Monday, September 25, 2023

Landmark Lost: The Jewish Mother Restaurants

The former site of the Jewish Mother at the Triangle Building on Armistead Avenue. (WYDaily File Photo)

HAMPTON ROADS — Few restaurant names are more identic with Hampton Roads than The Jewish Mother. A local empire of sorts known for good food and live music, The Jewish Mother left its mark from Virginia Beach through Williamsburg.

With a devoted customer base, stream of up-and-coming acts, and great food, how did this beloved landmark disappear?

The Beginnings of an Icon

In the mid-1970s, Virginia Beach looked completely different than it does today. The oceanfront was freckled with motor lodges, a handful of locally-owned restaurants, and was filled with the charm and kitsch that was indicative of the youthful Baby Boomer generation.

In 1974, John Colaprete had an idea: why not open a local restaurant with good deli options that could also be a local hotspot for live music? And, thus, The Jewish Mother (affectionately known as “JewMa” by locals) opened at 3108 Pacific Avenue in Virginia Beach.

With a menu mixed with what was described as “nouvelle kosher,” French pastries, and oddly-named sandwiches, a news article from 1984 described it as a place for “the yuppies” (For younger “Millennials” and “Gen Zers,” ‘yuppy’ was a tongue-in-cheek nickname for young professionals). The article also stated that the dessert offerings were, “…a far cry from my grandmother’s simple streudel [sic.] or cheesecake.”

Throughout the 1980s, the mark that the deli made on the cultural landscape was subtle. The “JewMa” hosted some local acts and interesting events such as a “A Gathering of Mystics,” which took place on Dec. 17, 1983 and featured tarot readings, astrology, and numerology to benefit the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

All of that would change come the 1990s, thanks to one tenacious chef and manager.

Scotty Miller

Like the hurricanes that frequent the Hampton Roads coastline, Scotty Miller swept in like a force of nature. He was passionate about what The Jewish Mother was and what it could be. Serving as chef, manager, and later co-owner with Colaprete, he had the vision to grow the brand and turn it into an anchor in not only Virginia Beach, but around the Greater Hampton Roads area.

Under his watch, up-and-comers like Dave Matthews Band, Hootie & the Blowfish, Ice Cube, and Michael Tolcher took to the understated stage at the JewMa. The intimate venue provided a space where the artists could engage with their fans while said fans could take in what felt like a private performance.

Customers were encouraged to write messages on the walls of the deli while indulging in dishes that were as bizarrely-named as they were delicious. With unique options like Pita and the Wolf (a hot spiced beef and Swiss cheese sandwich with ranch dressing, stuffed into a pita), Mother’s Sailor Friend (split knockwurst and pastrami with melted swish cheese on a choice of bread), and Annie Said, “Eat your Spinach” Salad (which included baby spinach, tomatoes, red onions, bacon, and fried goat cheese served with a balsamic vinaigrette), customers loved the food as much as the music.

During this time, Scotty Miller officially became a co-owner of The Jewish Mother. In 1993, the owners considered opening a second location in Hampton; going through the motions as if it were to come to fruition. Yet that idea fizzled out fairly quickly before anything could be set in stone.

However, the idea of expansion through franchise was still left on the table as a possibility.

Franchise Goes Up in Flames

In November 1997, Joann Maxwell opened the first Historic Triangle The Jewish Mother location (via franchise) at 2021 Richmond Road in Williamsburg.

The latest iteration of the JewMa was situated at an ideal spot with high visibility on a main thoroughfare cutting through the bustling tourism hub. Like its originator, the Williamsburg location was no stranger to bigger names. While hosting a smattering of blues acts, the line up also included Carbon Leaf and local-favorite Michael Clark Band.

Sometime between its opening and 1999, Steve and Lori Caudill came to own and operate the franchise. With a tightknit staff, the Williamsburg restaurant seemed destined for the same glory as its Virginia Beach counterpart.

All was (literally) shattered when alarms were triggered at 4 a.m. on November 4, 1999. The Caudills rushed to their restaurant only to find it completely engulfed in flames. Employees arrived, crying and hugging one another, all while asking what they were to do. The fire was so strong that the heat destroyed 39 windows in the hotel next door. After more than an hour, firefighters were able to bring the blaze under control. By some happenstance or miracle, no one was hurt but the restaurant was a total loss.

The Caudills announced that, since they were near the end of the franchise agreement, they would not renew under The Jewish Mother name, but as Gatorz Sports Bar.

Never to Be Deterred

The year following the fire, Scotty Miller became the primary owner of The Jewish Mother. He continued to have aspirations of expansion to include a location in Portsmouth on High Street, which came and went without leaving terribly much of an impact.

