Ambitious restaurateurs forge ahead with plans in Southeast Vermont during COVID

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Ambitious restaurateurs forge ahead with plans in Southeast Vermont during COVID

Sun, 06/12/2022 - 5:09pm -- tim

Tim Hall and Mary Lou Ricci, Hermitage Inn. Photo: M Segura.

What Were You Thinking?

by Maia Segura, Vermont Business Magazine Running a restaurant is a risky business at any time, but during the pandemic the challenges have been compounded and restaurants in Vermont have struggled to hang on. Some did not make it, and others had to reinvent themselves to survive. Meanwhile, defying conventional wisdom to avoid risk in challenging times, a few intrepid entrepreneurs in Southeast Vermont identified and chose to pursue opportunities to open new upscale venues.

The Hermitage Inn in West Dover, the White House Inn in Wilmington, and River Garden Marketplace in Brattleboro have faced a host of harrowing challenges from supply chain to labor issues but push on undeterred.

 

The Hermitage Inn

It was late December 2020, when Mary Lou Ricci and her husband Tim Hall stood in the afternoon light that glanced over snowy Dover hills and landed in dusty shafts on the 18th-century Hermitage Inn Tavern floors. Here, and in the dining room nearby, tables were set with wine glasses and silverware. Napkins were folded neatly in place, and salt and pepper shakers stood sentinel on the tablescape. Still the feel of a club house, the room awaited swarms of après skiers popping off the Haystack Mountain chair lift that terminated at the edge of the property, and vacation homeowners ready for a stiff martini after the four-hour drive from the City. The rooms had been waiting for almost three years.

“When we walked in that first time to look at it as possibly purchasing (the inn),” said Ricci, “it was really a weird experience because the tables were set. The place was clean and looked like everyone just kind of locked the doors one night and walked out.” Which is exactly what happened in March 2018, when Hermitage Club owners were $17.1 million in arears on Berkshire Bank loans, and irreparably behind in taxes. They closed the doors, drove down the hill through the covered bridge, and did not return.

Second homeowners in the area for over a decade, and among the first 100 members of the Hermitage Club which used the inn as its initial Club House, Hall and Ricci had spent ample time among the crowds here. In the waning light, the room was flooded with memories of Ricci’s mother enjoying live music in the tavern, their daughter’s wedding in the apple orchard just outside, and their own engagement party in these rooms. “We would always come to the Hermitage Inn on a Friday or Saturday night when we came to Vermont,” she said. “We just loved it here. It was really special to us.”

The Tavern in the Hermitage Inn. Photo courtesy Hermitage.

Seeing the inn again inspired the couple. “It was a really powerful experience. Instead of seeing it in complete disrepair, it brought back all those great memories we had,” said Ricci. “At the same time, it was an opportunity to look at it and say, ‘these are things that we want to make different.’”

They’d had some time to think about the Hermitage Inn as a new venture. When COVID struck in early 2020, they closed the offices of their insurance business for what they assumed would be a couple of weeks and headed to Vermont to ride out lockdown. When it became clear that the pandemic was going to persist, they sold the business and moved to Vermont full-time. A few months later, Ricci heard rumors that the Hermitage Club was selling the inn. By the end of December, she and Hall had toured the property three times, and put in a $1.75 million offer on the property listed at $1.9 million. The offer was accepted, and the 85 +/- acre property including ponds, streams, cottages, 15 guestrooms, and a stocked wine cellar, closed in early April 2021.

“Honestly, we thought the pandemic wasn't going to last much longer. That was a key factor because we thought, ‘we don't want to open a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic.’ But we felt like there was hope, that there was an end to it,” said Ricci.

While neither Ricci nor Hall had direct experience running a hospitality business, they were confident that they excelled in one of its most important elements. “Our previous business was all about customer service and the restaurant business is all about customer service, so it aligns with our skill set,” said Hall.

