Vermont restaurateurs wake up to a.m. economics
When nutritionists declared breakfast "the most important meal of the day," they were thinking calories, not commerce. But anyone wandering the streets of Burlington on a weekend morning has to notice the Queen City's brisk breakfast business. Henry's and the Oasis are slinging it, diner-style. Leunig's and Smokejacks do brunch. But it's Penny Cluse Café on Cherry Street where people wait up to an hour and a half, regardless of weather, to tuck into healthy a.m. innovations such as egg-and-chorizo tacos, zydeco breakfast and tofu scram.
"It's a good model," says chef and co-owner Charles Reeves, 40. Reeves developed the hipster breakfast menu at Boogaloos on Valencia Street in San Francisco, where he worked as cook and manager for a few years. "It's great to have a place to go, where you can spend 10 bucks and have a quality 45 minutes," he says. "You can't really do that at dinner . . . Burlington was ready for our kind of breakfast when we opened."
Starving for it, actually. Now the city is ready for seconds - and so are Winooski, Montpelier and Middlebury. Penny Cluse has brought Burlington's breakfast-club culture to a point where demand exceeds supply. On the strength of its creative cuisine - and twentysomething-friendly prices - the restaurant has turned the Queen City into a bona fide breakfast town.
At least one new restaurant has jumped on the bandwagon. "There are so many people who want to go to Penny Cluse, but don't want to wait," says July Sanders, who is co-owner of Magnolia, a new restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch downtown at One Lawson Lane. "They either go somewhere else that they don't really want to go, or they don't go out."
Instead, Sanders hopes they'll check out Magnolia, which, like Penny Cluse, serves breakfast and lunch until 3. On a recent Saturday, there was no wait at the grotto-like eatery. But it was filled almost to capacity, with couples happily ensconced at tables for two and large, mostly younger parties hanging out in spacious booths. Magnolia is bigger than Penny Cluse, but it also feels more private.
The Magnolia menu caters to both crispy-bacon and veggie-sausage types. The "Classic" came with two eggs, sourdough toast and spicy, hand-cut home fries. The dinner-plate-sized oatmeal pancakes were surprisingly light. Fabulous fair-trade, organic coffee flowed freely throughout the meal.
Magnolia isn't open for dinner, and that's all right with Sanders. With so many evening eating options in Burlington, she warns, "having a good product and ambiance doesn't necessarily mean a lot of people will come to your place." Because fewer spots serve breakfast, Sanders says, "people seek them out. In that sense, it can be more profitable." Two Saturdays ago, the restaurant served nearly 200 meals. Eighty percent of them were breakfast.
Magnolia is hoping to reach that kind of volume on weekday mornings, too, just like Penny Cluse. Reeves himself is pulling for the place. He supports other independent restaurants, even when they're potential competitors. "When I hear that people come to Penny Cluse, get the gist and try to do it, I think that's great," Reeves opines. "The market is big enough for a few more kick-ass breakfast places in town."
Up the road, Winooski has a few kick-ass breakfast places of its own. Sneakers, the area's original cool breakfast spot, still has lines out the door on Saturdays and Sundays. But the impatient - and underdressed - have had two other options for the past year. McKee's Pub reinvents itself on Sunday morning to host brunch whipped up by a chef from the New England Culinary Institute. Over at the year-old Blue Star Café, on the same block as Sneakers, customers are coming back every weekend for stuffed French toast, crêpes, egg dishes and a house breakfast sandwich.
Blue Star's brunch business is "a huge part" of the mix, according to General Manager Ben MacIntyre. "There's a big enough demand that we went ahead and put a breakfast sandwich on the lunch menu during the week." The café starts cooking at 10 a.m.
Could it be a coincidence that Middlebury's Eat Good Food Grill, Bar and Deli recently discontinued dinner service and started serving . . . breakfast? Owner Tara Vaughan-Hughes inventoried the early-morning eateries and realized the town had plenty of diners and bagel joints. "I want to offer something that people can't get anywhere else," she says. Not without driving, anyway. Vaughan-Hughes elaborates: "Here the sun comes in the windows, you can open your laptop, have a really great latte and a fresh-squeezed orange juice. It's gorgeous. That's really different than sitting at a counter and ordering two eggs . . ."
Breakfast has real economic advantages over lunch and dinner, according to Vaughan-Hughes. Eggs are cheap and cooking times are fast. Also, breakfast eaters don't tend to stay past closing. The downside? Getting up. Eat Good Food Grill, Bar and Deli gets cranking at 9 a.m. Vaughan-Hughes says some of her customers - a family with young kids - wished the place opened earlier.
Montpelier doesn't have the college culture of Burlington, Winooski and Middlebury. But the brand-new co-owners of Kismet are nonetheless building a booming breakfast business in the capital city. Co-owner Crystal Maderia had the Penny Cluse menu in hand when she planned a place for "people who not only eat well, but want food that is consciously sourced." That means the ham, eggs and tempeh are local, and the Hollandaise sauce is vegan.
The first day Kismet was open for breakfast, "It seemed like all we served was huevos rancheros," says Maderia. Two Saturdays ago, they fed 110 people between 9 and 3:30. Many of them waited an hour and a half to get in the door. "People are getting used to the idea: 'I can go out to breakfast in Montpelier; I don't have to drive to Burlington - or Plainfield,'" Maderia says. She's referring to River Run Restaurant, the quirky Southern-flavored eatery that 15 years ago elevated breakfast to an art form in central Vermont. Catfish, grits and fried oysters are regular items on its morning menu. Three years ago, the original restaurant expanded next door to accommodate the crowds.
Breakfast has a more ritualistic quality than lunch or dinner, and that "regular" business benefits breakfast spots such as River Run and Penny Cluse. When you're choosing a dinner destination, "You're going to hit that place maybe once a month," says Reeves. "With breakfast it's a thing you're doing all the time. It's not even a restaurant experience; you're going to get food."
People get other things, too, while they're "out to breakfast." Reeves says people who hit Penny Cluse at rush hour don't just wait outside in the cold. Rather, they add their names to the list and "have a plan" to while away the time before they're seated.
"We get a lot of people coming in while waiting for their table," says Marc Sherman of Outdoor Gear Exchange, which is directly across the street from the restaurant. "We changed our Sunday hours pretty much because of the line at Penny Cluse." All those tasty calories aren't just powering people: They're fueling the local economy.