Landmark Restaurants Sold

By John Lippman

Valley News Business Writer

Published: 01-16-2018 11:17 AM

Hanover — Marc and Patty Milowsky moved to the Upper Valley from Burlington nearly five decades ago to open their first restaurant. They went on to become Hanover’s longest-running restaurateurs as the owners and operators of Jesse’s and Molly’s, two names arguably associated as much with Hanover as Dartmouth College.

Earlier this month, signaling their retirement from the restaurant business, the Milowskys sold Jesse’s and Molly’s to their director of operations, Tony Barnett and his wife, Erin Barnett.

The move is both practical — the Milowskys have clocked 80-hour work weeks since Jimmy Carter was president and the wife-and-husband team is ready to relax a little — and symbolic because it means Marc Milowsky will no longer regularly be greeting diners as they walk through the door.

But for the time being Milowsky says he’s not rushing into anything.

“I’m going to take some time off and then see what comes after that but at least for a year I’m not going to be looking at doing anything,” said Marc Milowsky, 68, last week.

The sale of Jesse’s and Molly’s follows the recent sale of Hanover’s Canoe Club by John Chapin to its bartender, Daniel Levitt, and two investors affiliated with Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, and is part of a raft of retirements among owners of Upper Valley family businesses over the past year as the Baby Boomers wind down their careers.

“Marc has been a pioneer,” said Nigel Leeming, owner of the Hanover tavern Murphy’s on the Green.

Leeming, who has owned Murphy’s since 1992, said Milowsky “should be given the Shackleton Award for Endurance” for how he has been able to navigate the highly unstable restaurant business with its notorious failure rate across two generations.

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“He’s been an extremely consistent operator of town-centric and valley-centric businesses, sticking to concepts, whether Jesse’s or Molly’s, and built them to last,” Leeming said. “You’ve got to give him lots of credit for that.”

Under the terms of the sale, which closed Jan. 2, the Barnetts acquired Blue Sky Restaurant Group, the umbrella entity under which Jesse’s Steaks, Seafood and Tavern and Molly’s Restaurant and Grill operate, although not the real estate of two properties, which the Milowskys are retaining.

The 300-seat Jesse’s has 60 employees while the 260-seat Molly’s has 80 employees. (Jesse’s has fewer employees because it’s open only cocktail hour through dinner on weekdays and brunch through dinner on weekends.)

The parties began talking two years ago about Barnett, who as director of operations was the No. 2 employee in the company, eventually taking over Blue Sky.

Milowsky said it became apparent to him over time that the Nebraska native he hired 10 years ago had demonstrated not only the ability to run the pressure-cooker environment of a restaurant kitchen, where tempers can run as hot as a frying skillet, but that Barnett also possessed the easy-does-it manner invaluable in overseeing the assembly of wait staff, line cooks, prep cooks, food runners and dishwashers.

“As time wore on, I gave Tony more and more responsibility, and his style and work ethic meshed very closely with mine,” said Milowsky.

He recalled when he was interviewing Barnett to join the company as kitchen manager in 2007, references from former employers “all said if you don’t hire this guy, you’re crazy.”

A Plainfield resident, Tony Barnett is married to Erin Barnett, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.

Barnett has been working in the food service industry since he was 15, beginning with manning the drive-thru window at a McDonald’s franchise near Omaha, Neb. After attending Cornell University and Creighton University, he went on to work in restaurant positions at corporate restaurant giants Old Rock Bottom Restaurants and Darden Restaurants.

When Barnett went to work at Molly’s, “it was the first noncorporate restaurant I ever worked at,” he said, explaining how “it was really a fantastic feeling coming to work for someone who saw you every day. It was a big shift in culture.”

Barnett said his goal is to keep Jesse’s and Molly’s running pretty much as they have been, with the current management team of Molly’s general manager Pat Reed and head chef Justin Hoyt, and Jesse’s general manager Sarah Lindberg and head chef Josh Eichman, along with Blue Sky functions manager Jenn Packard. All are staying on.

(Packard assured that all gift cards purchased under the previous ownership would continue to be honored).

“We’re just going to continue with what we’ve been doing,” Barnett said. “The plan is to roll with what he have. That’s the first thing people say when they hear about the deal: please don’t change. Even the attorney at the closing stopped the meeting and pointed to me and said, ‘Don’t change a thing.’ ”

He called the imploring by customers not to upset the cart, “quite a tribute to Marc.”

Milowsky, the son of a anesthesiologist who grew up in the New York City suburb of Tenafly, N.J., graduated from the University of Vermont in 1971 and initially thought he’d follow his father in becoming a doctor.

“I was looking at schools and came to Burlington in February and it was like the Arctic, but I fell in love with Vermont,” he said. “Everyone back home said I was nuts but it turned out to be a life choice.”

After a couple gigs such a ski lift operator and working for the state highway department, Milowsky, socially outgoing with a politician’s knack for connecting with people, followed through on a friend’s suggestion that he apply for a waiter’s job at the Sirloin Saloon in Shelburne, Vt.

“He said you’ll make a lot of money and probably enjoy it,” Milowsky recalled.