They also had a clear sense of the level of service that they wanted to provide. “In our family, we all share the same passions for food and wine, travel... So it wasn't that much of a stretch to know how we wanted our guests to feel when they walked through the door,” said Ricci.  “We've been very fortunate to stay in beautiful, luxurious resorts and castles. I love to receive great service and have that whole experience of amazing food: A plate put down in front of you. You study it and it's beautiful. You try to figure out all the ingredients on the plate. To me, it's a surreal experience. It was really just working toward the vision of how we get there (with the inn).”

The dining room in the Hermitage Inn. Photo: M Segura.

Construction began almost immediately. Overall, $3 million in renovations was budgeted for updating guestrooms, opening space in the dining room and tavern, completely gutting and refitting the bar, new furniture and fixtures, moving restrooms, and commissioning a mural in the dining room hand painted by Brattleboro’s Paul Stone.

“The old inn was built in the late 1700s, so it was chopped up and additions had been put on,” said Ricci. “I wanted to pay homage to it being historic. We're going to keep historic colors. We're going to keep wood floors. But I also wanted everybody that came here to know that this is different. I wanted to give it an upscale look for people that come here from New York, and Greenwich, and Boston, to remind them a little bit, décor-wise, of their favorite place back home. It's not a Mountain Lodge to me and I don’t want it to have a mountain lodge feel.”

She wanted to bring a sense of the outdoors in, though, by opening the space and making gardens outside of the dining room visible the first moment guests walk through the front door. They also created a movable wall of windows in the dining room that opens to the outside. “You can sit in the dining room in nice weather and that wall will be open to the patio. It'll be beautiful.”

With the design of the space and demolition immediately underway, the only thing missing was a culinary partner. Enter James Beard award-winning chef Michael Schlow. Schlow was introduced to Hall and Ricci by the friend of an insurance client who was renting a house near the inn and was on the board of the Schlow Restaurant Group. When they spoke, Schlow shared his history with the property. “Michael used to come up here when it was owned by Jim McGovern and do celebrity chef dinners,” said Ricci. “It was a very exciting conversation because we were both passionate about the inn - what it was historically, and what it could be.”

Soon after, Schlow and an assistant headed to Vermont to make dinner. It was just a few weeks into Hall and Ricci’s ownership of the inn, still April, and mid-mud season. “It was mud season in the dining room,” said Ricci. “We had started pulling stuff apart. They found dishes in the kitchen and made us dinner. We pulled a couple of old tables together and had a really fun night. And that was kind of that.”

 

Culinary Vision

Once the partnership with the Schlow Restaurant Group was inked, Schlow got to work building his culinary team. Fortunately, chef Erin Bevan, who had earned accolades for her visionary farm-to-table menus at Four Columns Inn in Newfane, became available. This was not a new relationship. Early in her career, Bevan worked at two Schlow restaurants in Boston, including Via Matta known for its Italian cuisine. “The opportunity to work with Michael Schlow again was very enticing,” said Bevan. “He was actually my first chef, and some of the techniques and recipes that he is known for have become the base for how I cook as well,” she said. “I spent three years at Via and that is where my love of Italian cuisine was born. We are not an Italian restaurant here, but the approach remains true: Letting the ingredients take center stage. That simplistic Italian approach is still what fuels me, as well trying to source the best ingredients. When you only have three of them in a recipe or on a plate, there is nothing to hide behind. And I really love that honesty.”

Sourcing for Bevan means building relationships with as many local producers as possible. Cheeses, vegetables, and mushrooms are all sourced locally to the extent possible, including limited products that were available from local farms through the winter. “I’m super passionate about my farm relationships,” she said. “Once we get into summer, that’s going to be a real source for us. I’m talking with farmers about special products that they might be able to grow specifically for us.”

Sourcing the ingredients that make up a fine dining menu has had its COVID supply-chain issues. “There have been a tremendous number of challenges,” said Bevan. “Many major companies have limited their delivery schedules. They don't have truck drivers. Or a truck driver could call out sick, and then we just don't get our delivery that day. As a chef I have learned to adapt. I'm communicating with my sales reps well in advance of a menu change, or a special that I want to run, because the days of being able to call up the night before at 10 pm and get your product delivered the next day are gone.”

