of the kitchen,” the person said. “Her and I would be a good yin and yang for that.”

By financing the endeavor and letting Fonner be the face of the operation, the investor aims to remain in the background.

“I’m definitely not at all interested in being the face of it. In a perfect world, I’d come in for dinner and the server wouldn’t even know who I was,” they said. “I want her to feel like it’s her place, and I’ve expressed that to her.”

According to the investor, it was Fonner who first reached out with the idea.

“Shit, when she called me I was like, ‘Hell yeah. I think you’re an amazing chef. You just need the right opportunity and the right support system,’” they said. “And those are the kinds of things she wasn’t getting before.”


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