Don’t worry, the food that ranked Dave’s Taverna at No. 14 on Buzzfeed’s list of best drunken eats in college towns across America has remained unchanged. But now, under new ownership, the beloved Harrisonburg eatery is undergoing some major changes behind the scenes.
“Dave’s can be a little high maintenance,” David Engel says with a chuckle as he describes the transition process.
Engel, a native of the Shenandoah Valley, took over ownership of Dave’s a year ago, and in that time he’s worked diligently to improve the internal workings of a restaurant with a successful but shaky past.
“Dave’s has been around a long time, but the previous owner ran into personal finance issues, troubles from other endeavors,” Engel says.
These troubles ultimately led to bankruptcy, leaving the original owner — the namesake of the Taverna — unable to pay employees or vendors while burning a lot of bridges in the process.
The current manager, Jeff Funk, witnessed the old Dave’s fall apart when he briefly worked under the previous owner. A service industry veteran, Funk quickly recognized a restaurant in peril and chose to leave the job after just two days of employment.
“I just knew I wasn’t going to get paid, no one was getting paid,” Funk says.
Unfortunately, the less-than-perfect reputation left by the old Dave has proved difficult to shake. Word travels fast in a small community like Harrisonburg, and Engel notes how some wouldn’t visit the restaurant because of the many people who were left high and dry when the business went under.
Despite the inherited setbacks, Engel and Funk are confident in the new Dave’s they’ve worked so hard to create. Countless hours and thousands of dollars have been devoted to restructuring and improving the face of the business. Engel, an experienced restaurant and business owner, implemented new methods for hiring, training and the handling of day-to-day procedures that emphasize the importance of service and cleanliness. He also brought in an entirely new staff upon taking ownership.
“Knowledgeable team members who know what they’re doing and can be proactive when faced with a problem is very important,” Engel says.
In addition to substantial in-house changes, Engel and Funk recognized that for the business to truly thrive they would need to put in some real legwork around the community. A sort of two-man grassroots movement ensued: they knocked on doors, put up flyers and reached out to other local businesses in an attempt to repair community ties that were damaged under the previous owner.
“In the beginning it was really just me and Jeff, going door-to-door, walking all around town … we wanted people to know we’re a new Dave’s,” Engel says.
These challenges they faced early on, Funk recalls, were difficult but ultimately necessary in changing local perceptions of the restaurant.
“It’s really been about rebuilding trust within the community,” Funk says. “Vendors, potential employees, we’ve had to gain back that trust moving forward.”
Despite the multitude of changes the business has undergone over the past year, the original menu and food remains largely unaltered. And for now, Engel and his team members are focused on rekindling the community’s love for the local staple by perfecting the food that originally drew them in.
“We have a great menu, items made entirely from scratch using the best quality products,” Engel says. “That’s what truly makes Dave’s unique.”
Photos by Emily Glisson
Artwork by Catherine Baldwin