John Washburne on opening a restaurant amid Covid-19
In late February, before Covid-19 shook the restaurant industry to its core, Evelyn and John Washburne met with architects about their new Italian concept, Alla Campagna. It is to be housed in the historic limestone building at 342 West Main Street. Over the years, the turquoise clapboard facade has had many eatery names emblazoned on it. And in 2020, it would once again undergo historical renovations and an equipment overhaul.
As their fifth concept, it’s not the first time John and Evelyn have uncovered a phoenix. They’ve renovated spaces in the past, but this one feels even more special. “I'm always superstitious about putting a restaurant in a place that had restaurants fail. But it's a two story, historic stone building and a really beautiful space. We're so excited to work with it.” They left optimistic that their restaurant would open in spring 2021.
Interestingly, despite the hurdles of Covid-19, that spring 2021 opening date still stands. Construction, deemed an essential business, pressed on throughout Fredericksburg’s school and retail closings, and the result is an on-track timeline.
Like Otto’s German Bistro and the Washburnes’ other Austin Street Group establishments, Alla Campagna will be driven by farm-to-table cuisine. “We just started thinking, ‘What grows well in central Texas?’ Heirloom tomatoes. Squash. Calabrian peppers. Zucchini. Basil.” Driven by his desire to support area farmers and suppliers, John wants to push familiar Italian boundaries while making the food accessible. “The emphasis will be on sourcing only from Central Texas which again ties into the age of Corona conversation. Everyone's supporting each other here, so the last thing I want to do is try to source from outside of the state of Texas. Whatever we can get locally; that’s what we’re going to do.”
In fact, John and Evelyn have started sourcing even closer to home—on their own homestead’s 15-acre property. There, on a quaint quarter-acre, they’ve planted nearly 200 tomato plants, an assortment of other vegetables, and are even raising chickens. While it’s not enough to completely supply any of the restaurants that are a part of Austin Street Group, it is supplemental in more ways than one. “Since we were paying people to work when there’s no [restaurant] work to be done, we’ve got a lot of our people at our property doing a lot of farming. Once things open-up again, we'll have fresh produce that we've grown ourselves which is another silver lining with the whole Corona scare.”
While the farm-fresh menu will no doubt showcase Italian flavors with Texas flair (John has already affirmed that yes, there will be steak), the decor will also transport diners and capture the majestic lure of Italy, too. “I lived in Sienna for a month doing a summer program when I was in college, and I've visited Italy several times. It's pretty much paradise. The food is amazing. It has history, and it has great weather. What’s not to love?”
The building’s exposed stone walls will set the tone and be the backdrop for conveying Tuscany but without the usual kitsch. In other words, don’t expect checkered tablecloths, straw basket Chianti bottles, or waxy dripping candles. “We’re protecting the integrity of the building while channeling a mid-century Italian vibe,” says John, who, together with Evelyn, has tapped interior designer Kelly Hallman to bring Italian terrain to Texas Hill Country.
As with any new endeavour, there is an innate risk, but John says he’s ready. “We could be one of the few restaurants opening post-Corona. Who's going to open a restaurant after this in the immediate aftermath? We are.”