After facing a "perfect storm of issues," John Mayfield, owner of 5-year-old Sean & Nora's in Barre, has decided to close the restaurant where he offered up "food from America's neighborhoods." "Sean & Nora's has never been a hugely successful business venture," he admits. "But it was always a labor of love." Locals considered the eatery, named for Mayfield's grandparents, a splurge for special occasions.
For Mayfield and his family, Sean & Nora's was more than just a source of income. "My daughter was 2 years old when we opened the restaurant," he says. "Now I have to explain to her why it isn't there anymore. Other than the loss of a family member," Mayfield goes on, "[deciding to close] was the toughest thing I've ever had to do."
It's not hard to see whence the "perfect storm" arose. The rising costs of food and fuel crunched the restaurant's profit margin and made customers more reluctant to spend their hard-earned dollars. Meanwhile, Mayfield faced competition from a slew of "new and revitalized eateries," such as the L.A.C.E. Café, Pit Stop Diner, Stonecutters Brew House and El Sol Mexican Grill, all of which opened in Barre over the past 18 months. Though he admires the entrepreneurial energies at work in his town, Mayfield says, "The number of customers was shrinking, and the pie just got cut into smaller and smaller pieces."
But the restaurateur believes he might have survived tough times had it not been for an unfounded rumor that began circulating last year and "really took root in November." Word on the street was that the restaurant was going out of business - the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy. "It affected the booking of parties, the ability to hire key staff and the sale of gift cards," Mayfield laments. All three were crucial to getting through winter's slow period. "As long as we came close to breaking even, we were ready to keep going," Mayfield explains, but "when [these factors] all came together, we couldn't."
Softening the blow a bit is the growth of the entrepreneur's catering business, which he will continue to operate, and the success of his Montpelier-area Mexican eatery Julio's Cantina. "Julio's will go on; there will be no changes," Mayfield avers. "It seems to have the price point and the atmosphere that people are looking for during difficult times. You can go to Julio's for dinner and a drink and be out of there for less than $25 or $30 per couple."
As we head deeper into recession, Mayfield says, he hopes locals will take two lessons to heart. One is that "Vermont is small, and rumors do damage to businesses; they really do have an impact." The other: "We all need to support our locally owned and operated business. Non-local businesses might hire local people, which is a good thing, but the profits leave Vermont. We need to support each other and keep things going."