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How Vermont Restaurateurs Strive for the Elusive Work-Life Balance

By and

Published October 11, 2022 at 2:02 p.m.
Updated October 13, 2022 at 3:36 p.m.

Fresh doughnuts from Sweet Wheels Donuts on its last weekend of the 2022 season - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Fresh doughnuts from Sweet Wheels Donuts on its last weekend of the 2022 season

On October 4, when Charles Reeves and Holly Cluse announced the upcoming closure of Penny Cluse Café, their beloved downtown Burlington breakfast and lunch spot, Reeves told Seven Days, "I always thought there would be a time in my life where I'd step away from it, have a regular life for a while."

Working in the restaurant business, especially as a chef and co-owner like Reeves, does not make for a regular life. Even a restaurant that doesn't serve in the evenings, such as Penny Cluse, still greedily consumes weekends.

Reeves said the pandemic did not end Penny Cluse's 25-year run, explaining that "The ultimate decision to move on was more of a personal one, to spend more time with my family." It's a refrain all too familiar to those in the hospitality industry.

The push-pull dynamic predates the pandemic but has intensified over the past two years. Reeves acknowledged this added strain on the restaurant sector: "Since the pandemic, I've been in the kitchen," he said, "and then, like, trying to run the restaurant in my spare time."

The pandemic shutdown obliged many workers to step off the merry-go-round. Along with the hardship that presented for some, the forced pause allowed time for reflection and career redirection.

One result is a chronic staffing shortage. According to a June 2022 report by Bentobox, a company that provides technology services to restaurants, the sector's initial heavy workforce losses due to COVID-19 have persisted as the economy slowly recovers.

"Even after enhanced unemployment benefits expired," the report reads, "restaurant workers returned in smaller numbers, many of them leaving for other industries."

Multiple factors are driving this shift. A March 2022 Pew Research Center survey revealed a trend, though: Across all sectors, a majority of people who landed new employment during the pandemic described their current job as providing better work-life balance than their former one.

For those with lifelong restaurant careers, switching to a new field is not always an option. But adjusting the demands of work could be.

"Once we shut down, everyone realized that life could be simpler," said Andrew Machanic, chef and co-owner of the Swingin' Pinwheel Café and Bakery in Burlington, which he and his wife, Wendy Piotrowski, closed in April 2021 to open a doughnut bus. The couple had taken the rare opportunity presented by the pandemic to consider, Machanic said, "How could we make our life simpler but still earn a living?"

For Machanic and Piotrowski, along with other Vermont restaurant owners featured below, the constant tension between work and personal life continues. While the field may never be known for balance, these restaurateurs are working on making it more livable.

— M.P.

Family First

Maria Lara-Bregatta at a Café Mamajuana pop-up in 2019 - FILE: GLENN RUSSELL
  • File: Glenn Russell
  • Maria Lara-Bregatta at a Café Mamajuana pop-up in 2019

Maria Lara-Bregatta grew up in a restaurant family. The now-29-year-old owner of Burlington's Café Mamajuana was 5 when her parents got their first restaurant in New Jersey, "so I know all the craziness," she told Seven Days in 2019. "I never thought I would do it, but when I moved to Vermont, I thought, I have to do this. There's no food here that I eat."

At the time, Café Mamajuana was a busy pop-up business that served empanadas at bars and events around Burlington, fusing Dominican, African, Spanish and Italian influences to represent Lara-Bregatta's DNA. In November 2020, Lara-Bregatta opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant as part of the community-funded Oak Street Cooperative in a shared space with Poppy Café & Market and All Souls Tortilleria. And she soon found that other people wanted to eat that food, too.

The building at 88 Oak Street immediately became an Old North End hot spot. Through the pandemic waves of the restaurant's first year, Lara-Bregatta's team navigated crowds seeking takeout and in-person service in its tiny dining room. Café Mamajuana caught the attention of the James Beard Foundation, landing on the organization's 2022 Restaurant and Chef Awards semifinalist list in the Best New Restaurant category in February.

