Homegrown fast-casual: Local eateries shape-shift to attract more customers

Photo by Madeline Hughes
Patrons crowded Fiddlehead Brewing Company’s taproom Friday night with rearranged seating to accommodate more customers. The popular brewing company is finding different ways to bring in more business.

By MADELINE HUGHES
Staff Reporter

Analyze the menu from a board or on an iPad, then order. Pick up some napkins and silverware, fill your water cup and grab a seat. It’s not the traditional sit-down restaurant experience, and it’s not a chain. It’s fast-casual, and local business owners are creating those spaces in response to demand.

The growing desire for that in-between fast-food and fine-dining experience has inspired some new changes at both Bristol Bakery in Hinesburg and Fiddlehead Brewing Company’s new taproom in Shelburne.

“They create these cool-casual environments and we are seeing that partly it’s because we have a labor shortage in the state,” said Ronda Berns, vice president of tourism for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. “If they can get around that and create something trendy, that’s great.”

With competing costs of labor, fresh local food and building overhead, it’s hard for small businesses, especially small restaurants, to make ends meet, Berns said.

In her work for the Chamber of Commerce, Berns is helping businesses collaborate. For example, breweries working with wineries, distilleries and meaderies to create tours. She pointed to the corridor from Middlebury to Burlington as a great example of small businesses working together. It’s an important piece of selling the Vermont brand to visitors and keeping tourists coming back.

Berns did see a downside to automation, saying it could lead to fewer personal recommendations. However, business owners seem to be adapting well as challenges present themselves, she said.

“Restaurants have to keep reinventing themselves to accommodate what customers want,” Berns said. “And for the most part, they are all struggling.”

Rebranding

People often asked why the restaurant in the middle of Hinesburg was named “Bristol Bakery,” owner Kevin Harper said. It was a branch of the bakery in Bristol until Harper sold it to his bakery manager Celina Ellison at the end of 2017.

Since then, Harper has been subtly making changes to the business – extending the hours, adding beer and wine to the menu, and bringing in local musicians on weekends. Now the business is asking customers to help think of a new name. Over 150 names have been submitted to the contest so far. The deadline for submissions is Feb. 28.

“The rational was that we should name it something that fits with the Hinesburg area,” Harper said. “We’ve been here for six years. Now that customers have had a taste of us, we wanted to ask what they thought of it.”

Harper realized the bakery wasn’t selling as many pastries, so he decided to take out one display case and put in a bar with beer taps.

“It’s been a big change for people, too,” he said.

The extended hours – 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. – are also a challenge to fulfill every day.

“You have to get someone out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to be here at 5:30 a.m. to open up the shop,” Harper explained. “It feels to us like someone is always there. Bakers work till midnight, and someone is in at 5:30 to open up. To get people to commit and care seven days a week, 12-plus hours a day, two shifts, it’s hard to maintain a high level of service.”

Staffing the business is an issue, and overhead costs did contribute to the need for longer hours, Harper said.

“In the short run, it’s harder than it looks,” he said. “We have got to get dinner off the ground to maintain the business.”

With a central location near the high school, and pending development in Hinesburg, Harper is excited for the future of the Bristol Bakery – whatever it may be called next.

“We want people to give us a shot to see we are more than just a day joint,” he said.

A new space

Fiddlehead Brewing Company opened up its new taproom this weekend. Dozens of patrons, including some who went for Folino’s pizza next door and stayed for their pizza to be delivered, enjoyed the new set-up.

Customers can still order growlers and cans to go, but they can now enjoy a pint of beer in the tap room. The Folinos’ side of the building is BYOB, and Fiddlehead’s is BYOP – bring your own pizza. Customers can order from a tablet set next to the bar.

“They have given our beer a place to be consumed for years and now we are able to offer that same olive branch to Folino’s,” said Brad Nutt, tasting room manager. “For seven years, we have wanted to offer an experience other than just selling product to-go. But being brewer-owned with no investors, that wasn’t possible.

“We focused on small organic growth, and when forced to choose between a tasting room or equipment to grow brewery operations…that’s where we have gone,” Nutt said.

The new tap room sits where the beer was originally brewed when Fiddlehead opened in 2012. As Shelburne News talked with Nutt, he noted that the wooden picnic table was “part of the brew house.”

Now the company is producing the majority of its beer a short walk away in the Shelburne Green development. There are two foeders – large oak barrels used to age alcoholic beverages. The foeders will give Fiddlehead brewers the opportunity to produce sour and aged beers.

The company’s plan regarding any future tap rooms or café areas is uncertain, Nutt said. The business has an application before the development review board to build a café area in the Shelburne Green development near the current brewery.

“It’s exciting to see all the different people who have helped build the company to where it is today,” Nutt said. “It has energized the staff. The feedback has been great from regulars, and we are not taking it for granted. We are pumped to offer this new beautiful space in the community for people to get together.”

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