Running Comfort has been quite a ride for chef Jason Alley these past 17½ years, but now it’s coming to an end: The restaurant will close at the end of January.
“It’s time. It’s been a really good run and we have a lot of stuff going on. I’m ready for phase two of my career. I’ve been a cooking in restaurants since I was 10. I’m 46 now,” Alley said of the restaurant he owns with business partner Michele Jones, who became co-owner of Comfort in 2007.
Alley, along with former business partner Chris Chandler, opened the Southern food restaurant at 200 W. Broad St. in 2002 — years before the section of downtown now known as the Arts District became a thriving entertainment area. It was also years before Richmond was the culinary destination it is today.
Alley was a key player in making both things happen. He was named a Richmond Times-Dispatch Person of the Year honoree in 2017 for his role in developing the local food scene. Since 2018, all of the net proceeds from Comfort have gone to feeding the region’s hungry by way of the nonprofit Feed More.
Comfort was Alley’s first restaurant. His first baby, so to speak.
“My wife painted and designed Comfort when she was pregnant with our first kid,” Alley said.
He and his wife, Mercedes Schaum, would go on to have three more kids and Alley would go on to open five more restaurants, all with Jones.
Last year, Jones and Alley welcomed their latest baby: Alley/Jones Hospitality, a restaurant consulting business, and Alley said the two will now focus on it and Bingo Beer Co., a restaurant, brewery and arcade they opened in 2018 in Scott’s Addition with business partner Jay Bayer.
“We’ve already got a contract to do the food and beverage for Rally,” Alley said of the client they signed on last year. Rally will be a bar and restaurant with a focus on pickleball that is expected to open in Manchester soon.
And Alley said business is starting to pick up.
“We’re getting contracts without really seeking them out. It’s time to make the next step,” he said.
Still, Comfort has played a crucial role in Richmond for many.
In 2018, Alley and Jones changed Comfort’s business model so 100% of the net proceeds would go to Feed More, the Richmond-based nonprofit that serves more than 200,000 people in central Virginia by providing meals and other food-related services. A dollar figure for the contribution was not available Monday.
“With a budget our size, the money doesn’t make or break us, but being associated with the brand — that was great,” said Feed More CEO Doug Pick. “A lot of nonprofits would kill for that kind of association.”
Through Comfort and Pasture — the restaurant on East Grace Street they closed in June after seven years in business — Alley and Jones also have been connected to Off Broad Appétit and Zest Fest, dinners for which the proceeds went to Feed More. The pair also hosted Thanksgiving dinner for foster care children at Pasture and gift drives and toiletry and luggage collections to benefit foster kids through Connecting Hearts.
“It’s been a great run — for him and Michele and the city,” Pick said. “I’m old enough to believe that when a door closes over here, a window opens over there.”
Still, the closing is bittersweet. “It’s home,” Alley said of the restaurant. “It’s always felt like home.”
Jones agreed. “Comfort is the place I met my business partner. It’s the reason I have anything I have today. It’s been the launching pad for everything I’ve been able to build,” she said.
The restaurant known for its plates of meatloaf and mashed potatoes and other comfort foods will close at the end of service on Jan. 31. In the meantime, Jones said to expect some special events throughout the month, such as guest bartenders, the return of the Paulie sandwich pop-up and perhaps even some celebrity chefs.
Comfort will be open daily beginning at 5 p.m. for the rest of the month.