Roslyn — the 120-acre Episcopal retreat and conference center on River Road in Henrico County that has served as a spiritual oasis for nearly 90 years — has become a home for Richmond-based The Underground Kitchen, the host of lavish pop-up dining experiences featuring chef-led dinners and world-class wine and beverage pairings.
It’s a relationship formed by a pandemic, but one that rests on common beliefs about social and racial justice, equality for all and impactful community stewardship.
UGK offers ticketed upscale dining experiences, which help fund, in part, a nonprofit called UGK Community First that was started in March.
Roslyn, a gift to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in 1934 upon the death of its former owner, Annie Rose Walker, became the epicenter for that initiative.
Community First provides free homemade soups and breads to anyone in the metro Richmond area who needs it. The food is prepared by UGK’s vast network of chefs, with ingredients provided by their food purveyors.
The brainchild of UGK founder Micheal Sparks and his business partner, Kate Houck, the nonprofit initiative started out as a way to keep the UGK brand alive but also, more importantly, to help those in need, from first responders to individuals and families who did not have access to healthy meals.
While initially serving a few hundred people during its first weeks, Community First grew to serve nearly 3,000 meals a week and, since the end of March, has served nearly 60,000 people around the area.
Roslyn, with its commercial kitchen and dining hall, served as the hub for the program, supported by hundreds of volunteers from local Episcopal churches.
UGK Community First continues to grow and, for that reason, it’s moving from Roslyn in search of a new larger kitchen space.
Sparks said the goal is for Community First to serve meals to more people through community centers in underserved areas around Richmond.
But UGK and its upscale culinary experiences will stay at the religious retreat and conference center.
Patrick Getlein, vice president and treasure for Roslyn’s board of trustees, said the calamity of the pandemic caused the board to question its mission.
The sprawling property along the James River includes 48 guest rooms, a large dining hall, meeting spaces and a chapel, plus acres of open space.
Since 1934, it’s served as a retreat venue for the Episcopal Church and other denominations and interfaith agencies, but also for nonprofit organizations and secular groups. It hosts upward of 300 groups annually, 60% of which are religious organizations.
But it officially shuttered operations May 1.
Annie Rose Walker “wanted it to be set up for religious and charitable purposes, and that’s exactly what we do to this day,” Getlein said. “We welcome people from far and near to nourish their mind and soul and provide them hospitality while they’re here.”
However, as a hospitality venue, Getlein said, “you’re focused on bringing people together, to retreat together, share meals together, be in small rooms together, have close conversations ... and be in relationships with each other.”
“When we couldn’t do that anymore ... we were faced with an existential crisis,” he continued, and that is, “if people can’t retreat and confer the way they used to, how can we now fulfill our mission?”
But when UGK and Community First arrived, a relationship was born from shared belief systems.
Among UGK’s missions are nurturing and promoting chefs who are women and people of color — underrepresented groups within the food industry — as well as starting conversations about important issues like social and racial justice by using food as the tool to bring people together.
For “social justice-minded” Episcopalians, Getlein said, those beliefs “are very appealing to us as a mission-focused retreat and conference center of the Episcopal Church — we feel a good alignment with that mission.”
UGK will host its events at Roslyn — its signature themed culinary events, small corporate events and “micro” weddings — but it will not interfere with the retreat center’s existing food providers for the groups that stay there.
Bishop Jennifer Brooke-Davidson, assistant bishop for the diocese, called the relationship between Roslyn and UGK “synergistic.”
She said hosting UGK events at Roslyn will potentially expose the religious retreat center to those who have never seen it while letting them experience the Episcopal Church’s mission of racial justice and healing, and “sharing God’s vision of a loving community.”
That, and she’s seen firsthand the work UGK is doing to break down racial and gender barriers.
“Getting to know the chefs [UGK has] raised up,” Brooke-Davidson said, “that’s been one of the great joys.”
The feelings are mutual.
Roslyn has the potential to “be that beacon of light for the whole community,” Sparks said, “that conversation place where people of color and white people can get together and realize how much more we have in common than we are not alike.”
Part of the mystique of the UGK events was their unique locations, which changed for each event and were not revealed to guests until shortly before the scheduled dates. The roving part, for now, is on hold, Sparks said, and all events will take place at Roslyn.
“But the premise of food and justice, social justice, food and equality, community — all those premises that Underground Kitchen was built on — will still be done,” he said, “but just on  acres instead of around the world.”
Getlein said Roslyn officials hope to open again in 2021, and some of those groups that canceled this year have rolled their reservations ahead. Still, there’s uncertainty about the status of the pandemic and whether people will feel comfortable traveling in the months ahead.
In the meantime, to help offset the lack of revenue, a portion of the money made from UGK events will be tithed back to Roslyn.
The first UGK event at Roslyn, called “Afternoon of Arias & Amuse Bouche,” is at 2 p.m. Oct. 31 and is part of Virginia Opera’s “Stayin’ Alive” series. It will feature soprano Symone Harcum and others. The event is outdoors, and tickets start at $10 and go up to $150 for packages featuring wine, food and VIP seating.
For those looking for the traditional UGK experience, stick around at 5:30 p.m. for the “UGK Encore,” a six-course paired dinner experience featuring dishes by UGK culinary ambassador Viviana Nunes. Tickets for the encore event are $275.
More events are scheduled throughout November and December.
For the trustees, UGK’s presence at Roslyn has given them a chance to explore previously untapped opportunities.
The pandemic’s impact has been harsh, but “we are beginning to see new depths and dimensions to our vision as a place of hospitality,” Getlein said. “We can see new life for us, new hope [and] new ways to connect out to the community.”
“What we provide them is a space to do their work and further their mission,” he said about UGK, but “it works both ways.”