Balancing availability and the demands of a fine dining menu can be tricky for any chef when it comes to food costs. But Bevan sees clear advantages in the guests that are attracted to the Hermitage Inn. “What is different is that here, especially during the winter ski season, we have a clientele that can afford to pay higher prices for things,” said Bevan. “Something very special about the Hermitage is being able to really shoot for the moon. And the numbers all make sense. There are people out there who are who are really very hungry for those singular culinary experiences,” said Bevan.

Supply chain issues for the renovation, however, delayed the initial tavern opening from July until October, and the dining room opening from October to December. With furniture deliveries for both the restaurant and guestrooms dribbling in over days and weeks, the delays put stress on cashflow. “It had a significant effect monetarily,” said Ricci. The decision was made to jump start activity in the dining room by providing a full-service Thanksgiving dinner for 155 guests, more than triple the number of guests that were served in an average night at the time. And then it was game on. “We haven't had a chance to breathe at all because our construction finished the night before Thanksgiving. We were here until eight o'clock that night. And then we were right into the holidays and in our busy season.”

 

Challenges

Initially, a limited menu was rolled out only to the Tavern space which seats about 40 people. In early December, the dining room opened, seating over 100 people. A greatly expanded menu was introduced, along with special catering menus for special events that occurred throughout December and January. In addition, limited lunch service was added along with breakfast for inn guests. The added volume did not mean added capacity for a crew that was already impacted by labor shortages and waves of COVID variants.

“Sometimes you don't know that you've gone too big until you go too big,” said Bevan. “We first retracted quite a bit as COVID, and especially the Omicron variant, ravaged this area and took some of my staff down as well. Then we moved to a middle ground that is a more sustainable pace that allows us to still focus on private events, the wine dinners, and things like that. I think it helps us serve our guests a whole lot better. We are doing some things (such as daily and weekly specials) that are really exciting and offer us a little more flexibility. We have a lot of repeat guests here that come back often. I think it’s exciting for them to have some more options as well.”

The collaboration between Bevan and Michael Schlow continues but has shifted since the restaurant opened. “His saying was that he was going to give me the steering wheel but keep his foot on the gas. And I would say that's how it's going,” said Bevan. “We still certainly collaborate, and it is definitely a collaborative menu. But at this point, I have a little more autonomy than when we first started, and a lot of area where I'm certainly growing as a chef here.” 

One of the ways that Bevan has been able to hone her craft is by creating 5-course tasting menus for high-end wine dinners which showcase the ambitiously growing wine program and are held in the property’s storied wine cellar. These dinners top out at $350 plus tax and tips per person, and regularly sell out. The meals are paired with selected wines either from the cellar, or they feature luxury level wines and winemakers like Shawn Johnson of Amulet Winery in Napa, which is so exclusive that it does not have a sign on its gate. Wines there start at over $300 per bottle, and a tasting room visit requires a commitment of around $1000 per person. “It makes sense to collaborate with properties like the Hermitage Inn,” said Johnson.  “Coming to Vermont to host an event myself allows us to connect with a high-end clientele that doesn’t know about us yet. And the experience of having a dinner created by Erin in that space is exquisite.”

A core element of the wine program was hiring Justin Peregoy, a certified sommelier who was living in the Burlington area. “He's a great fit for us,” said Ricci. “He has our vision for the wine program. He loves Vermont. He has a great way with our guests and they're very comfortable with him.”

A primary charge for Peregoy is to bring back the prestigious Wine Spectator Grand Award, which the owner prior to the Hermitage Club, Jim McGovern, earned for 8 years running from 1987. “Right now we have about 140 selections on our list but will need to grow to above 1,000 selections in order to compete for a Grand Award,” said Peregoy. “As we curate our cellar and grow our selections, we will be showcasing Italy and West Coast USA as our main focuses, although we will represent wines from all areas of the world. But it's about more than how big your list is. The Grand Award requires every aspect of the restaurant to excel on a world-class level.” 

