After selling the cafe Richard and I wanted nothing so much as to work for someone else, get a regular paycheck (preferably with benefits and little or no responsibility) and spend some time with our baby. But good benefits often come with responsibility, so Richard took a job at a major ski resort and spa in Stowe as dining room manager for their main restaurant. I took a nice, responsibility free job as a pastry chef for two high- end Stowe restaurants owned by the same company. Unfortunately the commute was long and our hours were such that we never saw each other. We got into a pattern we called the Baby Relay: I would get up at 4:45 AM, leave for Stowe and work a nine hour shift while Richard took care of Simon. At 3PM I’d meet Richard and Simon in a parking lot half way up the mountain, we’d hand off the baby, have a quick kiss if we were not too stressed, then he’d be off to work until midnight. I’d take Simon home, feed him and play with him, and then we’d both fall into bed. It worked, we were child-care free, we got paychecks, benefits and vacation time, but we spent time with each other only on our infrequent days off together.
When a new food and beverage manager was hired at the resort Richard turned miserable overnight. The new guy was a bully who developed an instant dislike of Richard. He must have stayed up late at night thinking up ways of making Richard’s life hell. He was very good at it. He couldn’t fire Richard, so he eventually removed him from his manager’s position and salary and put him on as sommelier, with a small salary and sales commission. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. Richard was always interested in wine. He’d taken great pride in searching out wonderful, little known wines at exceptional value for our dinners at About Thyme. He had started to become known as a go-to wine guy in Montpelier. In Stowe he developed that talent, meeting wine reps and distributors, getting to know the system, tasting wine and sharpening his palate. He shocked the F & B guy by making considerably more money than he had been making as a manager through his charm and skill at up-selling wine to the eager clientele.
Eventually we began to realize that we both hated this schedule. The frightening thought occurred to us that what we really both hated was allowing ourselves to be “managed” and controlled by others. We were coming to the understanding that we would never be the kind of people who could work for someone else. I wanted to cook my own food again. I missed the applause and positive reinforcement of serving my own creations in my own place to people who were changed by the experience. Richard hated being at anyone’s mercy, working for people who didn’t have the innate understanding of hospitality that he had. We began to look around for something of our own.
Living in the small cabin that I bought when I first moved to Vermont was becoming more and more difficult as Simon grew. We decided to look for a place that we could live in and convert to a restaurant. The commute to Stowe was killing us. There was nothing so attractive as the thought of a walk downstairs to get to work. Vermont was full of gorgeous nineteenth century farmhouses that would make fabulous small country restaurants. The trick was finding one that we could afford in a place that would be both a good business and life decision. There was the issue of school systems for Simon. There was also the issue of permits and zoning that would allow us to convert a home and run it as a business, a restaurant no less. Restaurants are famous for difficulty of permitting. You need water, sewage, parking, venting and fire safety, the possibility of a liquor license, and neighbors who want you there. We drove hundreds of miles on our infrequent days off looking at properties. There were a few beautiful houses that we craved but there were logistical problems with each one. We bid on one gorgeous brick house, but lost it to a lower bid. The heartbreak lasted for weeks. Eventually though my belief in fate and Karma was rewarded.
We had a customer at the Cafe who had been trying for years to convince us to open a restaurant in Brookfield, where he lived. Brookfield is a tiny hamlet, population about 1,200 men, women and children, with probably a few more cows and goats than people. It sprawls over several hills and valleys, with a small group of charming homes gathered around a tiny lake. This is Pond Village. It’s the home of the only floating bridge east of the Mississippi, so for years it’s been sort of a tourist destination. There was a bed and breakfast – The Green Trails Inn – that had been there for well over a hundred years, although first as a home. There used to be a restaurant in town called The Fork Shop, a converted pitchfork factory. It closed in the early 1980’s but the commercial zoning was still intact. Other than that there are nothing but lovely houses, an old town hall and the oldest continually operating library in the U.S. The elementary school, just 2 miles away, had a reputation as one of the best in the state: tiny, personal and committed to the well being of the students.
As we drove into Pond Village I fell immediately in love. From that moment I could not be convinced that our restaurant would open anywhere other than this magical place. I have always wanted to live on or near water, and here was a beautiful lake, with clear, clean water for swimming, fishing, kayaking. The 1840’s era farmhouses looked exactly like the home I had always envisioned for myself. We looked at the Fork Shop building. We loved it, but the crotchety owner really didn’t want to sell. We looked at another building but the price was too high. As we drove around Vermont in the next few months Richard tried to get me to consider other towns but my mind was made up. We would make a restaurant in Brookfield or not at all. Then fate interceded once again. We got a call from a couple who was ready to move. They had a large house with a historic red barn on the water, just across from the inn, next to the floating bridge. They wanted to move to somewhere smaller, further out in the country, away from the bustle of the tiny village. They knew we were looking and invited us to come look at the house and talk to them.
