By Stefanie Jackson – Louise Oliver, who runs a catering business out of the historic Eastville Inn owned by Northampton County, was surprised when she learned that the county was considering offering the lease to someone else to run a different type of business.
She was even more surprised that she first learned of the news from not a county official but the minutes of the May 3 Eastville Town Council meeting.
“My initial reaction when reading the Eastville Town Council minutes … was one of shock and disappointment that I should be treated in such an unprofessional manner …” Oliver said.
“As an excellent tenant of the Eastville Inn and successful business owner I would have expected to be treated with a modicum of respect.”
She has run her catering and weekly meal service, Kitchen Sync, out of the first floor of the Eastville Inn for the last six years, with the help of three regular part-time employees and her husband, Stuart Oliver, who has long-standing family ties on the Eastern Shore.
Louise Oliver has dozens of clients who order her pre-made meal items at the beginning of every week, which are picked up or delivered every Friday, ready to bake or freeze. The menu changes every week, blending casual and fine dining fare in what the Kitchen Sync website calls “inspired eastern shore dishes with an international flair.”
Oliver, who is originally from Tasmania, Australia, is accomplished in the culinary arts. She has worked around the globe as a private chef and a manager for several large hospitality companies. Her travels and experience lend European and Asian influences to the dishes she creates. Her employees also bring Mexican influences to the table.
She has a long list of corporate clients, and more than 500 private clients, for whom she caters both off- and on-site.
Clients often choose the Eastville Inn for corporate events because it offers more privacy than a restaurant. The inn’s most popular dining area is the Glass Room, a dining room enclosed by a glass wall and decorated, like the rest of the establishment, in the federalist colonial style of the late 1700s to mid-1800s.
The Olivers attribute the success of Kitchen Sync in part to its alternate business model, which stands out from its predecessors.
Previous businesses at the Eastville Inn have consisted mainly of restaurants that eventually faltered and closed, including a restaurant operated by Tim Abraham, of Cape Charles.
Abraham later found success when he opened the restaurant Tim’s Place, in Cape Charles, but it appeared that running a restaurant out of the Eastville Inn wasn’t meant to be, even for the most aspiring entrepreneurs.
The Olivers noted aspects of the Eastville Inn that are not conducive to the restaurant business.
The narrow, long kitchen is not convenient for servers delivering orders to guests in the main dining room, but the layout is ideal for preparing catered meals, Louise Oliver said.
There is little to no parking at the inn, and foot traffic in town is light. On a warm, sunny Friday afternoon, only one person walked past the inn in nearly two hours, she pointed out to a reporter.
The town’s main street, Courthouse Road, once was part of the main road on the Shore, Stuart Oliver said. The construction of Route 13 divided many of the Shore’s small towns, and now most traffic bypasses Eastville’s historic courthouse green.
The Eastville Inn was built around 1724 to serve travelers passing through or stopping to do business at the Northampton County courthouse, which has been home to the oldest continuous court records in the U.S. since 1632.
Similarly, the Eastville Inn is thought to be the town’s oldest surviving business establishment.
The Eastville Inn operated through the decades and centuries, but business dwindled in the 1960s and 1970s, perhaps due in part to the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in 1964, which enabled more through traffic via Route 13.
The Eastville Inn fell into a state of disuse and disrepair. The private establishment appears to have become public property around the time Northampton County obtained federal grant funding to restore the historic building, which was reopened in 2000.
Since then, the Eastville Inn has been home to a number of restaurants and also has endured periods of vacancy.
Around 2015, Louise Oliver was looking for a commercial kitchen for her catering business that she had been operating for about four years. She discovered the Eastville Inn, which was vacant at the time. Northampton County offered the Olivers a lease on the inn.
The initial lease terms worked well for the Olivers, but after the initial lease expired, it was renewed on an annual basis, the couple said.
They were told the the one-year lease gave more “flexibility” to the county, whose officials were concerned about the amount of rehabilitation the structure still needed.
