Despite Challenges, Local Restaurants Thrive on Relationships

by Sarah Davin

Two days after DeMena’s closing, comedian Kathleen Kanz, enjoying some recently purchased Positive Pie pizza and looking for some calm and quiet, ventured up to the restaurant’s oddly vacant deck. As she ate, a person appeared, possibly an employee, who tried the door and was seemingly surprised to find it locked. Whatever this individual was trying to retrieve was gone forever, trapped inside.

It was a feeling Kanz could relate to: “Off and on since 2007, I’ve told jokes in that third-floor gem, so something of mine will always be in there. I didn’t lose anything irreplaceable, I have my memories, but sometimes, in real estate relations, people suffer losses.”

In an industry that sees establishments come and go fairly often, the recent closing of four local eateries, Asiana House, Banchan, Beau, and DeMena’s, prompted us to wonder what are the keys to running a successful, enduring restaurant in Montpelier.

Fewer than 8,000 people live in Montpelier, and with a daytime population of 21,000 with commuters working in the capital city, it means that our restaurants have to work harder than they would in a larger city because they have a smaller population of potential diners to support them.

Nate Morris, director of restaurant operations for Skinny Pancake, which has had its Montpelier location for eight years, explained, “The most obvious challenge I have seen is the amount of restaurants compared to our population. It seems that over the last 10 years, this influx has been more apparent. That said, as a consumer, it is fun to see the diversity of the new eateries in town, I just wish there was more consumers for everyone, not that I want to lose the small town feel we have.”

This small population not only limits who comes to eat, but the food service employment pool as well, as local restaurants struggle to keep their kitchens staffed with qualified workers.

Crystal Maderia, owner of Kismet, which has been in business for 12 years, said transportation, or lack thereof, is a huge challenge for cooks who work unusual hours.

“When you [a chef] start your day at 3 pm and end your day at midnight, that’s a particular lifestyle. We don’t have any public transportation that happens on those hours. That really limits who in our community can have this kind of job,” she noted.

Mary Alice Proffitt, owner of Down Home Kitchen, which opened in 2015, emphasized the importance of encouraging diversity in Montpelier, indicating that restaurants also benefit when we bring new people into town. She also hopes the community will consider the need for more affordable housing, which also affects restaurants: “Where are the people who are doing the dishes and cooking living? Are they living in Montpelier where they can walk to work? Where’s the affordable housing?”

Existence as a small restaurant is also difficult to sustain on a financial level. As it stands, larger businesses are more likely to get financial assistance than small businesses like restaurants. In addition, affording labor costs and credit card fees presents a serious problem. The struggle will be felt more acutely in winter, when the weather is bad and business slows down. These aren’t the only financial hurdles restaurants in our area face.

Brian and Karen Zecchinelli. Photo courtesy of the Wayside Restaurant

Brian Zecchinelli, who with his wife, Karen Zecchinelli, owns the 100-year-old Wayside in Berlin, recounted, “I remember there was once a restaurant, and their portions were too big for the price, and while everyone was all excited to go there, they ultimately had issues with cash flow and had too close. You want to have a fair price and a consistent portion.” Zecchinelli’s story may serve as a cautionary warning to other restaurants about managing the price of a dish, which can be especially challenging when trying to incorporate quality, local ingredients, due to seasonally availability and higher cost.

In the face of all these challenges, Montpelier’s successful restaurants also have a lot of strengths. For example, while the population is small, the connections between customers and staff run deep. For this reason, Maderia prefers not to refer to her clientele as customers, but guests, acknowledging that Kismet doesn’t only serve food, but plays a part in a larger community.

“People come to Kismet to celebrate, to mourn, to mark milestones in their life, and to just visit,” Maderia said. “We are here for them. We can be witnesses for our community. It is a really amazing relationship.”

Kismet is not alone. Morris also affirmed Skinny Pancake’s policy of referring to customers as guests, and every business emphasized the importance of forming lasting friendships and listening to the community.

One recurring theme that emerges while talking to local, successful restaurant owners is the importance of having well-trained and enthusiastic staff.

Carol Paquette, owner of Sarducci’s, which opened its doors 25 years ago, says her restaurant has been successful because of the hard work her team puts in. “The chef, Jeff Butterfield, runs a tight kitchen. He is creative especially with his specials. Every week, when I read what he is featuring, I get so excited.”

She also cited continuity as a key to success. “ I now have the younger generation head up the front,” she said. “Our servers are the best and we take training them very seriously. We have some staff that has been with us over 20 years.”

Having a passionate owner is also important to the longevity of a restaurant. Many of our local restaurants are independent and owner-operated, meaning that unlike in some large establishments and chains, the owner is in the restaurant, working with the staff. It takes an impressive amount of endurance to work in the restaurant business, and an immense amount of dedication to be a restaurant owner.

Proffitt reflected on her choice to start a restaurant in Montpelier, “I wanted to be a part of the community and serve people. It was a great decision.”

With the recent closings, it is easy to overlook the noteworthiness of our local restaurants in favor of dwelling on the past. According to the Wayside’s Brian Zecchinelli, moving forward is an essential part of a successful restaurant’s philosophy.

“The old restaurant proverb is ‘You’re only as good as your last meal,’” he said. “I compare it to a Broadway show. Every day is a new night; every day is a new breakfast.”

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