Local chef and restaurant owner Jason Alley has been hired by the city of Richmond to be its “provisional policy adviser” and liaise between Richmond small-business owners and city officials.
“We will use his decades of experience to help the Richmond restaurant business scene and also to help us with innovative and creative opportunities to continue to navigate these difficult and challenging times,” Mayor Levar Stoney said when he announced the new role at a news conference Thursday.
The job calls for Alley to reach out to local business owners, understand their needs and tell the city what they are, said Jim Nolan, Stoney’s spokesman. Alley started the full-time job about two weeks ago, and it’s funded through the end of the year with $8,000 in CARES Act money, Nolan said.
Right now, the job is set to end at the close of the year when the federal money runs out, though Alley hopes he’s able to continue in the position.
“Here’s the thing — the intent to do good is there [from the city]. It’s a bunch of people who really want to help; it’s just figuring out how to do it. And if I can help facilitate that, then great,” Alley said.
Alley has been a fixture in Richmond’s restaurant scene for about 20 years. He’s the co-owner of Bingo Beer Co., a restaurant and brewery in Scott’s Addition; and co-owner of Alley/Jones Hospitality, a restaurant consulting business he and business partner Michele Jones launched last year. Previously, Alley was the chef and co-owner of Comfort and Pasture, two downtown Richmond restaurants that closed this past January and in June 2019, respectively.
But now Alley is leaving the restaurant side — at least for the rest of the year — to help the city understand the needs of its small-business owners, as well as to help the small-business owners understand the resources that are available to them from the city, such as its recent small-business grant program.
“When you talk to a lot of restaurant and business owners about the city, there’s that visceral reaction [that the city is bad],” Alley said. “[The city] recognized that there’s a disconnect.”
Alley said that more than anything, he’s hopeful he can be helpful in his new role — to both business owners and City Hall.
“I hope I can make suggestions that can benefit restaurants or eliminate barriers,” Alley said, noting that he’s working on recommendations for temporary outdoor patios and parklets, as well as communication efficiencies. And the city said Alley will be working with multiple departments at City Hall, including Economic Development, Public Works and the mayor’s office.
His office desk — the first for a man who’s been cooking professionally since he was a teenager — is in Public Works. It’s a cubicle, in fact, where the lifelong restaurant worker can be found between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., his packed lunch tucked beside him.
“It’s super cool. It’s all the things as a young cook you sit around and talk about and imagine — putting on your blazer, going into the office, chatting around the water cooler,” he said. “It’s exactly like what I imagined. ... At the same time, it’s really familiar. You have to deal with a lot of things at once — and make sure you’re working well with all kinds of people and taking their feelings into account. And you have to be organized.”
Alley noted that in the end, cooking, restaurant ownership and working at City Hall all boil down to the same thing: “Keeping people happy.”