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Bentleys restaurant in Woodstock to close next month



Valley News Business Writer
Thursday, March 21, 2019

WOODSTOCK — The music and dancing — and food — is going to stop at Bentleys.

The long-time village restaurant, bar and nighttime entertainment spot will close its doors by the end of April, the owners confirmed on Thursday. It will end a 42-year run at the corner of Central Street and Elm Street for the eatery and watering hole that is as synonymous with downtown Woodstock as Gillingham’s general store and the Woodstock Inn & Resort.

Owners Maria Freddura and John Ruggieri-Lam, who revived Bentleys five years ago after it fell into bankruptcy and briefly closed, have decided not to extend their lease past its April 30 expiration date, citing maintenance issues with the building.

“We were profitable. We remained profitable, but we had hemorrhages in the building from deferred maintenance and they fell into our lap,” Freddura said. “You’ve got to decide whether you want to work for yourself or work for the property owner.”

The condition of the French-Cabot Building, in which the 135-seat Bentleys is located, has not gone unnoticed in town.

“The building needs work, particularly on the exterior,” said Jeffrey Kahn, owner of the craft and gifts store Unicorn on Central streets and a village trustee. The trustees, he said, have been “after the owner to improve the outside of the building … we’re hoping with the vacancy that will be an opportunity to do some work on that.”

Freddura, who also owns the recently opened The Daily Catch restaurant on Central Street, said things might have turned out differently for Bentleys if she and her partner had prevailed in their efforts to buy the French-Cabot Building several years ago. They were outbid for the property by New York real estate investor and restaurant owner Ken Sturm, who also acquired the Morgan Block Building two doors away on Central Street.

The failed real estate deal resulted in Freddura and Ruggieri-Lam suing Oliver Block LLC, the building’s previous owner, for breach of contract, a case that they lost on appeal.

“We were dedicated to purchasing the real estate and to continue Bentleys. As a failure of being able to consummate that deal, our tenancy is ending and with it the legend of Bentleys,” Freddura said.

Ruggieri-Lam said the new lease terms would have put Bentleys into the red.

“We had a one-year extension (on the lease) we were agreeable to, but beyond that, the terms for rent we were being offered were too exorbitant to keep things going profitably,” Ruggieri-Lam said.

Charlie Kimbell, co-owner of the apparel retail store Elevation Clothing on Central Street and co-chairman of the Economic Development Commission called Sturm “a smart operator.”

“I know he values the property,” but the tenant’s lawsuit had “held him back from making improvements as it’s been going through a legal challenge.”

With the lawsuit decided and the Bentleys space about to become vacant, Sturm can move ahead, Kimbell said.

He “has kind of been waiting for this to happen,” Kimbell said.

Sturm could not be reached for comment.

Freddura and Ruggieri-Lam, whose families share a vacation residence in Barnard, teamed up in 2013 to buy Bentleys and its sister restaurant, Fire Stones at Waterman Place in Quechee, out of bankruptcy from previous owners David Creech and Bill Deckelbaum. Creech and Deckelbaum abruptly closed the two restaurants early that year, blaming an employee for allegedly mismanaging finances.

Fifteen months after the purchase, Freddura and Ruggieri-Lam closed Fire Stones to focus solely on operating Bentleys.

Freddura said that Bentleys’ sales have held “pretty much consistent” at more than $2 million annually, but, like many restaurants in the Upper Valley, it has struggled in recent years to hire staff.

Woodstock business people said the closing of Bentleys is not indicative of a downturn in tourism, the source of livelihood for many in the community, even though the EDC recently announced it is offering a rental subsidy program to start-up businesses to battle rising retail vacancies.

“The fact Bentleys is closing has nothing to do with economic vitality of Woodstock,” Kimbell said. “It’s the result of an unfortunate ability of the property owner to reach an agreement with the tenants.”

Kahn predicted that given Bentleys strategic location in the heart of the village it “will be a very quick transition for a new restaurant to go in there and be open by the start of the primary tourist season on July 1.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.