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VPR Cafe: Vermont Restaurant Owners Give Tips To Aspiring Restauranteurs

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The Farmhouse Group
Four restaurant owners from Vermont, including Jed Davis of The Farmhouse Group, talked at a recent ArtsRiot event about the challenges of owning a restaurant, and the lessons they've learned.

Ever dream of owning your own restaurant? Before you take the plunge, we encourage you to read on.

Candace Page, food writer for the Savorvore section of the Burlington Free Press, recently attended an event at ArtsRiot called Adventures in Restauranting. She joined VPR Café to talk about it.

The event panel featured four restaurant owners from Northwest Vermont, including Benjy Adler from The Skinny Pancake, Eric Warnstedt from Hen of the Wood, Jed Davis of The Farmhouse Group and Stefano Cicirello, who has a food truck called Dolce. The four men on the panel discussed what it’s like to run a restaurant.

“It’s not about the food,” says Page. “I mean, it is about the food. Of course the reason that these men are in the business is their love of good food and the preparation of good food. But for us, as diners, food is all that the restaurant is about. For the owner, it’s a lot more complicated than that. And I learned more about the business of trying to run a restaurant, and the stresses and strains that that caused for the owners, than I have ever conceived of.”

Page says that Eric Warnstedt of Hen of the Wood told a story about the opening of his first restaurant in Waterbury. “He had a culinary degree, he had cooked at restaurants in Vermont and elsewhere, and he had a vision of serving great food in a lovely, peaceful setting in this old mill,” Page tells. “He went out and borrowed $90,000 from friends and relatives to launch his venture. And on opening night, 7 o’clock the doors were to open. And at 6:45 the gas went off and he couldn’t cook anything. And he said they just kept making salads until everyone went home.” Page says Warnstedt admitted his business plan didn’t pan out, and “that his first half-decade was about survival, pure and simple, and that it was almost that long before he took off more than one day at a time.”

"... As Stefano Cicirello of the food truck said, when you start small, you're doing everything. You're at the grill, you may be helping serve the food, then you have to balance the books and pay the taxes." - Candace Page, food writer

Page says the panel was focused on the lessons learned from running a restaurant, as most of the people in the audience were looking to do so themselves. Benjy Adler of the Skinny Pancake told the audience to both prepare food that attracts people, but to also stick to your business plan, Page says.

“Another one that all four of these men talked about was the personal stress of running a restaurant,” she says. “As Stefano Cicirello of the food truck said, when you start small, you’re doing everything. You’re at the grill, you may be helping serve the food, then you have to balance the books and pay the taxes … So that was another lesson.”

Despite the challenges of opening a restaurant, why did most of the panelists recently open second or third restaurants? “I think the basic answer is that at heart, these three successful restaurateurs are entrepreneurs,” says Page. “They love new projects; they are men willing to take the risk involved in opening a restaurant. But there are also some very practical reasons to get bigger.”

"They love new projects; they are men willing to take the risk involved in opening a restaurant. But there are also some very practical reasons to get bigger."

Page says that Eric Warnstedt, of Hen of the Wood, said that you can’t make a living with a 40-seat restaurant in Central Vermont. He had to get bigger to make the books balance and it wasn’t until he opened Hen of the Wood in Burlington that things started to even out. “A second reason is that larger scale can make the chef-owner’s life better, because they don’t have to do everything themselves. Now, they can become more managers,” says Page.

One of the things Page found ironic was that many of these award-winning chefs actually don’t cook in their restaurants anymore. “ If you think in terms of personal life, it means [they don’t] have to work every night and every weekend,” she says. Another reason to open multiple restaurants is to make opportunities for those you trust. “When you hire talented people to work for you, they want to grow, and all of a sudden you’re looking for opportunities for them to move up and opening another restaurant the way Farmhouse opened Mexican El Cortijo and then they opened an Italian restaurant and they have a steakhouse; that’s a way to expand the opportunities, to expand their staff,” says Page.

"Throughout, it was clear that all four of these men love what they do, they enjoy serving great food to people who appreciate it and these are all restaurants that emphasize local, freshly-prepared food and that have all been very successful."

Was there anything positive that came out of the panel? “You know, I think they were trying to debunk the romantic notions of people, so there was a lot about the stresses and strains,” says Page. “Throughout it was clear that all four of these men love what they do, they enjoy serving great food to people who appreciate it and these are all restaurants that emphasize local, freshly-prepared food and that have all been very successful.”

The VPR Cafe is produced in collaboration with The Burlington Free Press and is made possible on VPR by Otter Creek Kitchenware in Middlebury's Marbleworks District, offering over 70 lines of kitchenware with personalized customer service.

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