BY KRISTEN MOORE
A pesto chicken salad and glass of rosé sits on the table in front of me. I order this combo almost every time I come for lunch. The salad is stacked up beautifully on the plate, the tang of sun-dried tomatoes and tapenade smoothed out by the creaminess of goat cheese and a perfectly balanced pesto. Not only is the salad excellent, but Mira Papa, co-owner of Rocktown Kitchen, probably could’ve guessed that’s what I would order when she greeted me at the door with a warm hug and friendly smile.
“It’s just who we are. We couldn’t do this any other way,” explains Kristo Papa, co-owner and executive chef of Rocktown Kitchen. He and Mira are sitting with me at a wooden table in the bright, airy space that has garnered them an Entrepreneur of the Year award from the local Chamber of Commerce and has them teetering on the edge of 5-star reviews on almost every online platform. The downtown Harrisonburg restaurant has been open for a mere two years and has not only found a home amongst the sea of restaurants that make up Virginia’s First Culinary District, but has also put down roots for the charming Papa family.
Kristo, originally from Greece, began cooking at age 14. “I didn’t think it would be my passion, it was just easy to find and keep a job,” he says. At some point, he realized he loved the kitchen and moved to the United States in 2001 to continue his career.
Mira, his lovely wife and business partner, is originally from Russia. She found herself working in restaurants, too, an easy point of entry into the job market considering the language barrier when she arrived. Mira was a dedicated employee, working the cold stations at the Omni Hotel in Charlottesville and manning the egg station at breakfast because no one else wanted to do it. “UVA football players would come in and want 10 eggs. I had to learn very quickly how to flip eggs without breaking them,” she recalls.
A coworker of hers happened to be friends with Kristo and told him that he needed to meet this “beautiful Russian girl” he worked with. Mira and Kristo met at a bar, drank Chianti, and have been together ever since. “I mean, how could she resist?” Kristo laughs.
The two of them took jobs at the Glenmore Country Club in Charlottesville. Because of Mira’s limited English, she came on as banquet service, the silent behind-the-scenes staff that make events and weddings run smoothly. Kristo came on as a line cook.
“Until you were the pool boy!” jokes Mira.
“I was the snack shop manager,” Kristo corrects her with a twinkle in his eye. “No one wanted to do that job, so I agreed to take it over.” Kristo took the new responsibility very seriously, making everything from scratch—burgers, chicken salad, tuna salad—and people noticed. “Members were talking about it and how good the food was.”
When that summer was over and it was time for Kristo to return to the main kitchen at Glenmore, they offered him a sous chef position. First morning sous chef, then evening, and finally—in 2010—the coveted executive chef position.
Meanwhile, Mira was also making an impression. She moved from banquets to the main dining room and realized very quickly how important it was for her to improve her English. “Glenmore sent me to Piedmont Community College and paid for half of the classes because they saw potential in me,” she says, gratefully. She took English as a Second Language and business classes. “The business classes are what pushed me,” she says. “For those, I had to pull out a dictionary and translate everything. There were lots of tears and frustrations, but I did it.” Classes started in February and by September, she had been promoted to dining room supervisor.
“If I have to put into words to why we have Rocktown Kitchen and how we ended up here, it would be work ethic,” says Kristo. “We always had great managers, teachers and trainers, but we wouldn’t have learned everything we did and advanced as quickly if we didn’t want to learn.”
For six years, Kristo ran the Glenmore Country Club food services. He was able to make profits, cut expenses, and stay within his staffing budget. At one point, Kristo began a conversation with Mira that went something like this: if we’re doing this for someone else, maybe we could do it for ourselves? And the couple began looking for a place of their own.
They happened on Restoration, a restaurant at Old Trail Golf Club in Crozet, met with the owners and struck a deal to buy it. “What I didn’t know is that owning a restaurant is a lot more difficult than running one for someone else,” muses Kristo.
Despite the even more demanding work of restaurant ownership, and, in this case, organizational challenges with the landlord, the power couple put all of their past experience to work and made Restoration very profitable. They sold it after a short stint and Kristo declared that there would not be another restaurant any time soon. “I want to take a long break,” he told Mira.
The Papa family, including their two children, took six months off, resting on the laurels of their past successes. They went to Disney World and New York City. They got to spend quality time with the kids and learned to know each other outside of work. They learned how important it was to be a family, but added, “we knew it was time to get back to work when we started arguing!”
