- Matthew Thorsen
I got into the restaurant business thinking it was all about food, but its really about people, the relationships between the customers and the staff, he says, and I find it infinitely fascinating.
Fascinating enough, that is, to keep the courses coming. At a time when several successful Vermont restaurateurs are stepping out with second establishments, 55-year-old Fuller a former chef who graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America has already built something of an eatery empire in Vermont. He owns Leunigs Bistro in Burlington, Paulines in South Burlington and the brand-new Bobcat Café in Bristol, and is co-proprietor of two others: Gillians in Shelburne and Cubbers, also in Bristol.
Each is unique in ambiance and cuisine, but the focus is always the same to provide our guests with a high-quality, restorative dining experience. The efficacy of this seemingly straightforward mission can be measured in the restaurants volume of business especially repeat diners. Fuller says revenues have doubled in the five years hes owned Leunigs.
Thoughtful and philosophical, Fuller digresses when he talks; hes fond of the vividly told story and illustrating his points with analogies. He likens the restaurant business to a theatrical performance: When the door opens, you have to be in character and know your lines. The lighting has to be right, everything has to be right. The star billing? All the money comes from the customers, he emphasizes. They need to be the center of everything.
And you thought you were just going out to eat.
When he talks about his staff in his imperturbable, measured way, Fuller sounds more like a mediation expert and sometimes a coach than a restaurateur. Theres a lot of cryptic, incomplete communication in the world, and its endemic in a busy restaurant, he says. Peoples feelings get hurt, tensions build. Thats when I get involved I get people to speak in complete sentences. Im a communication facilitator.
Fuller declares with some pride that he treats his employees better than any bosses in the food biz ever treated him. The number-one reason people stay at a job is job satisfaction number two is money, he notes. I try to create an environment where people feel appreciated. Medical benefits, holiday bonuses and a profit-sharing retirement plan for core employees surely help, but so does positive reinforcement. Catch people doing something right, Fuller advises. Catch them succeeding.
Few employees are in a better position to evaluate Fullers M.O. than Robert Conlon, a longtime bartender and now dining-room manager at Leunigs. Ive worked in the restaurant business since 1965, and Robert Fuller is the first restaurant owner who Ive never heard shout, Conlon remarks wryly. Hes always calm and takes the long view hes also very good at compliments and saying whats good, as well as saying whats not working.
The middle of three children, Fuller grew up on a dairy farm in Ludlow, Massachusetts. Although he remembers only the bucolic bliss of that time including a Polish couple across the road who farmed with horses Fuller says he tends to let go of or simply forget bad times. His first cooking success came out of a Duncan Hines cake mix box.
But it wasnt rural romanticism that brought Fuller to Vermont in 1976. A little bit of post-culinary-school travel, including a stint out West, taught him that you can reinvent yourself elsewhere. I had to leave my hometown to become the person I wanted to be.
Fuller moved to Middlebury for a chef job at Mr. Ups Restaurant when he was 29. After six years there, he began looking for a business opportunity of his own, and found Paulines. With financing from founder-chef Pauline Hersh-enson, Fuller and his wife bought the Shelburne Road eatery in 1982 and worked like dogs, he says, not taking a paycheck for the first three years never mind a vacation.
The hard work paid off. In 1986, Fuller bought Déjà Vu in Burlington. We had some success initially there, he says of the beautiful, artisan-crafted Pearl Street establishment. But the economy slipped, and I slipped into divorce.
In this same period, Fuller nearly slipped away altogether. While crossing some railroad tracks on a bicycle near his New Haven home, a mishap sent him flying over the handlebars and onto his head without a helmet. He has little memory of the accident, the surgery that relieved a dangerous subdural hemotoma in his brain, or the 10 days in Burlingtons medical center. (Fullers father died of a similar injury as the result of a motorcycle accident when his son was 12.)
Instead Fuller focuses on his complete, and near-miraculous, recovery. But the brush with death seems to contribute to his enduring attitude a combination of the 60s chill-out platitude Be Here Now and the more pragmatic Latin classic, carpe diem.
Perhaps this new embrace of life helped Fuller take some big steps over the following decade. In 1992, he sold Déjà Vu to the Thai restaurateurs who reopened it as Parima. Just days after his divorce was final that same year, he met Allison Parker, a nurse practitioner. When the couple married three years later, Fuller moved to her house in Lincoln and adopted nearby Bristol as his new hometown.
The only reason Im at Leunigs is because I went to Africa, Fuller announces. In 1997, he carved out time from Paulines so that he and Allison could accompany a Bristol-based cultural group on a month-long trip to Ghana. He returned to find that everything was running smoothly at the restaurant without him. So when he learned that Leunigs was for sale a short time afterwards, Fuller went for it. If Id had my head stuck in a stock pot at Paulines, he says, I wouldnt have done that.
Other serendipitous opportunities led Fuller to take over the Bristol pizzeria Cubbers in 1998, with ex-employee Drew Smith, and to transform the Shelburne Bake Shop into Gillians Restaurant two years ago with partner and chef Michael Weiner.
