New Owners Bring Fresh Ideas and Local Food to Brownsville Butcher & Pantry

  • Peter Varkonyi, left, and his fiancee Lauren Stevens, of Brownsville, hang and mud drywall at the former Brownsville General Store in preparation for opening their new business, the Brownsville Butcher & Pantry, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. They took the building down to its frame and have been pitching in to help contractors rebuild in preparation for creating a community gathering place that offers a cafe, meat, produce and toiletries. They hope to open on Oct. 20. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Peter Varkonyi, formerly the chef at Wild Roots in South Royalton, and his fiancee Lauren Stevens, who formerly worked at Sweetland Farm, hope to open their new business, the Brownsville Butcher and Pantry, in the former Brownsville General Store building on Oct. 20. They were photographed outside in Brownsville, Vt., Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Tuesday, October 02, 2018

As they work to open a new business in the home of the former Brownsville General Store, Lauren Stevens and Peter Varkonyi are rethinking what a small village needs, and what qualities might make a small operation viable.

It might be a small enterprise, but theirs is no small task.

“We like a challenge,” said Varkonyi, 29, in a recent interview at the store, which is slated to become Brownsville Butcher & Pantry, later this month if all goes according to plan.

Varkonyi and Stevens, who are engaged, are building their business not around the staples of the general store — gas, cigarettes, sandwiches and lottery tickets — but around local food. They’re aiming to serve reasonably priced breakfast and lunch plates, and, eventually, dinners, and to stock groceries, all with a local bent.

“We get bored easily, but this has so many different facets and faces to it,” Varkonyi said.

He and Stevens, 28, have a strong background in local food. Stevens, a native of Granville, N.Y., spent the past two years as the farm manager at Norwich’s Sweetland Farm.

She’ll oversee the store’s hiring, training and licensing, as well as customer service, “making sure everyone leaves with a smile on their face,” she said.

“She makes sure everything works,” Varkonyi said.

Varkonyi will serve as the chef. He grew up in northern Virginia and studied at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier. He has worked as a chef at Home Hill Inn, in Plainfield, at restaurants in Napa, Calif., and Denver, and most recently at Wild Roots, in Royalton. They met when Varkonyi procured produce for Wild Roots from Sweetland Farm.

He is a trained butcher and plans to produce cuts of meat from whole animals delivered and stored in the store’s newly constructed, 4,000-pound-capacity cooler. Some cuts of meat will be processed in the restaurant’s own smoker, he said.

If installing a different model for a small-town restaurant and store seems daunting, the young couple doesn’t show it. “We’re committed for decades,” Stevens said.

When the Brownsville General Store closed early in 2017, it was still being run as a traditional small-town market. It had a breakfast and lunch counter and sold a range of items, like a scaled-down grocery store. But the 2010 closing of Ascutney Mountain Resort made it harder for the store, which was founded in 1970, to keep operating as it was.

A group of about 40 full-time and seasonal residents calling itself The Friends of the Brownsville Store banded together to buy the property, paying $100,000 for it in May. They selected the Butcher & Pantry plan from about 20 proposals.

In a phone interview, West Windsor resident and Hanover investment advisor Chris Nesbitt, chairman of the Friends group, said that Stevens and Varkonyi brought “three critical skills” that no one else offered: “vision and energy, a business model that’s viable and skin in the game,” meaning significant financial resources invested in the business.

He said the couple has fit “hand in glove” with the goals of the Friends group.

“We want a place that has a new vision, but where the road crew would feel comfortable gathering for a cup of coffee in the morning,” Nesbitt said.

The Friends are behind the renovation currently underway, although Stevens and Varkonyi raised their own capital for business-related equipment, décor, and inventory.

The Butcher & Pantry’s business concept is built on three pillars: If you have an eat-in restaurant, then you have the opportunity to sell the same ingredients on fresh-baked bread from a deli counter (the operation will include a full-time baker). And, if you have those ingredients on hand, why not sell them from grocery coolers, alongside other kitchen staples such as milk, orange juice and pasta?

“I see our business plan as more diversified” than the general store had been, Stevens said. “And we’re going to push things like seating capacity to the max — it’ll be 24 when it’s finished.” Scale will be crucial to keeping prices reasonable from restaurant to market, the couple said.

Varkonyi said that, while not “hard-line” in what they will offer as groceries, they will source locally whenever possible.

Local farm providers include Almanac Farm in Chelsea, which raises beef, McNamara Dairy and Edgewater Farm for produce in Plainfield, and Many Summers Farm in Cornish, which produces grass-fed beef, lamb, and pasture-raised organic chicken and pork.

In addition to providing local products, Butcher & Pantry’s guiding principles are “price point, availability and consistency,” said Varkonyi. “Everyone has a common need for food. We’re not here to feed the seasonal elitist,” he said.

“We’re here to feed the people,” said Stevens.

The couple plans to offer a $10 lunch; house meat deli sandwich with a side of chips, coleslaw or potato salad, and a fountain drink.

And most of the ingredients would hail from local farms and be butchered by Varkonyi, cutting out meat processing costs.

“Dinner is in the future,” Varkonyi said. “We want to make sure we cover the cornerstones of breakfast and lunch before we make that final evolution.”

Initially, Brownsville Butcher & Pantry will be open Monday through Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday 8 to 6.

Kate Oden is a freelance writer and translator. She lives in Hanover.


Peter Varkonyi attended the New England Culinary Institute. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the school he attended.