Oh, and between opening and getting one of the highest-profile national accolades, Lara-Bregatta had a baby. Her daughter, Ayla, turned 1 in June.

On August 3, Lara-Bregatta announced on social media that Café Mamajuana would temporarily end its Wednesday-through-Friday dinner and Saturday brunch service, switching exclusively to catering, wholesale orders and private dining.

"I'm downsizing for a bit and returning to the earlier days of Café Mamajuana, a model that better suits the current world & my little family," the post read. In the caption, Lara-Bregatta explained that the decision to return to a lower-overhead model — doing everything herself, rather than managing a team — was a move to preserve her happiness in the industry.

"Seeing my business flourish shouldn't be bittersweet," she wrote. "I'm going to work to make it sweet as the day I conceived it."

In a text exchange this week, Lara-Bregatta said chronic staffing issues and the rising costs of goods, utilities and labor led to her decision. Café Mamajuana was seeing an average 30 percent increase in the price of meat, paper and produce; to keep it alive in its existing model, Lara-Bregatta would have had to make her menu unaffordable to many Old North End residents.

The chef described navigating COVID-19 exposures and industry burnout among staff while trying to attract employees and compete with the pay and benefits of larger restaurant groups. It all became "too big of a burden on myself and [my] family," Lara-Bregatta wrote.

When her daughter's daycare experienced similar staffing issues, she often had to step in to look after her household. "New moms are the first to leave the workforce to provide support for their family," she wrote.

Lara-Bregatta's current model for Café Mamajuana gives her flexibility. Catering orders are planned ahead — she's booked through October — and she knows exactly what to expect of her days. She's also playing with recipes again, cooking dishes such as chicken Milanese empanadas and coconut-curry arancini stuffed with stewed goat.

Looking ahead to the holidays, Lara-Bregatta plans to host dinners at 88 Oak Street, keep filling empanada orders and host a holiday cooking class or two.

"I have found a lot of peace in not trying to make everyone else happy, fed, paid and cared for while neglecting my own happiness, pay and self-care," Lara-Bregatta wrote. "I am falling back in love with this work more and more each day."

— J.B.

'I Don't Have It'

Diners at Minifactory - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Diners at Minifactory

On an early October Saturday evening at Minifactory in Bristol, a few diners lingered over oysters, bright tomato salads, butternut squash soup and cherry-rosehip old-fashioned cocktails. It was a quiet night at the café, which opened in March and added Friday and Saturday dinners in July.

Located at 16 Main Street, the vast Minifactory is not just a café but also a grocery and jam manufactory. As a restaurant, it faces an uphill battle: The former longtime home of Bristol Cliffs Café has never been known as a dinner spot, and change can be hard in a small town.

"It's a huge lift to try to get that space realized as a place to come have supper," Minifactory owner V Smiley said. "My hope is that we can grind it out."

In the meantime, Smiley, 38, operates with a slim nighttime staff and is often in the kitchen alone during the two weekly dinner services, shucking the oysters and plating the mushroom ragu or a half chicken with tomato jam.

Oysters and cocktails at Minifactory - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Oysters and cocktails at Minifactory

"Amy, my partner, is like, 'How cool! You can come to a place and the person who owns it is also making you dinner,'" Smiley said. "She's incredibly optimistic."

Last week, Smiley was also back on the production line for her award-winning jam company, V Smiley Preserves. That wasn't part of the business plan, especially with Minifactory open seven days a week. But jam sales have slowed as pandemic restrictions have lifted, like those of many direct-to-consumer specialty food products.

"I'm super spread," Smiley said. "I do think about work-life balance. I think about it constantly, and I encounter it [in] other people. But I don't have it at all."

Smiley learned right off the bat that most people in Addison County weren't looking for full-time work; traditional restaurant industry expectations wouldn't fly there.