In addition, a robust event business is already underway. According to Hermitage Inn event manager Joanne Putnam, , several weddings have booked. Larger events tend to be destination weddings with guests traveling from other regions, while smaller events are likely locals or second homeowners in the area. “The Inn is aligned with an incredibly upscale wedding experience. The sky is really the limit for what we are able to create here for our couples - the five-star cuisine, the idyllic New England setting, the peak accommodations - we have truly created a luxury destination wedding venue,” she said.

The ultimate goal of the Hermitage Inn is to become a destination, regardless of the season, by offering experiences like falconry, fly fishing lessons, wine events, and live music. “Our vision was to make it a year-round place,” said Ricci. “We will try to stay open even during mud and stick season. Why not come in May? It's okay that it's not ski season, because you can still have that amazing experience in the wine cellar, and you can fly fish and have lessons and do all that and stay in a wonderful place.”

Apparent shifts in travel patterns to Vermont support the idea of flourishing in the off-season. According to Bevan, “During the pandemic, one of the big shifts that happened in Vermont is that it wasn't just the winter season. The summer season really became a thing as people are more attracted to outdoor recreation. It'll be really interesting to see how that plays out this year. As you know, the COVID numbers have dropped, and we all have our COVID fatigue. Things seem to be improving in that realm. Will people still be up here, recreating, and looking for those outdoor activities and then someplace fabulous to eat afterwards?”

Hall is hopeful that this trend will help to support the business and its employees. “That's the key. We want employees to feel like they have a full-time job so they can sustain their lifestyle…because then we will have a consistent and stable workforce to offer all these planned activities throughout the year,” said Hall.

 

Staffing Challenges

With weddings on the books, 30-person wine dinners selling out, and 80% of restaurant guests returning – some more than three times a month, according to restaurant General Manager Rich Clemens, demand appears to be strong for what the Hermitage Inn has to offer. The biggest challenge, then, comes with labor shortages for both the back and front of the house.

The labor pool in Vermont is persistently both shallow and in high demand. The unemployment rate in Dover and Wilmington hovered at just over 3% in February 2022, on par with Windham County and the rest of the state. Meanwhile, accommodation and food service jobs accounted for 16% of all jobs in Wilmington and Dover in 2019, compared to just 9% statewide. An added challenge comes in finding workers with fine dining experience. “From a business perspective, I realized that we're opening a luxury establishment and there's not a lot of other luxury establishments in the area. So, when we're drawing staff in, we're not drawing staff with a lot of luxury experience,” said Peregoy.

Clemens agrees that finding highly qualified servers in the area has been challenging, and COVID has made it even more difficult. “I think across the board in this industry a lot of people have just found other avenues and things to do with themselves for a living,” said Clemens. “You have to go out and chase the people that can execute what you're looking for. Or if their qualifications are not up to luxury standards, that they'll put the work in to reach that level.”

Hall and Ricci’s history with the area opened a labor door that was closed to many others. “We were really fortunate because we know a lot of the staff from being second homeowners and Hermitage Club members. We've met a lot of them before,” said Ricci. “When they found out Tim and I bought (the Hermitage Inn), they reached out to us. So we had a small core of people that started with us. And then as they saw what we were doing here, it became word of mouth.”

Ricci and Hall’s experience in the insurance industry underscored the importance of offering incentives like health insurance and a 401k to minimize turnover.  According to Bevan, “What we have done to get the staff that we have and keep them is offering a really fair wage and really amazing benefits that mean a lot in this day and age. Having that health insurance really makes a difference. We've been able to build a great team and keep them. We have not had very much turnover at all in the kitchen. And to me, that's a real mark of pride, because I know that's a huge issue for so many.”

