Ted Santarella with his family (Photo courtesy the Santarella family)
Ted Santarella, a well-known Richmond restaurateur, died this week after a battle with cancer. The Facebook page of one of Santarella’s three restaurants, Tarrant’s Café, broke the news late Tuesday. Ellen Bucher, general manager at Max’s on Broad, had known Santarella for 10 years and was with him the night he passed away.
“Ten years ago, I started coming to his restaurant, when it was just him. He was the cook, he was the bartender and he was the server. I became a regular, and I asked for a job and he gave me one. Now I’m still here,” Bucher says.
Santarella worked in more than 100 restaurants before opening Tarrant’s Café in the fall of 2006. Known by his employees for hands-on management in his multiple restaurants, he is cited as an influence for many.
“I owe my entire career to learning from him,” says Danny Ingram, co-owner of Bell Café and Kinsfolk. Ingram started working at Tarrant’s when it had been open for just six months.
“We worked from open to close every day, just me and him, 80 or 90 hours a week,” Ingram says. At the time, the kitchen was four or five feet wide and 10 feet long, he recalls. “I watched him like a hawk, the way he did everything. He was so diligent and such a hard worker and had such passion for everything he was doing. Every single day, I use something that he taught me in my work.”
Ingram says Santarella became a father figure to many in the business. “He was one of the toughest people to work for, but he was also one of the most compassionate people. … Everything had to be right. He was whipping us all into shape constantly and keeping us all on our toes. But at the end of the day, he was one of the most genuine, kindest men, and funny as hell." Ingram adds, "It’s just now hitting me.”
During an interview in 2012, when Richmond magazine’s readers voted Tarrant’s Café “best pre-theater restaurant,” Santarella told the magazine he opened Tarrant’s with just a hot plate to cook on — and the café was voted best new restaurant by the magazine’s readers in 2007.
“I was so determined,” Santarella said. “I made every meal for the first year. … We just keep trying to do the best we can. Food can only be so good, but you can be nice to people.”
He added, “I love coming to work every day.”
Santarella was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, but never stopped working throughout his rigorous treatment. In the past few months, however, a new cancer took hold and quickly overwhelmed him.
“He put up a good fight, but there’s only so much you can do. Really, it happened very, very quickly, in the past couple months,” Bucher says.
She says that the impact that Max’s on Broad has had on its downtown neighborhood is tremendous. Santarella would go to tables and ask people where they were coming from, and sometimes be surprised by the answer.
“It’s so cool that he would go table to table and ask, ‘Where do you live?’ and they would say ‘Oh, I live in the West End,’ ” Bucher recalls. “He’d say, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you came here,’ and they’d respond, ’Oh, it’s because you have valet [parking]!’ ”
Chef and restaurateur Jason Alley, of Comfort and Pasture, says that he and Santarella used to grab drinks at each other's bar and swap stories about the service shifts.
"Tarrant's helped to create a truly different environment where people could congregate and see a different neighborhood," Alley says of Broad Street downtown. "When we opened, you didn't think to hang out in that neighborhood. Now it's like, 'Of course you would hang out there.' There's actually s--- to do, and he was really instrumental in that."
Carlos Silva, a chef and former owner of nearby Bistro 27, knew Santarella as a fellow businessman before joining him as a corporate chef and managing partner at Max’s and Tarrant’s.
“Ted shared many stories of his humble beginnings in New York and how he was inspired by many of the restaurants he worked in,” Silva says via email. “He was a tough businessman and an extremely hard worker. Ted's grit and determination earned him a top spot in the Richmond restaurant scene, and he leaves behind a great legacy which touches many lives here.”
One of Santarella’s last projects, launching breakfast at Tarrant’s Café, came to fruition while he was in a hospital bed. Bucher says he continued pursuing his passion until the end. Santarella’s wife, Frances, will be taking over all of the restaurants’ operations.
A memorial service will be held at Bliley Funeral Home on Thursday at 4 p.m., and all of the restaurants will be closed that day. At Tarrant’s West, they’re planning a “celebration of life” afterward with employees and regular customers invited.