"People definitely had firm boundaries," Smiley said. "I have a number of people on staff who obviously had really bad work experiences in other places."

Minifactory owner V Smiley - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Minifactory owner V Smiley

Most of Minifactory's staff is part time. Right now, hiring an operations manager or executive chef isn't financially feasible. Instead, Smiley sets the menu and works with line cooks, while pastry chef Andrea Quillen heads the pastry program and Ray McCoy manages the front-of-house staff.

Meeting the demands of the Bristol community has been another challenge, though the oysters are a surprise hit.

"I opened the place I was craving in Addison County, and I think there are reasons why this place didn't exist," Smiley said. "But having newness on the menu is as important as having the standbys."

That experimentation is Smiley's way of giving herself room for creativity while working a demanding schedule — along with closing for a couple of weeks here and there. Minifactory took a break in September and will probably take one in January.

That can be hard on the staff, Smiley acknowledged. Paid time off is only available to full-time employees, of which Minifactory doesn't have many.

"But that's the main way I get my mental breaks," Smiley said. "I'm also very disciplined. I do get sleep. And I watch lots of women's basketball."

— J.B.

A Needed Reset

The team at Onion City Chicken & Oyster. Front row: Laura Wade, Danny Zoch, Abby Olmstead and Echo Chartier. Back row: Emry Greene, Gillen Schofield, Dylan Campbell, Ryan Thornton, Mary Alberti and Omri Winkler. - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • The team at Onion City Chicken & Oyster. Front row: Laura Wade, Danny Zoch, Abby Olmstead and Echo Chartier. Back row: Emry Greene, Gillen Schofield, Dylan Campbell, Ryan Thornton, Mary Alberti and Omri Winkler.

In May 2021, Misery Loves Co. co-owner Laura Wade told Seven Days she and her chef and co-owner husband, Aaron Josinsky, welcomed the chance to downshift during the pandemic. They reinvented their popular Winooski restaurant as a market with a small takeout menu — and liked it that way. "We get to be home for dinner with our kid every night," Wade said at the time.

Just about a year later, Josinsky and Wade, both 44, announced their plan to open a second Winooski food establishment. Their 43-seat Onion City Chicken & Oyster opened for dinner at 3 East Allen Street on August 26.

In the tastefully decorated dining room with high ceilings and tall windows, guests can sip a perfectly made gin gimlet with freshly shucked East Coast oysters, scoop up rough-chopped steak tartare — a standout from the original Misery menu — with housemade potato chips and eat Vermont fried chicken that is truly finger-licking good.

Meanwhile, Misery had undergone yet another reinvention. On July 29, the couple and their team reopened it as a renovated "bruncheonette" with counter service and about two dozen inside seats.

"How mercurial we are," Wade said, laughing, during a recent phone conversation. Even though the couple essentially just launched two new restaurants, she emphasized, "It feels more balanced than it ever did before."

What has changed is how she and her husband approach their roles. Navigating the first year of the pandemic with their core team was transformational, Wade said: "We were so in it together, figuring it out together. I didn't feel like a boss anymore.

"We've grown up a lot," Wade continued. "We've allowed space for our team to really grow, as well. They can do the things that we do every day really well — sometimes better than us."

Delegation enables the couple to have dinner with their 9-year-old daughter at least four nights a week and devote some energy to the bigger picture and not just the details.

Martini and two-piece chicken dinner with greens and herbs and summer vegetable succotash at Onion City Chicken & Oyster - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Martini and two-piece chicken dinner with greens and herbs and summer vegetable succotash at Onion City Chicken & Oyster

Logan Bouchard, general manager of their restaurant group, has worked for Wade and Josinsky for a decade. In the pandemic, the trio saw an opportunity for a needed reset: a chance to support restaurant careers that were not merely endurance tests or stepping stones to something better.

With Onion City, they resolved to take a fresh approach. Bouchard, 32, had no interest in returning to 12-hour days of working brunch through dinner on Saturday and then coming back for Sunday brunch.