 

Housing

Most current staff hails from Dover, Wilmington, and nearby Brattleboro, with some commuting from as far away as northern Massachusetts. But with regional unemployment so low, it has been necessary to bring in folks from further afield. Clemens and Peregoy have relocated here from other metro areas but recruiting their former coworkers has been difficult.

“In this industry you have your people that worked for you and work with you, and that would follow you anywhere,” said Clemens. “Calling somebody down in Hartford, Connecticut, and convincing them to try to battle to find somewhere to live up here just to follow this career path is a little harder than being in a metropolitan area that's got a denser population of qualified employees.”

Vermont, said Ricci, can be a tough sell for folks who are not familiar. “When we're interviewing people that are coming from Atlanta or other big cities, or Colorado, we're like, ‘Welcome to tiny Vermont. It's rural, but it's a great place to live.’ You have to be that type of personality that wants to spend time outside, enjoy nature, and enjoy a small community. It's not for everybody.”

In other cases, Vermont was a big selling point for staff members like Clemens, who relocated from the Hartford, CT area after spending years in the restaurant scene in Boston and New Haven. “In my interview with Tim and Mary Lou, I let them know, whatever their decision, that I’d be coming to this area. It was calling to me.”  But finding a home once he was committed was more of a challenge than he anticipated. Real estate inventory became scarce, and what was offered grew more expensive. According to the Vermont Association of Realtors, the volume of active listings in Dover year over year from 2020 to 2021 was down 48%, while the average listing price increased 73%.

“Properties were getting grabbed quickly and for a lot more than they were worth,” said Clemens. “Being a first-time buyer, I was crazy about going way above what I believe the value of the home was. It was just in the cards that I was able to close on a house two days before we opened the tavern.”

Despite good wages, benefits, and year-round business, it may still be difficult for the Hermitage Inn to hold on to staff. According to Peregoy, “I think there's going to be some natural attrition because some of our staff is in it for the season and then have plans to travel, or have other summer jobs that they do every year.  We have the people that we are going to lose no matter what. We identify those, figure out who wants to stay, and then start filling in from around there. It's our first season so it's kind of hard to know how it will go.”

 

Other Properties, Similar Challenges

At the other end of the Deerfield Valley in Wilmington, three of eight new businesses that opened in the most recent year of the pandemic were restaurants: Alpenglow, an upscale Bavarian themed restaurant; 19 South Main, a woodfired pizza and Italian restaurant; and gastronomic mecca Folly which had closed during the pandemic and now has new owners. Most other restaurants in the area have managed to hold on.

Gretchen Havreluk, economic development consultant for the Town of Wilmington, chalks up the fortitude to get into and stay in the restaurant business during COVID to “Vermont ingenuity.” At the beginning of the pandemic, she said, “These business owners had to figure out how to reinvent themselves and ask themselves, ‘How am I going to do this?’”  Fortunately, many establishments were able to take advantage of the American Rescue Plan and PPP programs. But the real saving grace for both old and new businesses was an influx of new residents to the area. While some new residents are second-home owners who decided to stay here full-time, there is also a dramatic increase in out of staters who purchased homes for primary or secondary residences. In Wilmington, out of staters who bought residential properties of 6 acres or less increased by 34% year over year from 2020 to 2021. This number increased nearly 60 % from 2017. In Dover, there was an 18% increase 2020 to 2021, and 66% increase since 2017.

“We didn’t know that people were going to escape the city and come to a less populated place,” said Havreluk. “And when they got here, they ordered out. They didn’t stay in.”

While this was a strong source for revenue, restaurant owners still had to pay for to-go containers and find dishwashers, which, as always, was a challenge because of unemployment rates and the limited labor pool. But the greatest challenge, according to Havreluk, has been the worker housing shortage. A Vermont Downtown Program 2021 reinvestment report found that, of the limited rental units available, only 3% are vacant in Wilmington – and those come at a high price.