Fullers latest venture is just across the street from Cubbers. If restaurants are his children, he suggests, The Bobcat is the first time Ive conceived I have always adopted. Fuller had been involved in the restoration of the downtown Dunshee Block. Fuller and a partner bought the former bank building, and he agreed to create a restaurant but not before some very creative financing had been worked out.
I talked to a bunch of people and decided Id need at least 12 to invest $5000 each, Fuller says of the cafés communal-investor plan. Without that vote of confidence, Fuller says, the idea wasnt worth it. He ended up with twice that many an indication locals were starved for a medium-priced restaurant for grown-ups, as he puts it. People want to see positive things happen in these small towns, he adds. I thought, Im a restaurateur, I can do this for the community.
In turn, the investors who get a deal on dining make for a loyal, regular and uniquely engaged customer base. Though Fuller is The Bobcats owner, former Leunigs sous chef Andy Saver handles the cooking, and brewing partners Paul Saylor and Rob Downey will manage the on-site brewing operation not yet up-and-running in the six-week-old eatery. Saylor and Downey, partners in Wind Harvest Brewing, also have projects in the works with American Flatbread in Middlebury and Burlington, and a closed-loop brewing system in Burlingtons Intervale.
Typically, though, Fuller picks his partners from his ever-growing pool of employees. You know each other, he says of the strategy. You have some basic knowledge of who does what and how they perform, so you can kind of direct them into an area of the business where they will be strong, as opposed to asking someone with no bookkeeping experience to manage the payroll. You have to be smart enough to know what you cant do.
At The Bobcat, diners can at least get the feeling of a pub minus the smoke as only a windowpaned wall separates customers tables from the gleaming brew tanks. A long, century-old hardwood bar from Port Henry, New York, extends down one side of the rectangular room; the rest is filled with a banquette and small-table seating, overseen by framed portraits and stuffed versions of the cafés namesake. Though the walls are painted golden yellow, the dark wood and 19th-century architectural features give the place an Old World-meets-New England coziness.
But theres nothing old, or publike, about the eclectic cuisine, which Saver calls contemporary American comfort food. And the pleasant buzz of a dinner rush one recent evening suggests Bristol is taking to its new restaurant for grown-ups. Robert really knows what hes doing, applauds Saver.
Fuller is surprisingly philosophy-free in his approach to food. Other than a personal penchant for wild, foraged edibles leeks are in season right now, he informs and his Western European culinary training, he offers only: Food has to be satisfying, to me and to my customers. Thats not to say Fluff sandwiches are likely to end up on the menu at Leunigs, but Fuller does pay attention to what people want.
This restaurateur favors the European dining experience, with its commitment to fresh foods and ambiance. My role model is André Soltner, a chef at Lutèce in Manhattan for 30 years, Fuller says. He was humble in front of his ingredients. He said, How can I possibly improve on a carrot?
Pretty much everything that can be done with food has been done, as far as Fuller is concerned, so a lot of what goes on with food is fashion. That said, the menus are intentionally different at his five restaurants, and he gives his chefs free rein. Im growing and have other job descriptions now, he says.
In fact, growing as a person pretty much sums up Robert Fullers personal mission statement. Ironically, he spent much of his earlier life trying to get physically smaller in girth. At 6-foot-4, Fuller now weighs in at a reasonable 215 pounds. When he went to culinary school, he was 100 pounds heavier, the stereotypic rotund chef. I always wanted to be normal, Fuller says without self-pity, but it took me a long time to figure out how to eat normally.
While still in school, he launched into a most difficult weight-loss program fasting and lost about 80 pounds in a year. Ensuing years brought on the roller coaster of gain and loss experienced by most dieters. Hes not the first to observe that psychologically, food becomes a friend. It wasnt until he was going through his divorce in the early 90s, Fuller confides, that he learned about fats. He went from eating pounds of cheese to weaning himself of all high-fat foods. He says it took only two weeks to lose the craving.
Fuller has maintained a normal weight for years, and credits his wife with introducing him to a more active lifestyle, which includes biking, skiing and kayaking. Fatty foods, such as ice cream his favorite are restricted, rare treats. The biggest problem with dieting is obsessing about it, he says. All I want to be is normal; I dont have to be perfect.
Fullers personal relationship with food may factor into the mostly healthful menus at his restaurants though none of them are stingy with fats or flavors. At home he prefers simple pasta and sautéed vegetables, grilled fish or chicken and a good red wine. That diet may be harder to stick to when he takes his wife to Europe this summer, to celebrate Allisons new masters degree and the couples seventh wedding anniversary.
With a happy marriage and five functional children, Fuller seems the picture of contentment. I have an embarrassment of riches, he offers. If you just stop and realize that, everything is so much easier. What could be better? We have a Peace Corps fantasy, he reveals. In three years were supposed to apply . . . and live in a different culture. Im interested in trying to help people with business stuff and possibly some environmental things. I would always be interested in food, certainly, and how people are preparing the food they have. Maybe Id help people take their cooking skills and figure out a way to make money at it. I guess thats a restaurant. . .