"You accept that is what the industry needs," he said. "But we can rewrite the script."

Out of the gate, Onion City opened for just three nights weekly, which would have been unthinkable before the pandemic, Wade said. Hours have now expanded to include Sunday nights and will increase "incrementally and organically," Wade said. "I don't want to wear my staff out, or wear us out."

The restaurant has about 10 new employees, who earn at least $14 hourly, not including pooled tips. Instead of requesting résumés, the team posted a written job application with questions such as "What do you like to cook and drink at home?" and "How would you establish yourself within our team?"

Bouchard said he found candidates were more willing to state their needs than they had been in the past — a positive action, in his view, and one he has taken himself.

"I've realized that cooking dinner at home with my partner is really nice," Bouchard said.

— M.P.

Sweet Relief

Andrew Machanic with fresh doughnuts by his Sweet Wheels Donuts bus - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Andrew Machanic with fresh doughnuts by his Sweet Wheels Donuts bus

The scent of frying doughnuts seeped from the Sweet Wheels Donuts bus into the back parking lot of Essex Junction's Post Office Square mall on a warm recent morning. Chef and co-owner Machanic popped his head out the window under a striped awning to hand over a box of doughnuts: maple dusted with maple flakes, classic cinnamon-sugar, glossy raspberry and lemon glazes, and the daily specials: lime daiquiri and maple-bacon.

Machanic, 53, is a career chef and New England Culinary Institute grad. "I've worked in restaurants and resorts since I was essentially 16," he said. "The food industry is pretty much the only type of work I've had."

He and his wife, Piotrowski, 40, opened the Swingin' Pinwheel Café on Burlington's Center Street in 2014. The understated spot became a favorite breakfast destination for those in the know, who appreciated its popovers, plate-size hash browns and flaky "wafflinis" made with pastry dough.

During the pandemic's first year, the couple struggled to make money with outdoor seating and takeout. But they also had time to think — and more time with their young son and Machanic's two children from a previous marriage.

"Having kids is like a measure of your life flying by," Machanic said. "When you own a restaurant, even the off time is never really off ... It's a brutal industry for family."

In late 2020, the couple saw more challenges on the horizon for the restaurant sector. They remembered a conversation they'd had while strolling on a Maine beach on a rare vacation a few years earlier.

"We allowed ourselves to fantasize about having a food truck that just made doughnuts," Machanic said. There would be no staff and low overhead. "We really just wanted to simplify."

Machanic found an old school bus for sale on Craigslist and spent the winter of 2020 to 2021 rehabbing it. Eight rows of seats took hours to remove. "The bolts were all rusted," he said.

The couple closed the Swingin' Pinwheel in April 2021 and opened Sweet Wheels Donuts on Father's Day. Machanic recognizes the irony of launching on a family-focused holiday. But, he said, "I had my kids with me, and they all helped."

Piotrowski also helped on busy weekends. The shopping mall spot where they operated the bus was a two-minute walk from their home. The first year was great, Machanic said, with net income comparable to the restaurant's and a lot less stress.

Later, however, business slowed. "I don't know if it's just that the novelty has worn off [or] there's more competition, less disposable income," Machanic pondered.

Instead of staying open through the winter this year, Piotrowski and Machanic decided to close for the season and evaluate their options. They may expand the bus menu to include more breakfast favorites from the Swingin' Pinwheel menu. Another brick-and-mortar spot is a possibility that Machanic won't rule out.

"You can take the chef out of the restaurant, but you can't take the restaurant out of the chef," he said with chuckle. "It's almost like having another kid: You forget all the bad parts."

In the meantime, Machanic will get a job in someone else's restaurant. "I'm not too worried," he said. "People like me are in high demand right now."

Long term, the chef has no intention of giving up the family business. "I like being in charge of my own destiny," Machanic said. "It's a little more exciting than just hurrying to work for the man."

— M.P.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Balancing Act"

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