In 2019, the towns of Wilmington and Dover commissioned a Housing Analysis and Master Plan report. Researchers found that long-term rental opportunities in the Deerfield Valley are scarce at best. In 2017, only 6.2% of housing in Dover was renter-occupied, and only 9.2% in Wilmington. In the meantime, it appeared that short-term rental inventory had increased. The report cited that short term rentals such as AirBNB proliferated, growing 506% in Dover, and 471% in Wilmington between 2016 to 2019. It’s unclear how many of these new vacation rentals are second homes that are now rented when owners are not there, or how many long-term rental properties have been taken off the market and converted to short-term. But there is no doubt that short term rentals have helped to drive up the cost of rent on long-term rentals.

Median rent in Dover was $761 and $1034 in Wilmington in 2019. With 48% of restaurant workers that commute to the towns having an estimated $375 or less per month to spend on housing, this creates a monthly rent shortfall of $368 for those workers in Dover, and $659 in shortfall in Wilmington. Many of those that do rent, disproportionately spend their income on rent. In Dover, 62% of renters paid more than the affordability threshold. In Wilmington it was 36%. But some new restaurant owners have taken things into their own hands by building worker housing into their business plans.

 

The White House Inn

Just up the hill from downtown Wilmington, the White House Inn gears up for another go. The stunning 1915, 18-guestroom, 10+ acre property was recently purchased for $1.82 million by Richard Valicente and his sister-in-law Ellen DeRiggi, a lawyer living on Long Island, NY, where her family had been active in the Long Beach Aquarium and accompanying hotel business.

The family is no stranger to this area. With Valicente owning a second home here and DeRiggi an annual winter visitor for over 25 years, the family felt connected to the White House Inn. When they found the property in foreclosure, they felt compelled to get it back on track. “There was a lot of uncertainty about this place and we thought, ‘What a great opportunity to become involved and save this iconic property.’”

An exterior view of the inn in winter. Photo: M Segura 

The group also looked at the Hermitage Inn. But having worker housing units available was a key part of the decision, and the Hermitage package did not include that option. “We knew that housing would be a critical part of finding and keeping employees, so I acquired housing as a part of this property,” said DeRiggi. Currently three apartments and single-family housing units are in the process of renovations to get them ready for the summer. The intent is to offer housing opportunities to J1 and H2B workers, which DeRiggi sees as essential to local businesses, given the limited labor pool.

After a “protracted” timeline for due diligence and financing due to COVID, the property reopened in January with guestrooms and limited food and bar service in the tavern. Currently under phase one of renovations which will cost around $500,000, the theme of the property will focus on its history, original owners, and heritage. The tavern was open through mud season until Mother’s Day when closed for renovations necessary to launch a new full-service restaurant, Clara’s Cucina Italiana. “Clara was the original Lady of the House. Her spirit is still rumored to be present in the home,” said DeRiggi.

Hand-painted vintage wallpaper that adorns The White House Inn's first-floor grand hallway. It was created by the French company Zuber, which is famous for its epic woodblock panoramas in the White House Inn. Photo: M Segura

The Italian theme, she said, was inspired by the hand-painted vintage wallpaper that is original to the house and adorns the first-floor grand hallway. The wallpaper design, called “Paysage Italien” (translated as “Italian Countryside”) was created by French producer Zuber who is famous for epic woodblock panoramas such as this pastoral 18th century scene. “We are making design choices to accentuate the wallpaper and to make (it) the centerpiece of the house,” said DeRiggi.

The plan is to open the full restaurant by June. But like other restaurant owners, DeRiggi understands that labor will continue to be the biggest challenge. “We opened in January and people already had seasonal employment.” The staff that they did hire was enough to reopen the tavern four nights a week, by cross-training and licensing all front of the house employees, including managers, to do everything from bussing to bartending. But more staff will be needed to support a full-service restaurant. In addition to hiring and housing J1 and HB2 workers when possible. DeRiggi said, “We will be holding a hiring day in the spring, which will also be open to the community to be able to learn about plans for the property and business.” In this way, they hope to create excitement from local patrons and encourage locals to help them find employees through word of mouth.

