Food Community Grows in Randolph’s Downtown

  • Greg McCurdy, left, and Forrest MacGregor, both of Randolph, Vt., talk while drinking coffee at Chef's Market in Randolph on May 17, 2018. The two are part of a group that meets for coffee and breakfast every morning. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Employee Noelle Duprey stocks groceries at Chef's Market in Randolph, Vt., on May 17, 2018. The market recently moved into a downtown location. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chef's Market in Randolph, Vt., photographed on May 17, 2018. The store recently moved into Randolph's former depot building. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Co-owner and chef Scott Aronson clears a chopping board at Chef's Market in Randolph, Vt., on May 17, 2018. Aronson and his wife, Tammy Aronson, opened Chef's Market in 2007. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Eggs Romanoff which includes poached eggs, cold smoked salmon, English muffin with hollandaise sauce, fresh parsley and home fries at Chef's Market in Randolph, Vt., on May 17, 2018. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • From left, Mia Ukasick, chef, Marge Clifford, Tammy Aronson, Naomi Macher, Gabriella Cobb, all employees, look at photographs taken by Cobb at Chef's Market in Randolph, Vt., on May 17, 2018. Ukasick has known owners Scott Aronson and Tammy Aronson since she was 14-years-old. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Standing at the intersection of South Main Street and Merchants Row in downtown Randolph, where empty storefronts coexist with vibrant ones, it’s possible to cobble together a narrative of the town’s economy from the dining options alone.

On one side of South Main Street, there are two brick buildings for sale. One of them, the now-vacant space of the longtime variety store Belmains, signifies the end of an era in Randolph. The other, owned by the Randolph real estate developer Jesse “Sam” Sammis, illustrates the uncertainty of the present: The building might be converted into apartments, or offices, or a hotel that some community members feel the town badly needs, though for now it depends on “how the numbers work,” Sammis said in a recent phone interview.

But across the street from both of these vacant structures, in the stately brick Depot building, there may be a promising hint of what lies in Randolph’s future. Chef’s Market — the natural and organic market that for 11 years was located out on Route 12 — has taken over the space and expanded to include a restaurant. The second-floor mezzanine, which overlooks the aisles of local meats, wines, cheeses and produce, joins a clutch of eateries that have opened in recent years, or are soon to open, within walking distance of the corner of Main and Merchants. Restaurateurs and others in the business community hope this growth will help revitalize the economy and identity of the town.

Chef’s Market owners Tammy and Scott Aronson moved into the Depot building last month, on Friday the 13th, well before the May 1 opening date they’d planned for.

“I know,” Tammy Aronson said at the new store, referring to the superstitious date. “But we thought, why wait?”

After all, they had done enough waiting for a downtown spot like this one: eight years of it. During that time, they outgrew the Route 12 location, which Aronson described as a “three-car garage,” next door to Central Supply, a hardware store, where few people would stumble upon it. For the move, they only had to close for — and Tammy is very proud of this — three days.

Plenty of businesses too far from the main drag have struggled and shut their doors, said Linda Runnion, member consultant of the White River Valley Chamber of Commerce, who has lived in the Randolph area for more than half her life (she’s now in her 70s). She cited the example of the Lyons Den Restaurant and Pub, which was a few blocks from the main business block. It closed in February 2017 after three years of steady, but too-slow, growth.

“Part of their problem was location,” Runnion said in a recent phone call. “I think you have to be visible from Main Street. If not, it’s really hard to stay the course.” She suggested that part of what made the Aronsons’ business thrive, despite its out-of-the-way location, was that it immediately filled a gap in the community: The food co-op in Randolph closed the same year Chef’s Market opened.

Though it was “devastating” when the co-op closed, “Tammy and Scott really stepped in,” Runnion said.

The Aronsons are optimistic that Chef’s Market’s centrally located digs, coupled with the local, organic ethos that their customers find so attractive, will help them continue to grow. Tammy hopes to bring activities — think paint-and-sips and acoustic jams — to the park outside, thereby using food as a vehicle for community-building and creative energy.

Though the rent is roughly twice what the Aronsons were paying at their previous location, “our traffic has also doubled,” she said. “So far, so good.”

The old train depot isn’t the only building in Randolph undergoing a food-driven transformation. Take the Three Bean Cafe, which operated for 13 years on Pleasant Street, but recently closed. In its place will be Cafe Salud, meant to be the casual sister establishment of the Black Krim Tavern, the farm-to-table restaurant on Merchants Row owned by Chip and Sarah Natvig.

“When I opened, there was not really a dinner option downtown,” Natvig said. “Not that it’s a bumping food scene now or anything. But in terms of other options in town, there was not a lot going on.”

That was 7½ years ago. While the dinner options weren’t quite nonexistent at that point — there was Randolph Village Pizza, among others — they were certainly limited.

