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How Prolific Restaurateurs Keep Their Pots From Boiling Over

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Last Wednesday, the Church Street basement restaurant long known as Three Tomatoes Trattoria was abuzz. Pascolo Ristorante, the latest member of the Farmhouse Group, will open in that space in a few weeks. In preparation, Farmhouse managing partner Jed Davis kept busy on his laptop while several men circled through the recently renovated building.

Peter Chevalier and his team from Chevalier Fire Protection made sure the building was up to code. Burlington's chief building inspector, Ned Holt, toured the space with Davis and his longtime general contractor, Peter Smejkal of Merkur Construction, and then signed off on the project. In a few days, occupancy load and fire alarms would have to be approved, and then a liquor license.

It's a lot to worry about in a short time, compounded by food, staffing and all the other details of opening a new restaurant. Furthermore, this is Davis' fifth opening in four years, not including that of the commissary butchery and bakery that supplies all of Farmhouse Group's restaurants. The stress never seems to end, but he wears it easily. "It is a lot easier than Farmhouse [Tap & Grill] was," Davis says of opening Pascolo. "Farmhouse was learning on the job."

Davis isn't the only Vermont restaurateur whose taste for expansion has kept him busy. When Michel Mahe of Vergennes Restaurant Group recently opened the Lobby in Middlebury, it was his eighth time starting a restaurant or bar from scratch since he debuted Starry Night Café in 1999. (SNC is now under different ownership.) Sue Bette of Bluebird Restaurant Group seems ever-present at her four Bluebird-branded Burlington businesses. How do these entrepreneurs do it? By balancing relaxation time — including naps — with an all-encompassing love of their brutal business.

Those naps are Mahe's trademark, a nod to his French parents' roots but also a necessity, given that he rises at 5 a.m. to begin the managerial portion of his day. Those early hours reflect his origins: He began his culinary career as a pastry chef.

Now, Mahe says, "When things start moving around me, I automatically get up." That means his staff does, too, including general manager Dickie Austin and executive chef Andrea Cousineau. "They're the ones that have their tentacles out," Mahe says of the younger staffers.

Once Mahe gets the numbers back from the previous night's service at each of his restaurants — the Lobby, the Bearded Frog in Shelburne, Black Sheep Bistro and Park Squeeze in Vergennes, and Bobcat Café & Brewery in Bristol — he's ready for a noontime nap. Far from being lazy, he's preparing for the long workday still ahead.

In the afternoon, Mahe begins visiting each of his locations, making sure that the food looks the way he wants it to and that "the flavors are there." Currently, the restaurateur spends most of his time at the Lobby, helping it take off smoothly. The burger-focused restaurant will soon begin serving an updated menu based on customer comments and reviewers' suggestions.

Mahe leaves Cousineau, who has been with the company since she was a scrappy teen working her way through the ranks at Starry Night, to focus on upcoming renovations and menu changes at the Bearded Frog. Like each of Mahe's chefs, Cousineau did her time in the tiny-but-busy kitchen of the Black Sheep before she was promoted to heading the Frog, then all of the company's restaurants. "If you can do more than 100 [orders a night] in that kitchen, you're a mercenary," says Mahe of the Black Sheep. (That may make Cousineau sound more like an assassin than a chef, but Mahe is referring to her ninja-like culinary skills.)

Davis and Bette likewise rely on the guidance of their strong executive chefs. Phillip Clayton of the Farmhouse Group boasts the title of "chef partner" for a reason: He is the direct contact with all the restaurant's kitchens, just as director of operations Josh Palmer is with all of the group's managers. Bluebird executive chef Matt Corrente is the guiding force behind the food at the Tavern, Barbecue and both Coffee Stop locations.

Bette may delegate some tasks, but diners at her restaurants can attest that she seems to pop up all the time, everywhere. "I always remind myself Walt Disney had a quote that his No. 1 objective was just to spread fairy dust," Bette says. "You recognize that your presence matters." She manages to stay present with a regular schedule of driving from location to location all day. It may sound overwhelming, but Bette claims she never feels pulled in too many directions.

Bette's sunny personality is no charade, but she admits that giving customers an excellent experience involves some theatrics. "There is a little bit of showmanship," says the Saint Michael's College grad, who grew up in the Lake George, N.Y., restaurant scene.

