Salamander Hotels & Resorts founder and CEO Sheila Johnson knew she wanted to call Middleburg, Virginia, home after first visiting the quaint corner of the Commonwealth in the heart of horse country in the early 2000s. “I have to give my daughter so much credit for this,” Johnson says. “She competed on the professional horse show circuit, and one of her shows brought me to Middleburg. I fell in love.”
When she moved there from the Washington D. C. area, Johnson—the only African American woman to have an ownership stake in three professional sports teams: the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s Washington Capitals, and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics—brought that entrepreneurial spirit with her. She founded the equestrian-inspired Salamander Resort & Spa, and today refers to the resort’s entranceway as “Middleburg’s living room,” she says. “We make sure the community is included in everything we do.” Her love of the arts also led her to found and chair the Middleburg Film Festival, which will run from October 14 to 17 this fall.
This week, from August 19 to 22, she will cohost her newest festival, The Family Reunion, at her resort with the chef and author Kwame Onwuachi, in order to celebrate diversity in the hospitality community. The event will include talks and meals with such Southern chefs as Nina Compton, Alexander Smalls, Carla Hall, Mashama Bailey, and Ashleigh Shanti. “I’m excited about how Middleburg is growing,” Johnson says. “I would like for it to become a culinary destination—a food Mecca—outside of Washington, D. C.”
What keeps you in Middleburg?
I was going through a substantial transition in my life when I bought my farm near Middleburg, and that is where I found my peace. It enabled me to get grounded again. That is where I say the third act of my life began. What keeps me here is the peace and quiet and being able to do what I need to do to reflect.
Why did you want to host the Family Reunion at your resort?
I realized so many minority-owned restaurant chefs and their businesses were not getting praise and attention, and that needed to happen. The idea of a food and wine event came up. We wanted to really draw attention to so much incredible talent. This isn’t just a one-shot event. I would like to be doing it for five years and beyond.
What’s one of your top food finds in Middleburg?
The incredible King Street Oyster Bar. It’s very popular and extraordinarily good. I always love the bustling atmosphere.
What is Middleburg’s best kept secret?
It’s the quaintness of the town and the quality of the retail shops. People come out here to wind down and enjoy the restaurants. There are so many special things, from sidewalk sales to our Christmas parade—the nicest and best Christmas parade anybody can see.
Speaking of those shops, what are some of your favorites?
All the stores in Middleburg are great. I do love Brick and Mortar Mercantile because it’s so much fun. For clothing I like Chloe’s of Middleburg—it has everything from coats and dresses to masks and shoes. There is the Fun Shop; it’s been in Middleburg for over fifty years. It has everything. And the French-inspired boutique Crème de la Crème has dishes, candles, and glassware.
What do you feel you’ve brought to Middleburg and what has the town and the people given you?
I believe I have brought a level of economic sustainability…a resort that is all inclusive of everyone. The town has brought me hope for the future, their love, and their support. We have connected. We have bonded.