He owns the Black Sheep Bistro in Vergennes and The Bearded Frog in Shelburne, so it only makes sense that Chef Michel Mahe would add Bristol's Bobcat Café to his menagerie. On Tuesday, the empire-building Frenchman did just that. "I've always loved this space; I love the feeling of the room," says Mahe, standing in his new purchase.
That's one reason he approached former owner Robert Fuller, also owner of Leunig's and previously of Pauline's Café. "I told Robert, 'If you're going to sell it, I want it,'" he recalls. "The conversation started a year ago. We came to a final agreement a month ago."
Another reason for Mahe's foray into Bristol? It's a step toward cornering the Addison County market - which is "small," he admits. That's one reason he wants the Bobcat's new concept to diverge from those of the Frog and the Sheep. It'll be "local pub," he explains. "We're going for American comfort food: chicken à la king, venison chorizo meatloaf with demi-glace, bangers and mash."
But while Mahe is putting up the money for the changeover and helping develop the concept, he won't be running the restaurant's day-to-day operations. That job belongs to co-chefs Sanderson Wheeler, formerly of Park Squeeze in Vergennes, and Erin Chamoff, who was the Frog's sous chef. "They've got the dream. They've got the energy," Mahe says of the couple. "I wouldn't have done it without them."
What does Fuller have to say about the new crew? "It's a really strong team. It's exactly what the Bobcat needs, and has needed for some time," he conjectures. "Hands-on, everyday ownership presence. It's the classic win-win scenario."
Fuller, who sold Pauline's to Chef David Hoene last December, has big plans for his future, which may include joining the Peace Corps with his wife, a nurse practitioner. "We're definitely interested in doing some kind of volunteering in some kind of third-world situation," he explains. "I'm interested in learning about other cultures and trying to be of help to people."
Mahe seems to enjoy helping folks, too - he fronted the money for Wheeler and Chamoff. And the citizens of Bristol are on his mind: "There's a very big community drive behind this; Bristol really wants this to work," he maintains. "[The residents] don't want to have to come down from the mountain."
As for further expansion plans, the chef's got 'em, but he's not spilling the beans about his schemes just yet. "I love what I do," he says. "I see this gas station, and I can see a perfect burger joint with roller skates there. I can sit in a restaurant and tell you if they're making money. It's what I've done all my life."
His current project, which is currently closed for cleaning, will reopen Monday, August 11, with its new menu.
How does Betsy Vick, owner of Vergennes' Park Squeeze, feel about losing Wheeler as her chef? "He's just very talented, dedicated and super-energetic," exclaims Vick, who's already found a replacement. "We're sorry to lose him, but this is the opportunity of a lifetime for him."
As for Mahe, Vick has a business relationship with him, too - she hired him as a consultant when she was opening Park Squeeze. "We're all sort of connected," says the restaurateur.
She's currently looking for a few new staffers: Three other kitchen workers quit around the same time as Wheeler. As a result, lunch has been squeezed out of the menu at Park Squeeze. "Dinner is generally better for sales," Vick explains - though quite a few customers profess to miss the lunch option. "Everybody wants what they want, but then they only come once a year," she says with a sigh.