Bette started her career as a college lacrosse coach and athletic administrator, but the fascination of food pulled her to study cooking in California. Today, she says the nourishment she hopes to offer consists of more than calories. "I don't think that the need we're satisfying for our customers is hunger — we're satisfying [a need for] time away from stress — relaxation for people," Bette says. "Something special and memorable."

It's no surprise that Bette says she hires as much for enthusiasm as for skill. Sitting with her at the Bluebird Coffee Stop at the Innovation Center, it's easy to see how her cheerful disposition imbues her restaurants. The friendly staff and fun menus are unmistakable products of Bette's leadership.

Helping maintain those good spirits requires a schedule of enforced relaxation. Just as Davis makes sure to be home around 6 p.m. to see his two young daughters, Bette carves out time to spend with her pups, a Chesapeake Bay retriever and an Aussiedoodle.

For Mahe, who grew up in the business with his chef father and server mother, the ideas don't stop coming even at home. His 10-year-old son, he says, plans to buy two goats and is pressuring Dad to start a small-batch goat-ice cream truck. "Those are the kinds of things I want to do later," says the chef.

For now, he has his own projects on his mind. Two months after opening his latest restaurant, Mahe is working on three new concepts. "I've probably got 15 going around all the time," he says.

The same flexibility he shows in morphing his menus has made Mahe's empire successful as a whole. He'll reshape the restaurant concepts in his head to fit the spaces where he plans to put them. For instance, Mahe says he originally designed the Lobby as an upscale cousin to the Bearded Frog. After looking at other menus in Middlebury and Brandon, he realized the gourmet burger idea in the back of his mind would be a better fit.

Mahe no longer hopes to open a high-quality casual restaurant in every town in Vermont — as he told Seven Days last year — but he has no plans to stop expanding, either. It's all part of living and breathing the business. Even after the recent closure of Next Door Bakery & Café in Shelburne (next door to the Bearded Frog), Mahe's record is exemplary in an industry known for fast turnover.

He's a graduate of Cornell University's hospitality program — as is Davis — and he believes that the right training goes a long way toward ensuring success. "I think there's such a high occurrence of failure because you don't wake up in the morning and say, 'I'm going to open a family health center' and not bother to become a doctor," he says. By contrast, unseasoned food lovers too often venture into Mahe's realm without realizing just what opening a restaurant entails.

Plenty experienced herself, Bette says this year she and her team are working on perfecting what they already do. Toward that end, she recently launched a new website, Bluebird Cares, devoted to customer feedback.

In the wake of Farmhouse Group's rapid expansion, Davis likewise says he expects no additional gifts from the restaurant stork for now. Instead, he's focused on working with chef Tom Deckman and butcher Frank Pace to expand the Guild Fine Meats brand. They anticipate getting the Winooski meat-processing plant USDA certified by the summer, giving their wares a wider audience.

When Pascolo opens on Church Street with an Italian-inflected menu, the flashy new pasta machine will be the star of the show. But Deckman's newly state-approved salami cotto and pepperoni will be pivotal supporting players. Davis is especially excited about the latter, which will grace pizzas that emerge from the same oven installed when Three Tomatoes (then Sweet Tomatoes) opened in the space 23 years ago.

The site has special meaning for Davis, a family friend of Three Tomatoes' co-owner Jim Reiman. Around the time the restaurant opened, he remembers, he sat down with Reiman for a pie and realized he wanted to open his own restaurant one day. He points out the area where they dined.

If Davis has dreamed in the space, he's also plied his trade there; he managed Three Tomatoes when he returned to his native Vermont after working for big New York names such as Le Cirque 2000, Daniel (as in Boulud) and Danny Meyer's Union Square Café.

Now Reiman and business partner Robert Meyers are contracting the size of their own mini-empire; they recently closed two of their four restaurants. To Davis, opening his own restaurant in their original space represents the ultimate torch passing. "I always felt like there could be a time for Jim to wind his career down where I could come in," he says of his time at Three Tomatoes. "I wondered, If this were my restaurant, what would I do? What would it feel like and look like?"

Now he knows.

The original print version of this article was headlined "A Taste for Growth"

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