Two women win fight to keep their restaurant open

By Rachel DePompa - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – The fallout continues tonight from the arrest of a prominent Richmond developer. Justin French is accused of forging public documents and his use of historic tax credits is under federal investigation. Tonight the story of two women, who had to fight keep their small business open.

In the shadow of the Justin French legal and financial mess sits The Empress: a restaurant and catering business started by Carly Herring and Melissa Barlow.

"It didn't look like this, the state when we got it; it was quite a bit different. We put everything we had into this place," said Melissa.

They knocked out walls, pulled up the carpet. Justin French was just the landlord. They heard rumors of troubles, news spread he was defaulting on some loans.

"We were alert but we really didn't think it was going to have anything to do with us because we were paying our rent," Melissa said.

And then French's downtown office was raided. They contacted him about buying the building.

"We kind of been going back and forth and then he got arrested and everything stopped. Everything he had was frozen," said Melissa.

She and Carly were eventually told the bank was foreclosing on the property.

"It was horrible. Both of us just kind of sat back here on the floor with what are we going to do if this doesn't work out," said Carly.

"All we were wondering is are we going to be in business in 10 days," added Melissa.

They scrambled for money; gathered all they could. The morning The Empress went to the auction block, they placed the winning bid.

"I burst into tears right away when they finally said sold. I just couldn't believe nobody outbid us," said Melissa.

Carly and Melissa now own their future. They now rule The Empress.

"I'm really happy that the small fish won. I hope it gives hope to some other people that are struggling in the economy," Melissa said.

Carly and Melissa are reserving judgment on Justin until his day in court. They say in hindsight, they're happy, because their business survived, but they say it was an extremely stressful situation.

Justin French has not responded to our requests for an interview. He's scheduled to appear in court in November.

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