Finkermans Part 1: 2003-2004

Workin’ on my Ribs

I have always had the need to shake things up every five years or so. It’s not necessarily boredom or discontent with my life. It just seems to be a desire for something new, something that I haven’t done before, somewhere that I haven’t lived or experienced. I don’t even really think that something new will make my life better, just different, and perhaps more interesting. I am not a person who likes or needs “things”. New clothing, cars, electronics or jewelry just make me anxious about having things I need to take care of and take with me when I want to move on. Richard has been an amazing partner in that he understands this need for something new and rarely takes it personally. He’s also ready and willing to jump into the experiences that I propose with both feet. This has made for a varied and interesting life but it has also meant that our lack of caution, or should I say lack of real interest in or understanding of the potential consequences of my enthusiasms can cause some difficult and even life changing circumstances.

We have been incredibly lucky in that most of our leaps have worked out very well. Our first business, the About Thyme Cafe, was successful enough that after five years when I got itchy for something new we were able to sell it, pay off all of our debt, and leave with a good enough reputation and credit rating to start our next business, Ariel’s Restaurant. Ariel’s was a joy. We found, by luck or sheer determination, the right space for us to grow our family, excercize our creativity and make just enough money to keep it all going.

Typically, after five years running Ariel’s I started looking around for a way to throw a molotov cocktail into our lives. We had no desire to stop running Ariel’s. We loved our home, our communtity, our friends and our restaurant guests. We were able to change things up frequently enough to keep it exciting for ourselves and our clientele. But I like big projects. My favorite part of restaurants is creating them. I love the process of finding a space and designing exactly the right personality for that particular space. I have a passion for menu and recipe creation and kitchen design. Richard is a wonderful sommelier and bar manager. He loves working with local producers and distributers to create interesting and food friendly wine and cocktail menus. He finds great satisfaction in developing new front-of-house systems to facilitate the excellent service we have come to be known for. He can create a bar where people feel comfortable and cared for. This is to say that it’s not only me who gets all hot and bothered about jumping into something new, if it feeds my creativity. He was right there with me.

We approached this idea of a new project intelligently, at least at first. We knew that we would still be running Ariel’s, so the new place would have to be within a reasonable distance of Brookfield, but it would also have to be in a place with a good population base. Montpelier was the obvious choice. We also knew Montpelier and a lot of the people who lived and worked there, and they knew us, so any restaurant we started there would benefit from the good reputation of About Thyme and Ariel’s. The next decision was the type of food and atmosphere we wanted to offer. Since Monpelier is the Capital of Vermont it has many offices and the population swells during the day, so we knew that lunch would have to be a part of the plan. Also, we wanted a lower price point and more accessible cuisine, so the place would have to seat a lot more than the 40 dinners we could do at Ariel’s in order to be profitable.

Richard and I have driven through the Eastern part of the US several times, visiting friends and family, and always ending up in New Orleans, a city we both loved. It came to us that a Southern style barbecue restaurant with some Cajun and Creole specialities might fly in Central Vermont. At that time there was nothing similar in the area, and who doesn’t love smokey ribs, Texas style brisket, and sandwiches piled with pulled pork. We do, and we missed that food when we were home in Vermont. We quietly started looking for exactly the right space to open a large, funky Barbecue within easy distance of the Capital building in Montpelier and the homes and businesses in the surrounding towns.

A Southern BBQ in Central Vt.

After quite a bit of exploration we stumbled upon a location that hit both of us immediately as perfect for what we wanted to do. It was a huge empty storage shed on the Winooski river, on the border of Montpelier and Berlin, the next town over. It was being used as storage for the furniture store in front of it, and was owned by the family that owned and ran the furniture store. There was a section of railroad track that ran between the furniture store and the shed, and we immediately fell for the romantic idea of being on “the other side of the tracks”. There was lots of parking available, but the problem was that there was no water, sewage, or foundation in the building, and it was uninsulated, windowless, and basically unusable as anything other than storage. But did that stop us? Oh no. We made a deal with the owner that in exchange for putting a ton of money into his building he would give us a 10 year lease with very low rent and an option to renew. We went to the bank with our good reputation, and we remortgaged our home and restaurant. We took an enormous risk, but were energized by our ideas and visions, and perhaps more than a bit blinded by the potential that we saw.