Since then, an ebb and flow of business has yielded a bevy of downtown restaurants, almost all of them concentrated within blocks of each other: One Main Tap & Grill opened on the town’s historic Union Block in 2014, replacing Patrick’s Place. The next year ushered in the Northern Thai restaurant Saap — a stone’s throw from Main Street, and dubbed by Yankee Magazine the best Thai place in Vermont. Chef’s Downtown Deli, owned and operated by the Aronsons’ son, Brandon, hit Main Street last summer. Chef’s Market arrived at the scene in April. Next month will see Cafe Salud.

In addition to coffee, beer and wine, smoothies and a raw-juice bar, the Natvigs’ new menu will heavily feature tacos. Yes, tacos are trendy, but Sarah Natvig noted, they also fill a gap in a downtown food scene that currently satisfies cravings for Chinese, Thai, Italian and American cuisine — but not fare from south of the border. Not yet, anyway.

“There’s not really that Mexican option really anywhere within 20 miles of here, actually more than 20 miles, and it’s something we know how to do well,” she said, adding that they’re always popular when they appear on Black Krim’s rotating menu.

The taco also “hits a lot of demographics” in terms of tastes and dietary restrictions: You’ve got your “big hefty meat tacos,” but also your vegetarian tacos, or vegan or kid-friendly or gluten-free, she added.

When she heard the Three Bean was closing, Natvig thought it seemed like the right space to move into, and the right time to do it.

“It was good timing. I’ve been working on enacting something over the past three, four years, and it did get fueled by a lot of the energy happening here in town,” she said. “A lot of community-member leaders are coming together, creating a lot of energy, filling these spaces that have been vacant for a little bit. … Everyone’s thriving off of everyone’s energy.”

Aronson noted that Randolph’s “food renaissance” is happening alongside concerted rejuvenation efforts in town. Among them is the community-development project R3, short for Randolph Region Re-Energized, which kicked off this spring as a way to stimulate the economy in an environmentally-conscious way — an angle that restaurateurs with thoughtfully-sourced ingredients are already familiar with.

“It’s very exciting,” Aronson said. “I think a lot of the motivation for growth is because there’s a lot of young energy here that hasn’t been here in the past.” In addition to her own 24-year-old son’s deli down the street, there’s Sam Hooper of Green Mountain Glove, also in his 20s, and Lucy and Keegan Haupt, who are aiming to open what Aronson described as a “glorified YMCA” in town — perhaps, Sammis suggested, in the former co-op building on Pleasant Street.

“I think the sudden closing of Belmains was the beginning trigger for Randolph’s current revitalization push,” wrote Janet Watton, longtime president of Randolph’s Chandler Center for the Arts, in an email. “We, the town, all collectively felt the need to sit down together (and meanwhile there have been many meetings) and figure out how to make Randolph vibrant again.”

Runnion also noted that the relatively dense concentration of eateries helps create a self-feeding system, so to speak.

“Getting a downtown deli in there was a great thing for us,” she said. “There’s still some empty storefronts, for sure. But there’s a lot of activity going on in Randolph to help do good work for rejuvenation.”

Aronson doesn’t need to be prompted twice. She’s been busy making the new space feel like her own, having decked out the mezzanine with a “fairy house” made with twinkle lights strung through a bird cage, locally-made pottery, her husband’s guitar amp, a rock salt lamp, a small statue of a meditating Buddha, potted ivy.

“Hey, how are you?” she called to a familiar face down below.

“You look like you’re in a movie set,” the customer called back up.

“I know,” she said. “I actually live in a movie set now.”

Looking further into the future, business-minded individuals such as Runnion and Sammis hope to see this energy compound on itself, and fill the still-empty business spaces downtown.

“Vacant space downtown is not good. Finding some uses for those buildings will obviously help the economy and make downtown more vibrant,” Sammis said. Food-wise, “we do have those three places (Chef’s Market, Cafe Salud and Chef’s Deli Downtown) that are kind of new and I think that’s a real positive. … For them to stay in business long-term is the key thing,” he said, adding that municipal school costs contribute to an inhospitable real estate climate for many would-be business owners.

For her part, Runnion would like to draw more tourists to Randolph. To this end, one key feature missing from downtown, she said, is a hotel — preferably quite a nice one.

“Personally, I would wish that we had a hotel that almost could be a destination-type place, the way the Three Stallion (Inn) used to be. … There’s plenty of reasons to come here, just nowhere to stay,” she said. (Sammis sold the Three Stallion Inn property to a Connectict prep school last year.)

In terms of restaurants, “I think people might like to have one or two more places that may come in the future,” she said. “It’s obviously not going to happen overnight, we all know that. But we’re seeing what we can do to generate some real positive outcomes here in town. I think we’re very fortunate to have the options that we have.”

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.