Six hellish months later we had sold our cabin and were living with friends while permits, parking variances and other zoning issues were worked out. We waited out a last minute case of cold feet by the sellers, signed the paperwork for the mortgage and business loan, and moved into our new home and restaurant-to-be.
Those were the hardest six months of our lives up until then, though we have been through some very difficult times since. We wanted this house so much, we knew it had to be ours, but there were so many details. We had meeting after meeting with the state about building a new septic system. The neighbors were wonderful. They wanted us there so badly. The owners of the Inn agreed to host our leachfield on their property. The next-door neighbors agreed to let our guests park in front of their houses so the idyllic aura of the village would not be disrupted by a parking lot. Richard had to keep his job during the process of buying the house and building out the restaurant as we desperately needed the money, so no one at his work could know about what we were doing. He went to work exhausted every day. I had injured my back and could not work, so I directed construction and took care of Simon from a prone position on the living room couch. Huge amounts of pharmaceuticals and lots of physical therapy were not enough to heal my back. We were terrified that after all this I would not be able to stand in my kitchen for 16 hours a day in time for our projected opening. A small surgical procedure at Dartmouth Hitchcock hospital made a huge difference, and eventually I was up and ready to work.
There was menu development to work on, finding suppliers and developing ordering procedures, hiring of kitchen help and waitstaff, health department permits, fire department permits, liquor licenses, insurance, laundry, music licenses, so much to do. We traveled to New York City several times to buy fabric for tablecloths and windows, plates, glassware, silverware, pots and pans. We attended auctions for used kitchen equipment and drove to Massachusetts for the pieces we had to buy new. We went through septic hell, finally putting in an experimental system that caused our backyard to be completely dug up and refilled with sand, making our back lawn spotty and pathetic for years to come. We got permission from the town to dig a well in the town park, the only spot far enough away from our septic system to be permittable. For two days we sweated bullets while the well company dug down, down, finally hitting plenty of water at a depth of over 500 feet. We would have given up long before that but Richard is stubborn and kept saying “just 20 more feet” until finally, at 500 feet he said “just 5 more feet” and water was achieved.
It was just about two years between finding the house and opening the restaurant. Two years of exhaustion, stress, fear and dread, not insignificant physical pain and moments of overwhelming joy. We had designed every aspect of the restaurant from the paint colors to the sign, from the menu to the wine list, from the dining rooms to the flower beds. We were in debt to the bank and my wonderful parents and we had no financial cushion. We jumped in with both feet, setting up a pattern that we would follow for good and for not- so- good for the rest of our business lives.
Since then Richard and I, and eventually our two sons Simon and Noah have lived the lives of a restaurant family. It’s not necessarily a normal life, but it has amazing rewards built in, as well as an exhausting, punishing schedule. Owning and operating restaurants is all about risk. We’ve taken many risks. Some have panned out beautifully. Others, well, it’s hard to decide whether the risks were worth it. We certainly learned a lot. Life has been full and rich (not so much in the monetary sense). The stress and anxiety is almost always there, but so is the sense of accomplishment and the reward of doing what you love, and having so many people appreciate it.
We know that one of life’s great fantasies for so many people is to open up a small, personal restaurant in a beautiful spot, to serve great food and wine to your friends and to grateful, amazed strangers. For some reason it seems that thousands of lawyers (yes, and doctors, and dot com entrepreneurs) through the ages have had this fantasy. Some have even tried to make it come true. Part of the reason that I have been writing this all down is that I hope that this will introduce a little bit of reality into the mix, and maybe stop a few otherwise very competent professionals from making a very bad mistake. If you open a restaurant it must be because you have no other choice. It must be because you have to cook, to create great food, to change people’s lives with your food and hospitality. You have to be able to welcome all kinds of people into your life, even cranky people who don’t understand the first thing about your vision. You have to commit all of your time and sacrifice most of your freedom to maintaining this vision.
If I can make people understand what opening, running, and sometimes closing a restaurant is all about, meanwhile giving them some wonderful recipes to try at home, it will be one more mark on the positive side of our decision to devote our lives to this crazy business.