The Little Grill, open under (not so new) management
The Little Grill, dining staple in downtown Harrisonburg, has reopened after closing temporarily in September. The new owners, who are no strangers to the Grill, want to continue the beloved restaurant’s legacy. WMRA’s Calvin Pynn reports.
(Sound of the Little Grill’s dining room bustling during brunch)
The Little Grill’s concrete walls echoed with friendly chatter and forks scraping plates over the past couple of weeks – a welcome change after the dining room sat silent for six months.
The worker-owned collective announced it would close in a September 2022 Facebook post, as the business couldn’t continue in its current form.
RON COPELAND: I think COVID ended up being hard on it and the folks who were running it ended up just being a few, and they were tired and were just kind of ready to do something else.
That’s Ron Copeland who, along with his wife, Mel, reopened the Little Grill in March as the restaurant’s new owners. When the Grill closed and its worker-owners reconsidered their business model last fall, Ron had only intended to help advise the group, and buying the restaurant was the last thing on their minds.
COPELAND: Ever since the moment it closed, my sister who knows me well, said: ‘Bought the grill yet?’ and I was like: ‘What are you talking about? I'm not buying the Grill!’ (laughs). But I have a problem with the Grill where it bothers me if it's not okay. And I actually physically get upset about it. And so it was a bit of a roller coaster, you know.
Eventually, their fond memories from working at the Grill persuaded them.
RON COPELAND: It seems like the community wants the Grill...
MEL COPELAND: We want the Grill.
RON: We want the Grill.
Ron and Mel had both worked at the Little Grill since the late 80s and early 90s, respectively. The two met there and owned it from 1994 until 2003, when they decided to turn the business into a collective. Ron stayed on as a worker-owner until 2008.
RON: We had great times at the Grill and just suddenly thought, we might uniquely, maybe not uniquely, but we might be especially positioned to help navigate this situation and get the Grill back open.
The couple reopened the Grill with most of the original staff returning, and they’ve kept most of the same items on the menu. They’re also trying out new approaches such as collaborations with other Harrisonburg businesses such as Broad Porch Coffee, and allowed customers to open “Personal Grill Accounts” to cover the business’ startup costs that could be redeemed as credit for meals at the Grill once the Grill opened.
Although the Little Grill is now under private ownership, and the word “Collective” is being dropped from the name, Ron said he still supports the worker-owned model, and is open to re-implementing it in the future.
RON: I think it’s a great model, I also think the individual owner model can be great too, I’m not ideologically opposed to one or the other.
The Grill needed a face-lift before re-opening, which spanned two weekends in February to get the building back into shape. That involved replacing the Grill’s sign…
(sound of volunteers taking down sign)
… and painting, and deep cleaning the inside of the restaurant. Many of the volunteers who showed up were regulars at the Grill, such as James Madison University graduate Rachel Zubeck. She traveled back to Harrisonburg from Baltimore to help out.
(sound of Rachel Zubeck scrubbing walls)
RACHEL ZUBECK: I used to come here with friends a lot. We’d hang out, wait, brave the long lines. We loved sitting on the booths on the wall and with all the funky little figurines and we’d play Trivial Pursuit.
Outside, JMU student Gabika Watson sanded down the Grill’s benches.
(Sound of Gabika sanding benches)
She was there with several other students working on behalf of the university’s “Growth International Volunteer Excursions” club, or GIVE for short.
GABIKA WATSON: I really, really love this place, I love the vibe, I love the people. Everyone here was so nice and the food, of course, was amazing. And when I heard it was closing I was really so devastated because I knew it was a massive part of this community, and I was really happy to hear that we’re able to come back, help, and make it a big thing again.
The Grill is widely known as a staple venue in Virginia’s old time and folk music scene, and has also hosted theater productions and open mic nights.
RON: I remember a Hackensaw Boys show with literal crowd surfing. I mean, you couldn't move. The whole place was packed and they're handing people around. It was mayhem and it was fantastic.
Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua of Old Crow Medicine Show started playing together at the Little Grill as teenagers and - as a result - the band’s signature song, “Wagon Wheel,” was regularly performed by others on open mic nights – maybe almost too regularly. While Ron said he eventually wants to bring live music back to the Grill, Wagon Wheel is still permanently banned.
RON: Ketch Secor is allowed to play Wagon Wheel, and Critter Fuqua can play it if he wants to, but other than that it is actually banned. And also the three-song limit will always be standard.
(sound of Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua performing “Wagon Wheel” at the Little Grill in 2012)