The dark green awnings above the entrance and front windows are gone, and the ivy covering the outside walls is a thing of the past.
A new restaurant, dubbed The Grey Fox, is taking shape at 140 S. State St., as the new owners of the former W.T. Smithers eatery work to complete renovations in time to open this fall.
It’s a lot of work, said co-owner Diana Welch, but the effort will be worth it.
“This is not something you’d want to try as your first business project,” Welch said. “The scope of this project is huge with all the rehabilitation work we’re doing.”
Welch, however, has plenty of experience with working in Downtown Dover. An Air Force retiree, she came to Dover 19 years ago and opened the Bell, Book and Candle shop, and later reopened the Dover Newsstand.
When the prior owners closed Smithers in 2014, she saw both a business opportunity and a chance to maintain a part of historic Dover.
“I just didn’t want to see it ‘not be’ anymore. It was that simple,” Welch said. “It’s such an icon that we didn’t want to lose it. There’s no other way to describe it.”
Welch partnered with her son, Ryan Weber, and longtime friends James and Carolyn Davidson to buy the building and give the business a new identity. Welch and Weber also own the Golden Fleece Tavern on Loockerman Street.
Financing initiatives a big help
The four owners took advantage of state, county and city initiatives to finance the project and help with renovation costs, Carolyn Davidson said.
Part of that includes rebates from Gov. Jack Markell’s Downtown Development District initiative, state historic preservation tax credits, city of Dover waivers on impact fees and building permits as well as cash rebates from the Downtown Dover Partnership and matching funds provided through Kent County Levy Court.
“We probably could have done this without that assistance, but it would have been a lot harder,” Davidson said.
“But we realized this was available to us and we thought it meant we would not be as cash-strapped as some startup businesses usually are,” she said. “Fortunately it means we’ll have a little padding so we don’t have to worry so much about those kinds of things.”
The first floor of the refurbished Grey Fox will feature a dining area with piano and martini bars, Welch said. There will be seating upstairs for customers waiting for a table, she said.
In addition to a new bar, all of the floors will be refurbished, the old, dark décor will be brightened up and the kitchen remodeled, Welch said.
The Grey Fox will focus on good service and good food, with much being drawn from homegrown sources.
“We’re going Delaware with a whole lot of things,” Welch said. “We’ll use Delaware distilleries and Delaware wineries as much as possible, local butchers and Delaware farms and produce.
“Staying local is important for a lot of reasons. You want to support the local economy. You don’t want to be serving food that has to be shipped in from 1,200 miles away.”
A lot of work was needed on the building, which was constructed in 1881 and over the years was used as a family home, funeral parlor and gift shop
“Actually, it would have been cheaper for me to build a new building than to do what I’m doing,” Welch said. Decisions must be made regarding what to keep and what to replace, she said.
Case in point: instead of replacing long-lost decorative ceiling moldings with something new, carpentry specialist Dan Mujica duplicated the missing pieces. Welch figures she saved about $3,000 thanks to Mujica’s skills.
“If you want to maintain your heritage and your history, you have to renovate these buildings or they’ll be lost to time,” Welch said. “They’re old girls and they’ve got aches and pains and you have to be aware of that.”