We worked with a wonderful architectural firm to convert the building into an airy barnlike restaurant, with huge windows on the river side. We created a 95 seat dining room, a 20 seat private party room and a 10 seat bar. It took almost a full year, so much borrowed money, and a huge amount of stress, but ultimately we got the city to hook us up to their septic system, had a well dug with commercial water capacity, and had a foundation and a polished concrete floor installed. The entire space was insulated, a state of the art heating system was installed and we put in air conditioning for the summer months. We decided to use some extra space to create a playroom for kids that had a chalkboard wall and a comfy reading area with its own library. We created plenty of storage, and a large, narrow kitchen. We installed two large electric smokers, and got our friend Cameron to agree to supply chunks of apple and maple wood from his forestry business. The kitchen line also had two commercial fryers, a 5 foot gas grill, a 6 burner stove with a large griddle and two ovens, and a commercial convection oven in our baking area.

Our offices and more storage were in the back, up a narrow stairway. We installed a walk in refrigerator but since we wanted to use as much fresh local product as we could we only had a small chest freezer in the kitchen. We went to every restaurant auction that was held in Vermont that year, picking up wonderful butcher block tables and leather padded wooden chairs, plus some of the kitchen equipment, plates and glassware. The rest we ordered from restaurant supply businesses.

The most fun for me was creating and testing the menu. We wanted it to be a true, Southern style BBQ, but there are so many styles of BBQ in the south! We needed to decide between Texas, Eastern North Carolina, Western North Carolina, South Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City and more regional styles for our base menu of spare ribs, baby back ribs, brisket, pulled pork and chicken. We had to come up with our signature BBQ sauce, which we also intended on bottling and selling retail from our restaurant. Then there were the sides, and the New Orleans dishes that we wanted to perfect. It took months of trial and error, but we finally came up with food that was authentic to the styles we chose, that we loved, and that we thought would be popular even in the BBQ wastelands of Vermont. As sides we chose mac n cheese, collard greens with bacon, vegetarian collard greens(it was, after all, Vermont!), baked beans, black eyed peas, coleslaw, cornbread and biscuits. New Orleans would be represented by my chicken and sausage Gumbo, fried catfish and fried shrimp Po Boy sandwiches, with a rotating menu of Southern and Louisiana specials.

Yummy Gumbo

Richard had a very difficult job. We wanted a full bar of cocktails, local microbrews and other beers, and a wine list that would go with our food. A nice little BBQ wine is not the easiest recommendation, even for the best of sommeliers, which Richard was and still is. He spent months researching, tasting, and working with distributers to come up with our bar and wine list, and he did an amazing job. He was also in charge of coffee service and other non alcoholic beverages. Of course we served both sweet and unsweetened iced tea- we had spent enough time doing research in the South to know we had to provide both!

During this year of constant work on our new project we also had to keep our other projects purring along – those being Ariel’s Restaurant, our 10 year old Simon and our 3 year old Noah. I look back on this period and I just don’t know how we did it. The kids spent a lot of time in the car, going between the two restaurants. Noah played and Simon read and did school work at the dining room tables of both restaurants, and they got to be really good at blocking out the hustle and bustle all around them. They also got good at blocking our their parents’ stress levels, and I like to think that this strange part of their childhoods helped them adjust to all kinds of circumstances that have come up since in their lives.

It took us a while to decide on a name for our BBQ. We spent many days throwing out and shooting down suggestions with our friends, but eventually we came up with Finkerman’s Riverside BBQ.

Finkerman’s was a combination of Fink and Duberman, our last names. We thought that this hint of our Jewish backgrounds was a fun little teaser that this would be a very personal, maybe slightly off center kind of BBQ, which of course it was, because it was ours! We almost named it “Finkerman’s Not Quite Kosher BBQ” but were dissuaded at the last minute by our more stable friends. The pig logo on our sign, menu and labels was a gift from our very good friend Danny, a fabulous commercial artist in Houston.

After almost a year of construction, menu development, hiring kitchen and front-of-house staff, stocking, training, menu printing and

advertising we were almost ready to open. We closed Ariel’s for the season after New Year’s eve so we could concentrate completely on getting Finkerman’s open and running smoothly before we had to re open Ariel’s in the Spring. We planned to open in January, so we could ease into the busy season, but a very cold winter made it impossible get through the frozen earth to finish the foundation and septic work on time, so we ended up with an opening date in March.

There had been a good amount of interest by the press and the public in the goings on beside the railroad tracks. Our opening night we did over 200 dinners. We continued to do almost 300 meals between lunch and dinner, with some take out. It was a bit rough at first but the staff pulled together and soon Finkerman’s was hitting it’s stride. Richard and I basked in the glow of good reviews, lots of positive reinforcement from our customers, and the feeling that we had a business that would grow and eventually stand on its own, hopefully providing us with a secure future for ourselves and our kids. What we didn’t realize about running a restaurant of this size and complexity would come to shape and determine our future, in good and bad ways, for many years to come.