It’s the end of one era and the beginning of a new one for longtime Capitol Hill favorite .Volunteer Park Cafe. Owner Ericka Burke has officially sold the business to James DeSarno, a Seattle-based architect and co-owner of Yakima Valley winery Freehand Cellars. After closing in early November, the cafe will reopen soon as a hybrid restaurant, market, and bottle shop, DeSarno tells Eater Seattle, not too far afield from its current iteration, although wine will be a renewed focus.
Capitol Hill Seattle was the first to report on the sale this spring, which has finally gone through after the pandemic delayed it for months. Two other partners mentioned as part of the initial deal are no longer in the ownership group; DeSarno says a full team is “still being assembled.”
Burke and pastry chef Heather Earnhardt opened Volunteer Park Cafe in January 2007 at 17th Avenue and Galer Street. Over the years, the restaurant — housed in a building that dates back to the early 20th century — built a loyal following in the neighborhood for wonderful breakfast dishes and baked goods. Earnhardt eventually left to open the Wandering Goose, while Burke purchased her stake and later opened two other businesses: the short-loved Chop Shop and mercantile Canal Market. Burke says dealing with “the emotional and financial impacts” from those closures put things into perspective. As such, she has been grappling with the decision of selling Volunteer Park Cafe for the past year.
After an initial deal with DeSarno and others fell through this spring, Burke kept the cafe going through the summer and fall as best she could, buoyed by what she calls her staff of “shining stars,” some of whom have been around since the very beginning. “We understood the challenges and difficulties everyone was facing,” she says. “I am proud that we went out living up to our motto — always fresh goodness ... that is always who we are and I hope how we are remembered.”
Once she officially sold the cafe, Burke bid her goodbyes to customers on Facebook around Election Day. She says she’s looking forward to spending more quality time with family — but she’ll miss the strong connections to the community (a patio feud with one neighbor in 2010 notwithstanding). “It just naturally became the Cheers of Northern Capitol Hill,” she says of the restaurant and market. “Our customers chose us and we chose them. This little corner became a celebration of life — a meeting place, where everyone was welcome and belonged.”
It sounds like DeSarno wants to continue in that vein as he plans some cosmetic upgrades, while retaining some of the old favorites from the bakery and developing the retail side. “The plan is to put a little love into the space and continue as a cafe with a large emphasis on wine as well,” says DeSarno. “We’re hoping to have the cafe back up and running as soon as possible.”