The County Seat in Powhatan County turns 25 this fall
October 9, 2018
Janie Glenn Dean remembers that day back in 2001 when she closed the County Seat restaurant after breakfast one December morning, and watched with both awe and humility as the regulars — who’d just finished plates of eggs and pancakes — picked up their chairs, carried them outside and then up the sidewalk a short spell, to what would be the restaurant’s new location where Dean was opening the next day.
That sort of community support isn’t taken for granted. It’s why every day since that December morning, Dean and now her daughter, Tracy Cifers, do what they can to make sure their customers are treated like family, one piping hot homemade roll and friendly smile at a time.
The County Seat celebrates 25 years in October, a milestone these days as restaurants come and go in the blink of an eye. Located in the heart of Powhatan County, literally across the street from the county’s courthouse, the County Seat is a hub. It’s where folks eat, connect, catch up, gossip. People meet their future spouses here, celebrate as a community the arrival of children and grandchildren, and find solace over nourishing food and fellowship in times of grief.
Customers and employees know each other and have for years. The fried chicken and buttermilk pie are always on the menu, and the crab cakes and coleslaw have their own following. Things don’t change much, except when they have to.
Ask Dean about the key to success, and she’ll tell you it has everything to do with knowing what people like to eat. But that starts with knowing people — and that happens to be a house specialty.
With a full menu serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the County Seat, at 3883 Old Buckingham Road, is known for its homestyle meals and from-scratch desserts, Sunday buffets and omelet stations, and live music on Saturday nights.
The fried chicken reigns supreme, but other best-sellers include meatloaf and catfish, smoked barbecue and those backfin crab cakes. Granny’s chicken vegetable soup — a nod to Dean’s late mother, known to everyone as Granny — is a daily mainstay, as are fresh salads and sandwiches and burgers served on homemade rolls.
Photos and portraits of Dean and her family hang on the walls, next to historic photos from around the county. (A playful picture of Dean as a young woman on the beach hangs in an office off the dining room.)
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the family matriarch sat at a large table in the open dining room, her 19-year-old granddaughter, Leah Cifers, perched on her lap. A rising college sophomore, Leah works there during the summer — another in the growing list of family members who’ve passed through the restaurant in one role or another.
Dean joked that customers have become so attuned to the restaurant’s food and its staff that they know when a certain person is cooking that day — and more importantly, when they’re not.
She took over the restaurant 25 years ago from its previous owner, renamed it the County Seat and moved it to its current location. (She first spent eight years in what is now the Four Seasons restaurant.) She admits that it’s her daughter who keeps it going, evolving, changing with the times.
“I failed lots of times before I got back here,” said Dean, brushing off a chance to share details about her life prior to the restaurant by sharing only that she once worked in the “business world” and later had a bakery and catering company. “But something about being with people you know and having the support of the community — that’s what made this successful.”
She grew up in an era when women prepared meals every day and dinners at the kitchen table were the norm.
“That’s the same atmosphere we have — fresh food, freshly prepared and families come sit around the table and eat,” she said. “When customers come in, they see the same people.”
“It helps to know the people you’re feeding,” she said, then paused. “It’s been a good way to feed myself.”
Cifers joined the restaurant years ago after Leah was born, leaving hectic corporate America for restaurant life “in a town that feels like Mayberry.”
“It all just fell into place,” she said. “When I look around, I see family, I see friends and memories.”
When asked whether the hope is that the restaurant will stay in the family to reach another milestone anniversary, Cifers said she expects that it will, “if not through my immediate family, then through the family we have formed around us in our staff.”
Three or four times a week, you’ll find Amelia County resident Nita Saunders and her friends at the County Seat. They first came because they knew the waitstaff, she said, and stayed because they loved the food — the deviled eggs, the buttermilk pie, the grilled shrimp and salmon salads.
The place, she said, just feels like home.
“Everyone is so friendly, and they treat you so well ... that makes a difference,” Saunders said recently as she finished yet another lunch. Dean will often pull up a chair and talk, she said, and “to have a warm, fuzzy feeling in a place of business, it has to come from the top on down.”
Customers aren’t the only ones who appreciate the sense of family.
Ernestine Johnson has been a cook in Dean’s kitchen from Day One. Back then, she didn’t know Dean and simply needed a job, she said quietly. But she stayed on and as she did, the two women developed a close friendship that’s only strengthened as they’ve faced life’s joys and challenges together.
“It’s been a pleasure,” Johnson said.
Joe Downes arrived in Powhatan 12 years ago from Virginia’s Eastern Shore, also needed a job, and has been at County Seat on and off ever since. He works with the seafood, but also makes fried chicken. He claims that at 59 years old, “this is the last place I’ll ever work.” He called Dean “one of the three nicest people I’ve ever met in my life — I would pretty much do anything in the world for her.”
The relative newcomer to the back of the house staff is William Shaffer, who started as a dishwasher and little by little, worked his way through the kitchen — mashed potatoes one day, homemade bread the next. He’s also responsible for the pies that fly out the door whole and by the slice.
“I lucked out — really been fortunate to work here and be part of the family atmosphere [that’s] totally different from other restaurants,” Shaffer said, then grinned. “Plus, they have cheese grits, and that just felt like home.”