For Billy Bryan, childhood shopping trips to the downtown Thalhimers department store were defined by two things — dressing up and eating cake.
“My memories of it growing up were getting all dressed up and heading downtown to the main store on Broad Street. My mom or my grandma would be in their white gloves and their hats and we’d go down for a day of shopping,” he said. “We always finished the day up with lunch in the Richmond Room (restaurant at the store) and a slice of the Thalhimers six-layer cake.”
Bryan hopes to tap into local nostalgia and introduce new generations to foods served by the now-shuttered Richmond department store by featuring them at his new neighborhood market in Henrico County.
The Market by Whisk opened Monday (today) at 8308 Staples Mill Road. The neighborhood market concept is a rebranded and revamped iteration of the Henrico Whisk outpost Bryan opened in that same spot last year. The original Whisk in Shockoe Bottom, which Bryan bought in March 2022, continues to retain its original cafe and bakery style.
The new market features prepared foods like salads, sandwiches and desserts in addition to coffee and Whisk bakery items. Bryan said the pivot was inspired by customer interest in such a concept.
“It’s a new spin on things. I was looking at the West End market and talking to customers there. They wanted our traditional bakery products but they also wanted more grab-and-go type things,” Bryan said. “You’ll still get all the Whisk favorites but also all these amazing Thalhimers cakes, whole or by the slice, and also all these very unique things like grab-and-go grain bowls, potato salad and pimento cheese.”
The Staples Mill location was closed briefly during the revamp. Bryan credited his executive chef and director of operations Jason Hagerman with directing the reinvention of the space and recipe development.
Among the initial Thalhimers offerings are six-layer cake, chicken salad, potato salad and spoonbread.
“Those are the things I’ve brought back immediately because those were the things that were most nostalgic to me. But also in talking to people around town who lived the experience as well, those were the things that kept coming up,” said Bryan, who is 47.
He got his hands on the Thalhimers cake recipe by way of his acquisition last year of Northside bakery Michaela’s, which was founded by former Thalhimers baker Michael Hatcher. Bryan co-owns that bakery with Carson Rhyne.
The non-dessert Thalhimers foods are a combination of reverse-engineering and tracking down recipes floating around the community to recreate the Thalhimers menu that Bryan remembers growing up in the 1980s.
“I, through a lot of research, was able to find the savory recipes between my research in obtaining them from various people who happened to have them or recreating them to the best of my memory and having people who would have remembered test them,” Bryan said. “If I found them, it was through talking to somebody who may have known a cook there who had given them the recipe or someone shared it in a church cookbook somewhere.”
Bryan said that while he didn’t have to, he sought the approval of the Thalhimer family that ran the locally based department store chain to offer the recipes and recreations of the company’s foods. He said he spent time discussing the idea with Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, who wrote a book about her family’s retail legacy.
Thalhimers started in 1842 as a dry goods store in Richmond and grew into a 26-location chain with a multi-state presence. Thalhimers went defunct in 1992, and the six-story flagship store on Broad Street closed that same year.
“After I acquired Michaela’s and before I had any intention to go any further with the savory foods, the chicken salad and all that and starting the market, one of the things that was very important to me was to reach out to the family,” Bryan said. “I could not in good conscience do it without their buy-in and their blessing.”
Bryan said he hoped to further expand his roster of Thalhimers offerings in the future, and he’ll be leaning on his mom for help.
“When we get it to where I think it’s right, then I’ll send it to my mother. My mother is my biggest supporter and biggest critic. So she is going to tell me if something doesn’t taste right with it,” he said. “And she’s intimately familiar with Thalhimers. When she worked downtown, she ate at Thalhimers pretty much every day.”