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Fourteen Months After Shutdown, Vermont Restaurants Navigate a Summer Reboot

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Market at Misery Loves Co. in Winooski - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Market at Misery Loves Co. in Winooski

It's been well over a year since diners sat at Misery Love Co.'s open kitchen counter amid the sizzle of meat hitting hot pans and aromas of fresh herbs showered over whole fish.

The Winooski restaurant is one of many in Vermont that have offered no inside dining for the past 14 months. In downtown Burlington, Manhattan Pizza and Pub's bar has likewise been bereft of crowds enjoying Hill Farmstead Brewery drafts and Buffalo chicken pizza. A Single Pebble has hosted none of its usual convivial gatherings around spinning lazy Susans laden with mock eel, crispy scallops and dumplings.

But the sun is finally coming out, literally and figuratively. Vermont boasts among the highest vaccination rates in the country, and the state has relaxed masking and social-distancing guidelines for the immunized. Like college students mobbing North Beach on the first warm day, many of us are ready to cannonball back into the buzz of favorite dining rooms and busy barrooms.

But are they ready for us?

This spring, Sam Tolstoi, co-owner of Manhattan Pizza and Pub, grew so weary of people asking him when the popular bar would open that he posted a sign in the window: "Reopening in May — Stop Asking — Sam."

Market at Misery Loves Co. in Winooski - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Market at Misery Loves Co. in Winooski

Manhattan's, as it's often called, did reopen for window service and outdoor seating on May 12, but its doors will remain closed to the public until all COVID-19-related restrictions are lifted. "Our bartenders' job is hard enough dealing with drunk people all the time," Tolstoi said. "Having to deal with drunk people during a pandemic seems like too much to ask."

Even as restrictions loosen week by week, other factors — from safety concerns to a labor shortage to new post-pandemic perspectives — will delay the return of restaurants and bars to their Before Times selves.

After nearly a year of focusing solely on takeout, "the well-lubricated machine does not exist anymore," said Charles Reeves, co-owner of Penny Cluse Café. The Burlington restaurant's many devotees will need to keep satisfying their cravings with takeout buckets o' spuds and biscuits with gravy until August.

"We don't even know where all the dishes are at this point," Reeves said. "We're here. We're healthy. We're gonna open, but we're taking our time."

Honey Road on Burlington's Church Street will take a similar tack, chef/co-owner Cara Chigazola Tobin said. After pivoting immediately to takeout in spring 2020, the eastern Mediterranean restaurant opened its patio a few weeks ago for limited first-come, first-served seating. Diners will still order at the takeout window before sitting; in addition to the usual takeout menu, they can try on-site-only specials, such as scallops with green tahini and peas.

Chigazola Tobin said she hopes to move to full service on the patio by August. But Honey Road will not open indoors until fall, after taking a couple of weeks "to put everything back together and spruce things up," she said.

The break will also provide respite. "We never stopped," Chigazola Tobin said. "We need to give the staff a moment to breathe."

Chiuho Sampson, chef/owner of A Single Pebble, is working toward accommodating about 30 outdoor diners in expanded seating in early June, but indoor dining is further out. A full year into offering a limited takeout menu, Sampson said her core kitchen team is intact, if in need of reinforcements. Her front-of-house team, by contrast, has been decimated.

"The pandemic kind of entirely cut our legs off — lots of experience and capacity lost," Sampson said.

Training new servers takes time. "Customers ask a lot of questions, and our recipes are kind of complicated," Sampson said. "I get emails two, three times a week asking me when we will be open again. I cannot say a date. We will come back when we can really do it well."

At other restaurants, the pandemic has precipitated permanent changes.

Rough Francis chicken sandwich at Misery Loves Co. - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Rough Francis chicken sandwich at Misery Loves Co.

Misery Loves Co., for example, will not reopen as a dine-in restaurant, co-owner Laura Wade said.

Since last summer, Misery has offered a small takeout menu including steak tartare, Filthy Fries and some of the sandwiches from its earlier incarnation as a food truck, such as blue-cheese-and-hot-sauce-laced fried chicken and pastrami with sauerkraut. The dining room has been transformed into a market stocked with jars of housemade Old Bay aioli, pickles, the restaurant's signature tater tots, and other foodstuffs and home goods.

Misery staff recently put four picnic tables out front for takeout customers and will tuck a couple more into an alleyway, but table service is not in the works. "Our plan is to embrace the new model fully and completely," Wade said.

She understands that the decision will disappoint some customers. "We keep getting this question, people coming into the market asking, 'When are you going to open?'" she said. "It's just assumed we will be back here for them."

Wade said the past year gave her and her husband, chef Aaron Josinsky, a chance to pause the hamster wheel of life and focus on the realities of their business and what they wanted for themselves.

"Like for a lot of restaurants, this pandemic exposed our tight margins," Wade said. "It's a family business. Our family is different now than it was 10 years ago," she continued, referring to the birth of the couple's now 8-year-old daughter a couple of years after Misery debuted. "We're ready to shift to a different part of the story here. And we get to be home for dinner with our kid every night."

From left: James Kitchens, Ian Huizenga and Eliza Benton of Hired Hand Brewing and Antidote - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • From left: James Kitchens, Ian Huizenga and Eliza Benton of Hired Hand Brewing and Antidote

In Vergennes, Ian Huizenga and Eliza Benton of Bar Antidote and Hired Hand Brewing have kept their two restaurants fully closed since December (other than participating in the statewide Vermont Everyone Eats! community meal program). Huizenga recounted how the Hired Hand sign gave them a literal and powerful signal.

