A new name, a new mission: Richmond restaurant veterans from Comfort, Pasture, Bingo Beer Co. and more join hands with the owner of Ashland Coffee & Tea to create Canteen.
After nearly 20 years serving the residents of Ashland, Ashland Coffee & Tea is being reimagined by its owner, with the help of seasoned veterans in the Richmond restaurant scene.
Cate Hawks has owned Ashland Coffee & Tea, now named Canteen, since 2018. Hawks is also the founder and former director of NewFound Families Virginia, a resource for children in foster care and families looking to foster or adopt. To refresh the coffee shop, she teamed up with Jason Alley and Michele Jones, the hands behind many beloved restaurants in Richmond. The group gave the place a whole new atmosphere.
“We saw an opportunity in the time of Covid-19 to rethink what Ashland Coffee & Tea is,” said Alley. “If we’re going to do something that is successful and good, there really needs to be an outdoor focus so people can socialize safely.”
When they started building on new ideas, the inspiration for the shop’s final design — surprisingly enough — came from a movie.
“Michele had watched The Parent Trap a couple nights before we met up, and was like, ‘This summer camp looks so rad.’ So we thought, ‘Why don’t we do something campy and lodgy?’” said Alley. The new decor includes shelves with trophies, pennants, and camping photos to present a sleepaway camp feel.
Having known the pair from their work with charitable organizations, Hawks is a longtime friend of Alley and Jones. As a social worker for 30 years before purchasing Ashland Coffee and Tea, she’s found a lot in common between the restaurant and social work businesses.
“The idea of helping people is what brought me to the restaurant industry,” Hawks said. “You have a unique opportunity, when you own a restaurant, to help in ways that you might not have thought of.” Her background in social work made her a firm believer that everyone should make a living wage — and everyone working at Canteen is guaranteed $15 per hour.
Alley and Jones launched their restaurant consulting company, Alley/Jones Hospitality, last year. While they’re still newcomers to Ashland, they already know their way around restaurants. Alley opened his first restaurant, Comfort, on West Broad Street in Richmond back in 2002. Since Jones became a co-owner in 2007, the two have gone on to open Pasture on West Grace Street, Bingo Beer Co. in Scott’s Addition, Flora in The Fan, and more outside the city.
“It’s a different pace,” Alley said about going from Richmond to Ashland. “I think a lot of people in smaller towns are looking for things that are comforting, and a little more accessible. Hospitality is really key, as opposed to being on the ‘cutting edge’ of whatever the new trend is. It’s about feeling like you’re part of your community.”
In January of this year, Alley and Jones announced that after 18 years of business, Comfort would be closing at the end of the month. In March 2018, Comfort had begun donating all their net profits to Feed More, a Richmond nonprofit that fights hunger in Central Virginia. Canteen will have a similar nonprofit model.
“The difference is that Cate has a robust background in nonprofit work. We were able to start a foundation that’s attached,” Alley said. “That allows us to be a lot more nimble with how we treat those funds, and how we can raise funds to help the greatest amount of kids and families that we can.”
The Canteen Foundation — which Hawks, Alley, and Jones are board members of — was created to send foster kids in the Richmond area to a camp of their choice. Canteen also has a “Pay It Forward” program, which allows customers to pay for others’ meals in the form of tokens at the front of the restaurant. If someone doesn’t have enough money to eat, they can bring a token to the counter for a free meal. Canteen is also planning to continue Ashland Coffee & Tea’s annual Community Christmas Dinner.
Alley has taken over in the kitchen. While changes are coming to the menu, their intention was to build upon the foundation that kept regulars coming to Ashland Coffee & Tea. Even though Hawks felt trepidation about changing its name and look after 20 years, Ashland residents have responded well to the new Canteen.
“I don’t know if we would have had the same response without Jason Alley and Michele Jones helping to lead that charge, but I think people are excited to see the two of them here,” Hawks said. “The food is very good. It’s a nice environment, [and] you can almost feel like you’re being transported back to your childhood when you look around and see the trophies and pictures from camp.”