 

Brattleboro

The labor shortage during the pandemic caused even seasoned restauranteurs like Whetstone Associates to make significant shifts in their service style. But it didn’t keep them from opening a new upper-scale venue in Brattleboro – River Garden Marketplace. While celebrating the 10th anniversary of their first establishment this year, Whetstone Associates, which now has four locations and nine brands, had to dig deep to create a strategy to weather the pandemic.

“During COVID, we had to do a drastic shift in our business model at Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery to downsize some of our staffing because there wasn't a lot of labor,” said David Hiler, a Brattleboro native and one of three partners in the businesses along with Amy and Tim Brady. “The model also had to change to make it a much more streamlined process - more cleaned and sanitized, less hands on - and just to brace ourselves for the fact that we couldn't be open 100% for over a year.”

The new model embraced QR code technology with which nearly anyone that ventured out to an establishment at the height of the pandemic has become familiar. Patrons open a camera application on their phones, point it at an appointed square taped to a table or printed on a menu stand, which then opens a menu online. Whetstone Station took the model one step further requiring folks who were able, to place their orders online without the assistance of waitstaff. While managers and counter staff were available to take in-person orders, guests initially had to pick up their food from a window and retrieve their own non-alcoholic drinks.  “We're going to modify that model to bring back some of the service that we lost,” said Hiler, referencing a return to food delivery to tables, and more presence of waitstaff on the floor. “We lost all our servers, hosts, and bussers. But at the same time, we have taken the approach that this was an opportunity to become our true selves, that we are a badass brewery rather than a full-service restaurant.”

Realizing a vision to focus on Whetstone beers at the property required some shifts as well. “We essentially got rid of all the outside craft beers that we brought in, and one of the things we had been known for was bringing in craft beers that no one else can get,” said Hiler. While Whetstone beers were always the top choice, the owners recognized that their relationships with other small craft breweries was extremely valuable, particularly to loyal local beer aficionados who want to experience a wide variety of hard to find products. This meant that there was an opportunity in the market to open a boutique craft beer bar.

River Garden Market in Brattleboro. Courtesy Whestone Brands.

“We were very lucky to get some restaurant relief funding which allowed us to identify the River Garden space to purchase,” said Hiler.

The venue, in uptown Brattleboro on Main Street at High Street, is known to many as the former home of Strolling of the Heifers.

“That space is beautiful. It looks like a train station with high ceilings that are all glass. It's just spectacular,” said Hiler. “It is the only other spot in Brattleboro (besides Whetstone Station) that offers a deck with a view of the river. It is a place where we can offer guest drafts and over 100 cans of primarily New England craft beers. And in that way, the question from our banker was, ‘Aren't you going to be competing with yourself?’” But, said Hiler, “It was an extension of what we were doing in some respects. Yet it could be a completely different concept.”

“Out of the 20 some odd taps that we have (at River Garden), we only have two Whetstone brands on draft. We also felt like the food model is inspired pub fare down at Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery. There, we wanted to add something that was maybe a little bit more upscale,” said Hiler. “It's our ‘adulting’ place where we are offering cheese and charcuterie boards and featuring local Vermont products where we can. It's a little bit more of a specialized market.”

They didn’t immediately jump at the space. “One of the issues with the property was that while very beautiful, it also still had a very industrial, commercial feel where the flooring looked like a high school cafeteria. We saw it as a sort of a missed opportunity.” It wasn’t until a boiler burst in the building that they finally heard opportunity knock. “We felt like that was a sign for us to go ahead and purchase the property since most of the renovation work was going to be done through an insurance claim,” said Hiler.

Paying approximately $650,000 for the building, the team committed to an additional $150,00 for renovations while several necessary upgrades, including rebuilding some walls, were covered by the insurance claim. “We felt that we wanted to put in textures that would lend themselves to more of our model. So, it's a lot of stone and wood and metal similar to what we have at Whetstone Station, but much more upscale,” said Hiler. “And we now have a monopoly on the views of the river in downtown.”