"On Christmas Eve, a windstorm came through and took the sign down," he said. "This 300-pound sign was swinging off one cable. We are lucky it didn't kill anyone."

The couple decided to close the Hired Hand restaurant permanently, though they will continue to brew beer. They relocated Bar Antidote from its original subterranean spot on Green Street to the Hired Hand brewpub space at the corner of Green and School streets. It reopened as just Antidote on May 7 with weekend outdoor seating.

Shrimp and tasso ham congee at Antidote in Vergennes - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Shrimp and tasso ham congee at Antidote in Vergennes

The pared-down menu includes a few Antidote favorites, including veggie and regular burgers, plus newer items, such as smoked drumsticks and adobo beef tacos. Specials will be added, along with more hours and inside seating, after the installation of roll-up garage-door windows.

"The pandemic kind of forced our hand to do things that will be ultimately good for the company," Huizenga said.

He's more than happy to relinquish "the emotional toll of managing 29 to 30 people," the chef/co-owner said, but he's still struggling to fill about half a dozen positions. Already a problem pre-pandemic, the labor shortage has only intensified, Huizenga said, noting, "I couldn't get staff to have two restaurants here if I wanted to."

Huizenga considers himself extremely lucky to have been able to hire a new chef who relocated for the job from Atlanta to Vermont with his family in April. "We weren't even going to interview him," Huizenga said. "What chef is gonna move from Atlanta, Ga., to Vergennes, Vt.?"

That chef also recruited a sous chef from Atlanta — luckily, because an ad generated only three woefully underqualified applicants: two convenience store managers and a McDonald's employee.

As Seven Days recently reported, Vermont is one of many states experiencing a significant workforce shortage as the U.S. emerges from the pandemic. Here, though, that shortage is far from new for the service industry.

Priyank Shah (left) and Sikander Badhan of Elaichi - MELISSA PASANEN
  • Melissa Pasanen
  • Priyank Shah (left) and Sikander Badhan of Elaichi

When Elaichi Indian Restaurant & Bar opened in September 2020 in the former longtime location of India House in Burlington, co-owners Sikander Badhan and Priyank Shah briefly offered indoor dining. They cut back to takeout-only in November, when COVID-19 cases spiked.

Badhan said he is not sure when the restaurant will reopen for on-site customers. "It's hard to find staff now," he said. "Everyone is getting unemployment."

For the time being, Badhan relies on the assistance of an uncle. "I call my family to help," he said. "They teach us very well how to pull yourself out of hard times."

Compounding the current labor shortage is the ramp-up heading into summer, Vermont's busiest restaurant season. "Everyone is hiring at the same time," Tolstoi of Manhattan Pizza and Pub said.

Tyler Stratton, a co-owner of the three-location Stone's Throw Pizza, said the initial plan was to reopen the Fairfax and Richmond pizzerias for dining when all of the company's 25 employees were fully vaccinated. That day will come on June 1, but now the owners are shooting for a July reopening because it's been impossible to hire people.

Stone's Throw's owners pride themselves on offering above-average compensation: "We have 19-year-olds making $22 an hour," Stratton said. But in a fiercely competitive employment market, "The industry's coming up to meet us and taking our hiring advantage away," he said. "It's about time."

If the pandemic has had any kind of silver lining for the restaurant sector, it's that owners have been forced to scrutinize their bottom lines, build more efficient procedures, and refocus their goals and priorities. Many restaurants have also been able to expand outdoor seating, something for which they long lobbied municipalities.

Reeves of Penny Cluse admitted he was never interested in online ordering systems but has become a convert. "Turns out, it's a great way to sell food," he said with a laugh.

A diner with takeout at Elaichi Indian Restaurant & Bar  in Burlington - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • A diner with takeout at Elaichi Indian Restaurant & Bar in Burlington

On May 11, a sign on the door of Pingala Café in the Chace Mill on the Burlington side of the Winooski River read, "Closed for today... We have been sooo busy every day (thank you) and the industry wide staffing crisis is v real. Need rest. <3"

Seated at a picnic table outside, Pingala co-owners and partners Trevor Sullivan and Lisa Bergström said they have been searching hard for the right staffers to help them meet the high demand for their vegan comfort-food takeout menu.

"Today is the result. Our team got overworked," Sullivan said. Bergström added, "We needed to take a break for their well-being and quality of life. For us, too."

Bergström has spent a lot of time over the past year poring over spreadsheets. "COVID really forced us to stop," she said. "We are coming out of it more empowered, able to make better decisions."

Pingala has reoriented its menu to the most popular categories of items: burgers, "dawgs" and wraps. "We asked, 'What's Shake Shack doing?'" Sullivan said, referring to the successful chain. Online customer ordering has improved efficiency, and the team has also streamlined production. "We make 300 pounds of roasted tofu at a time," Sullivan detailed. "That takes one person six to eight hours and gets us through about one and a half weeks."

Many in the industry expressed hope that the pandemic has increased their customers' awareness of the stress and hard work behind the scenes at their favorite eateries.

Several "amazing" Stone's Throw employees recently chose to leave the restaurant sector for good, Stratton said. The pandemic, he hypothesized, amped up the pressure and subtracted much of the fun from the business. "There's absolutely fatigue in the industry," he said.

One way to keep workers around is, of course, to improve their compensation, a shift that will necessarily be reflected in menu prices. Stratton hopes customers appreciate the factors behind that decision. "People need to understand that restaurants can't exist on the scraps of profit of the past," he said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Soft Reopening | Fourteen months after shutdown, Vermont restaurants are navigating a summer reboot"

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