(The second floor of the Eastville Inn remains empty and unused, except for limited storage, and is stripped down to the floors and framing, with no walls, ceilings, furniture, fixtures, or working utilities.)
A one-year lease agreement was not ideal for the Olivers, but they carried on their business.
There was another unexpected turn of events when the lease came up for renewal in October 2020, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic: Northampton wanted the Eastville Inn open for lunch at least three days a week, primarily to serve county employees.
The Olivers reluctantly agreed to the new lease terms. Louise Oliver began planning and occasionally purchasing equipment she would need for preparing food to order. She kept tabs on the COVID-19 pandemic through the Virginia Department of Health.
Oliver had settled on the opening date of July 6 to serve lunch every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, allowing Friday to remain as the weekly pickup and delivery day for her pre-made meals.
She displayed a sign on the front of the building announcing that Kitchen Sync would be opening soon.
Then Oliver read the minutes from Eastville’s May 3 Town Council meeting, which stated that “Northampton County was considering a different direction for the Eastville Inn and possibly a new tenant.”
The announcement was made by David Eder, who is both Eastville’s police chief and its town administrator, a dual role of which the Olivers are critical, citing a possible conflict of interest and the potential for corruption. “The lines are blurred,” Stuart Oliver said.
The Northampton board of supervisors held a special-called meeting June 23, which consisted of a closed session for the discussion or consideration of the acquisition or disposition of public property – specifically, the Eastville Inn – and consultation with legal counsel on an unrelated matter.
The June 23 meeting minutes state that after the closed session, Supervisor John Coker made a motion to terminate the Eastville Inn’s lease Sept. 30, at the end of its current term, and “allow the tenant to lease the property on a month-by-month basis if they so desire.”
The motion was seconded by Supervisor Oliver Bennett and passed unanimously.
Throughout their ordeal, Louise and Stuart Oliver have been provided little explanation or guidance, except for one meeting with County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski.
Kolakowski wrote in a Jul. 29 email, “The Eastville Inn is a unique and important asset. … It is also an old structure that will need to be maintained and will require significant investment to keep it operating. … The County will be advertising a Request for Proposals for the sale or long-term lease of the facility … to properly provide for the long term preservation of the property and also provide a vibrant and contributing facility to enhance the Town and County.”
Stuart Oliver disagrees with the idea of Northampton selling a piece of history and a public asset. He said selling the inn would “border on insanity” and not be in the county’s best interest.
The Olivers believe they have been good stewards of the inn and have sustained their business, even through COVID-19.
A restaurant may not have survived the pandemic, but Louise Oliver’s meal delivery service went “through the roof” and approximately doubled due to new clients who could not or would not eat in restaurants.
The Olivers serve clients from Exmore to Cape Charles and will deliver any order, whether it’s a week’s worth of meals for a family or a pint of soup for one person.
Stuart Oliver noted that even during the pandemic, the rent on the Eastville Inn was paid in full and on time every month.
He acknowledged that since Kitchen Sync is not a restaurant, it generates few food and beverage taxes for the town of Eastville. However, he and his wife have maintained the inn, and their business has not caused any trouble and “serves the community well,” he said.
Louise Oliver was recently notified that she will be permitted to lease the Eastville Inn through Jan. 31, 2022, enabling her to schedule events for the upcoming fall and winter holiday seasons.
Stuart Oliver will continue to attend Eastville Town Council and Northampton supervisors meetings to make his case to allow the business to continue in its current location and to enter a three-year lease agreement.
The couple plans to submit a bid for the purchase of the Eastville Inn, even though they doubt the process will be fair.
Louise Oliver is also looking for another location with a commercial kitchen in case their efforts to purchase or continue leasing the inn fall through, even though commercial kitchens are hard to find, she said.
Either way, Kitchen Sync won’t be sunk if the Olivers have anything to do with it.