River Garden Marketplace al fresco, overlooking over the Connecticut River. Photo: M Segura.

As an added draw, the Marketplace was created by partnering with Handbuilt Market. Consisting of 10 booth spaces that can be rented by local artists and artisans for four weeks at a time, the space features “a constantly rotating bevy of locally made art and hand crafted amazingness,” per Handbuilt’s marketing materials. “The marketplace, especially, is a concept that was born out of our appreciation for places like Chelsea Market (in New York City), that has a multi-level concept where you can buy crafts, and eat food and see music, and where there's a changing menu,” said Hiler. “And that all of that is designed to bring people in to celebrate Vermont and celebrate what Brattleboro offers for our surrounding communities.”

The greatest challenge for the River Garden continues to be staffing. Whetstone Associates are incentivizing current and future staff with not just insurance and a 401k option, but with creative ways to help increase wages. All employees, regardless of their front or back of the house status, start with at least the minimum wage rate of $12.55, plus tips, instead of the minimum tipped employee rate of $6.28 per hour.

In addition, all non-management employees are tipped out – 80% to the front of the house and 20% to the back of the house. By carrying the QR Code ordering model over to River Garden, staff levels at both properties can remain fairly low. “And that has helped us to retain some of the best kitchen staff you can find anywhere, as well as front of the house staff, by lowering the number of servers and bussers and hosts so that there are less people that tip out. And therefore, the staff is still making good money.”

It all comes down to keeping guests walking through the doors. Traditionally, at Whetstone Station the ratio of guests has been 60% tourists to 40% locals.

“At Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery, we have a strong visitor clientele. People know about us. They come in the summers. They come all the way up to wherever they're going to go hiking, or go to the lakes, or go camping. And during the winter it's more about skiing and snowboarding. Going to the mountains, they stop off and have dinner here on their way to their condo,” said Hiler.

“We love that we have the relationship with the locals as well,” he said. “Our mug club is one aspect that brings in a lot of locals. Our bingo nights, trivia nights, and live music are all geared towards keeping a local crowd as well. We even have a discount program in place for our residents. If they tell the bartender they're local, we give them a 10% discount on their food.”

Whetstone's Tim Brady, Amy Brady and David Hiler. Photo: M Segura

To court the local crowd, the group has carried the Mug Club concept over to the new River Garden space with its “Can and Bottle” club. “I would say that since we're less than six months old at River Garden, we have really been cultivating a local crowdt, anyway,” said Hiler. “We do an open mic night there. We do a piano bar night on Thursdays, live music Fridays, or Saturdays, and paint and sip programs on Sundays. And those are all geared towards bringing in our local friends.”

If trends in Wilmington and Dover follow suit, locals may be the biggest growth opportunity for the River Garden. According to Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation Executive Director Adam Grinhold, “We’ve seen an uptick in residents in the region who are used to a different level of food and services. People who are aware are responding and providing what people are looking for.”

He also predicts that a pent-up demand for gathering with friends and family in public places will help boost business. “Rooms and meals taxes reflect that the hardest hit (businesses) during the pandemic were places of gathering,” said Grinold. “But one of the most missed things was going out to a restaurant (and) the ability to break bread with family. There is a historic need for humans to gather around food.” 

BDCC is tracking an increase in rooms and meals tax receipts by town and finding that the areas doing best are the ones that have an influx of new homeowners. This is particularly true with a spike in permanent residents in towns in tourist areas and around the ski industry, a trend which brings new types of individuals and families to our area. “Diversity is good,” said Grinold. While he acknowledges that there may be some discomfort among certain locals as result of the large volume of newcomers, he believes that new residents will ultimately have a great impact on the economy. “There may be a longer line at the grocery store, but this means that people have new neighbors. More vibrancy and diversity can only be good for our area,” he said.

Maia Segura is a freelance writer from southern Vermont.