He got the job — and also met his future wife, Patty, a UVM alumna who was the restaurant’s hostess.

For a people person like Milowsky, the social conviviality of restaurants was a good fit.

“I enjoy people and working with people,” Milowsky said about what attracted him to working in a business with no shortage of headaches, with grueling hours, late nights, food and beverage inventory management challenges, ever-increasing safety and health regulations and sometimes unruly diners.

And, oh, there’s the food and drink part, too.

“I enjoy interacting with the guests and food and wine and the preparation of food and menu development,” he said.

Two ingredients stand out, however.

“I met my wife and found a career,” he said.

In the early 1970s, the Milowskys decided to relocate to the Upper Valley, where Patty had attended high school in Windsor and where her mother was teaching. Together with another friend and coworker from Sirloin Saloon, future Three Tomatoes owner Jim Reiman, they took over The Butternut Tree in Woodstock and renamed it The Prince and the Pauper.

After running the Woodstock restaurant for a few years, the Milowskys and Reiman teamed up with craftsmen Jerry Burns and Alan Ferguson, of Vermont Hand Carved Signs, and the late Jesse Ware, the founder of Vermont Log Home and Timberpeg Post & Beam Homes, to open a restaurant in the Hanover-Lebanon area.. (Jesse’s is named after Ware and is the reason it was built in the log-cabin style)

They scouted sites in the Upper Valley and found one on a hill on Route 120 outside of downtown Hanover. The corridor between the town and Exit 18 on Interstate 89 at the time was virtually undeveloped. Even Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center did not yet exist.

“There was nothing there but trees and bears and a country store,” said Milowsky.

The property they found actually straddles the border between Lebanon and Hanover — the town line cuts right through the “corner of the bar,” according to Milowsky. “One person could be sitting in Hanover and the person across from them in Lebanon.”

In the beginning, Jesse’s menu was as scarce as its woodsy surroundings: There were only about half a dozen items on the menu, “steak and potatoes, a seafood dish or two, and the salad bar which we’ve had from day one,” Milowsky related.

Jesse’s found a clientele among families visiting their kids at Dartmouth and its quick popularity — a year later the Milowskys bought out the other founding partners — led the Milowskys to open their second restaurant, Molly’s Balloon, in 1983 in the former Town and Country Dress Shop building on South Main Street.

Named after one of their daughters, the Milowskys undertook a renovation and expansion of the restaurant in 1998, changing the name of Molly’s Restaurant and Bar and repositioning it as a college pub decorated with Dartmouth and Ivy League memorabilia.

The Milowskys were also partners with Eric Roberts in the Italian restaurant Lui Lui in West Lebanon and Nashua before Roberts became the sole owner in 2012. Roberts said that Milowsky, already a veteran in the business, provided valuable guidance when Upper Valley real estate investor Bayne Stevenson introduced Roberts, then in his mid-20s, to Milowsky as a partner to take over a restaurant at Stevenson’s Powerhouse Mall complex in West Lebanon in the early 1990s.

“Bayne said there’s this guy, he has two restaurants and a network in place who could help with bookkeeping and anything,” Roberts recalled.

The partnership thrived and Roberts said Milowsky was instrumental in helping to select a designer and builder for the restaurant space and helped guide him through Lui Lui’s start-up years with everything from dealing with surly customers to “running down the line” in the kitchen when orders were coming in from the floor fast and furious.

“A lot of that I learned from Marc,” Roberts said.

Roberts said he understand the desire for the Milowskys to bow out of the grind with its nearly around-the-clock demands.

“It’s like being on stage every night,” he said of the restaurant business. “It’s like a show. You can only do it for so long.”

For Milowsky, the “show” has not been without a heaping serving of glamour, too. A raft of politicians have traipsed through the door of Jesse’s during their campaigns — memorably a special breakfast with state leaders for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama (“there was no security, only one guy” Milowsky marveled). The list of celebrities has included actress Meryl Streep, actress Marlo Thomas and her talk show host husband Phil Donahue, reality TV star “Judge Judy” Sheindlin (“when her grandson was at Cardigan Mountain School”), movie director Ron Howard (“when his kids were at camp”), late Norwich resident Bob Keeshan, aka Captain Kangaroo, and TV journalist and former Meet the Press host David Gregory, who “still comes in.”

And U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas “was here the other night.”

No President Donald Trump?

“Never been here,” Milowsky said. “I don’t think this is his style,” he said, speculating Jesse’s rustic-themed interior with deer heads mounted on the wall and a wood bark canoe hanging from the rafters might be not in step with the glitzy New York real estate developer’s taste.

Milowsky’s own name has even sometimes been floated as a possible political candidate.

He doesn’t bat away the question when asked if he would ever consider running for office himself.

“I’m not ruling anything out,” said Milowsky, who describes himself as “fiscally responsible but socially more on the liberal side.”

In recent years Milowsky said he has “really gravitated to being more of an independent.”

As for the future of Jesse’s and Molly’s, Milowsky said he is confident he has passed the torch on to the right person.

“Obviously I want to make sure the rent gets paid,” Milowsky said, laughing. “But more than that I think it’s in really good hands.”

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

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