A brick from the original Virginia Beach location of the iconic restaurant/live music venue, The Jewish Mother (Nancy Sheppard’s personal collection)

In 2010, Miller announced that a new location would open in what was Kelly’s Backstage Café at 317 Monticello Ave. in Norfolk. In a space that attached directly to the live music venue, The NorVa, this location should have taken off the way both Virginia Beach and Williamsburg did. With early access for its customers to The NorVa, a stage for smaller music acts to perform, the same tried and true menu JewMa customers came to love, and its location near all of the attractions in Downtown Norfolk, this should have been a “slam dunk.”

While the excitement was building for The Jewish Mother Backstage location, the company took a devastating hit.

The original Pacific Avenue location suddenly closed on Oct. 10, 2010 due to what was only described as a “leaky roof.” While the old building was not in great shape, it was still a beloved destination for two generations of locals, tourists, and musicians.

In the words of Don McLean, that was the day that the music died… at least for the original JewMa.

After being purchased by developers, the single story line of shops that included The Jewish Mother was torn down and replaced with a characterless sky-high building with shops on the ground level and condos above. The last vestiges of the local’s beach disappeared.

Miller was unwilling to stay knocked down like his original restaurant now was. In 2013, he announced that The Jewish Mother would open in Williamsburg for the second time. However, this new location would not be a franchise, but as part of the core brand. Miller signed a five-year lease with the City of Williamsburg on August 12, 2013 to open The Jewish Mother Unplugged.

Additionally, a new JewMa location opened up in Virginia Beach, called The Jewish Mother & VB Taphouse. While the previous location sat on a tourist- and pedestrian-heavy site at the Oceanfront, this one would be in the shopping and neighborhood district known as Hilltop.

In the spring of 2014, the the deli side of The Jewish Mother Unplugged opened in the Triangle Building at 601 Prince George St. at the corner of Armistead Avenue.

All Good Things…

Despite the excitement, there were legal cracks in the company’s foundation that proved insurmountable.

Dave Coleman, a resident of Toano as well as a partner and director of operations for The Jewish Mother brand, and Miller entered a legal dispute after Miller filed a lawsuit against Coleman for illegally using the business’ trademarks, trade secrets, and failing to follow through on a plan to franchise The Jewish Mother. Both Coleman and Miller claimed that they each owned the trademarked name, logos, and recipes.

The Virginia Beach location faced more issues which included legal disputes due to embezzlement by an employee. It was more than this legal dispute, though, that brought finality to the new location. With the cleaned-up, more “run of the mill” Hilltop restaurant not garnering the same following as its oceanfront predecessor, it closed in March 2014. Around that same time, The Jewish Mother Backstage also closed, citing lack of parking and competition with downtown food trucks as the reasons.

After a short run of just the deli in the spring of 2014, The Jewish Mother Unplugged closed for the summer, with Miller explaining that it was to prep the additional space for its live music venue. He predicted a reopening date of August 25, 2014.

On August 8, a person only identified as the manager of the Virginia Beach location told WYDaily that The Jewish Mother Unplugged was “not happening.” When WYDaily asked Miller, he dismissed it and claimed that delays were a result of the inspection process and permits regarding its kitchen.

“They [the Virginia Beach manager] don’t know what’s going on,” said Miller. “We had the deli part open, but the management there [the Williamsburg location], what happened was one of them decided to go back to California and the other went to Virginia Beach.”

Just days after this interview occurred, the City of Williamsburg Economic Department confirmed that The Jewish Mother entered into default of its lease, with the City taking possession of the JewMa’s assets at the Triangle Building.

On August 25, it was confirmed that the Williamsburg location would not be reopening. Miller claimed that this was due to issues with payroll and finding a new manager.

…Come to An End

The same month that it was confirmed that the Williamsburg location would not reopen, Miller tried his hand at opening a third location in Virginia Beach. This time, he would take a page from the old rulebook of the original JewMa. Going in at the ground level of Peabody’s Nightclub, located at 209 21st Street, this was the last breath for the once irrepressible brand.

However, this gasp was not enough to save The Jewish Mother. With just a month-long lifespan, this last iteration of the JewMa closed its doors for the final time. Miller blamed parking issues at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront as the reason for its quick failure.

With the locking of that door came the end of an era. On May 8, 2020, Scotty Miller died due to complications from a kidney transplant. With his death came the end of the final chapter to the iconic restaurant and live music venue brand.

It’s hard to find “Gen-Xers” and older “Millennials” that are native to the area who don’t have some fond memory of the JewMa. The dingy, grimy original venue was a place to gather to hear live fan-favorite music, grab a great bite to eat, and come together with locals and tourists.

While the JewMa still remains alive in the photos taken and memories created at its locations, it remains the true definition of a Landmark Lost.

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