So they started looking once again, for a restaurant to call their own. “We saw so many places. People were calling Kristo with job offers. We were very close a couple of times,” says Mira.
“Once you are an entrepreneur, it’s very hard to go back to working for someone else,” says Kristo. He pushed toward closing a deal on a restaurant in Charlottesville when he got a call one day from a friend in Lexington.
“He called to tell me about a place in Harrisonburg that had gone out of business and the owner was trying to sell his lease,” says Kristo. “Where is this? Harrisonburg? No thanks, was my response. My friend said, ‘you’re not working, just go look.’” Mira, who was also not interested, told him to go by himself. The Harrisonburg they knew was only from a few visits to car dealerships and an ethnic Russian market to get Mira’s favorite goodies on the south end of town. “We had no idea that downtown Harrisonburg existed.”
Kristo finally agreed to take a look at the space. “I was wowed by the building. I’m looking at the walls, the ceiling, the floors. I pictured this place right away,” says Kristo. “The owner put us in touch with Matchbox [the property management company] and I explained the vision and concept.”
But he needed Mira’s approval, they were a team after all. She came with him for the second visit. “I loved it,” she says. They started drawing on the floor with chalk how they wanted the floor plan to be. They took the next 45 days and completely renovated the space. “We knew exactly what we wanted. The hardest thing was picking out the paint color,” says Mira, making it seem like a breeze despite the fact they spent long nights in the space, even sleeping on the restaurant booth benches during the intense build out.
Part of the push was to try and be open for James Madison University’s graduation. “I’m so glad we didn’t do that in the end,” says Mira. “We wanted to open the right way, train staff, communicate our vision, so we waited.”
It’s certainly not an uncommon restaurant creation story by any means. Many a chef has started out at the bottom of the ladder and worked their way up. So what makes Rocktown Kitchen unique?
“The concept,” says Kristo without hesitation. “We did our homework. We knew this concept—very casual with upper casual food and service—would be unique. Mira adds, “You will see ladies wearing their best diamonds and you will see someone in jeans and a t-shirt and both are equally comfortable here.”
“We wanted people to feel welcome, yet the food and service feel very special,” says Kristo. “This was needed in this town. This is who we are. We couldn’t do it any other way.”
One of the things you’ll notice on your second or third visit to Rocktown Kitchen is that Mira knows who you are. “I had to know everyone at the Country Club. I had to know their name, their number, what they drank. It’s the same philosophy here,” she explains. “Our customers have become regulars. I want them to feel like they belong here.”
They used that extra time to open slowly, with several soft opening nights and lots of hospitality training for their staff. “I told them to think about their customers and the fact that they have chosen to spend two hours of their day with us. That’s precious time they could have spent a lot of other places,” Kristo says. “Be the host you need to be. Take pride in what you do. Just like when someone comes to your home.”
Their own home is a source of pride, too. The six-month family hiatus gave them perspective on how important family life is. But a busy restaurant doesn’t always make that easy. Mira manages the family calendar and stays home a bit more, but Kristo says, “My kids are my everything. When I have an hour break or a day off, I spend it with them. I feed them breakfast and pick them up from school every day. We’re lucky they understand the line of work we’re in.”
They’ve all settled nicely into the community they once defined by car dealerships. “We love this place. It’s so laid back and the people are so nice and supportive,” says Mira. Kristo remembers the day that Andrea Dono, executive director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance stopped by to welcome them. “We were in the middle of the build out and she asked what HDR could do to help us. I asked her how much it would cost,” he laughs. “Her reply was ‘nothing!’ They just wanted us to be successful. We’re in good hands here.”
The Papa’s passion and dedication certainly makes them stand out, but they also feel that the restaurants downtown are so supportive of each other. “The more successful every restaurant is, the better it is for everyone,” says Kristo. “You can’t just have one or two good restaurants and attract the kind of talent or diners that make a great restaurant town. Everyone benefits from each other’s success.”
“We’ve noticed a lot of customers “hop” from restaurant to restaurant in one evening,” adds Mira. “That’s a good indication that there are lots of good choices here. I hope Harrisonburg continues to grow and stay humble.”
If that’s the case, Rocktown Kitchen will be leading by example.