Upper Valley independent restaurants struggling to survive

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    Kristen Strong, owner of 108 Chelsea Station, gives Les Thomas, of East Randolph, Vt., his breakfast. "If there's anything else you want," Strong said jokingly, "too bad." Thomas replied, "TLC." He said he comes to eat at the diner as often as he can, including on Wednesday, May 24, 2023, the last week it would be open. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Waitstaff Willow Moore, of Strafford, Vt., says goodbye to customer Bob Hull, of South Royalton, Vt., at 108 Chelsea Station on Wednesday, May 24, 2023, in South Royalton. The restaurant will be closing this week. Moore has worked at the restaurant for two years and 15 years ago when she was in high school. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kristen Strong, owner of 108 Chelsea Station, has decided to close her restaurant due to lack of help. Strong cooks and washes dishes on Wednesday, May 24, 2023 in South Royalton, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Members of ROMEO (Retired Old Men Eating Out) chat with Kristen Strong, left, owner of 108 Chelsea Station, on Wednesday, May 24, 2023, in South Royalton, Vt. Next to Strong is Raelene Lemery, who runs the Sunshine Thrift Shop which is in the back of the restaurant.The restaurant will be closing this week, but Lemery will be keeping her thrift store open. ROMEO members Allan Wylie, of Strafford, Vt., left, Dave Smith, of Tunbridge, Vt., Greg Lewis, of Strafford, Richard Smith, of Tunbridge, and Baxter Doty, of Tunbridge, along with other members, gave Strong a bouquet of flowers. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 5/26/2023 3:34:18 PM
Modified: 5/28/2023 9:36:45 AM

SOUTH ROYALTON — Kristen Strong had worked in multiple food service industry jobs when she came to the realization that if she was going to work that hard, she wanted to work for herself.

After using that motivation to buy South Royalton diner 108 Chelsea Station in 1991, that plan worked well through recessions, days that started at 4 a.m., raising three children seemingly in the restaurant’s booths and feeding generations of law school students and town residents.

“I’ve served kids, and those kids’ kids,” said Strong, a 57-year-old Bethel resident.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, ushering in a string of challenges that culminated in the venerable diner closing on Friday.

“It was a horrible year financially,” said Strong, describing the immediate aftermath of the March 2020 COVID shutdowns.

The problems Strong faced multiplied as the business struggled to find enough workers to stay open. She lost her longtime accountant, so she tried to take on that role herself.

She couldn’t keep up with increases in the cost of goods and services by increasing her own prices because she didn’t fully understand the software that ran the point-of-sale system.

Some of her customers finally convinced her that she needed to accept credit cards, not just cash and checks, but the credit card processing system only added to the complexity of the business’s accounting, which was already a struggle for her to manage.

Strong said she only was able to stay open as long as she did because of help from the dedicated employees she did have, a bevy of regular customers and a community that didn’t want to lose a restaurant.

“Two people I’d never met came in to help, just so I wouldn’t close,” Strong said.

But in the end, it wasn’t enough. With all the additional responsibilities piling up, she felt the restaurant’s customer service slipped.

“I wasn’t doing anything really well because I was the accountant, the baker, the dishwasher, the waitress, the cook,” Strong recalled. “When you are serving 100-some people a weekend and you have to stop cooking so you can wash dishes to have something to put that food on, it’s time to stop. That’s been happening for the last two years, and I can’t do it anymore.”

The restaurant’s closing will be felt by residents like Raelene Lemery, of Stockbridge, Vt.

“This restaurant needs to be here in town,” said Lemery, 82, a Royalton-area native who has been patronizing the diner since before Strong purchased it. “There is no other place you can sit down and eat breakfast.”

More importantly for Lemery, who manages the nonprofit Sunshine Thrift Shop in the retail space directly behind 108 Chelsea Station, the diner’s value to the town goes beyond just the food it served.

“You can come and sit over a cup of coffee (and) shoot the breeze with somebody, and we are losing that in our society now, and it is sad. It’s going to be a great loss.”

Strong’s struggles to keep her diner open are not unique in the Upper Valley restaurant scene, which has experienced a spate of closings in recent weeks.

Latham House Tavern in Lyme cited the “challenges faced by the Upper Valley” in a message to the community announcing its May 22 closing date, while the website and Facebook page for Piecemeal Pies say that its locations in White River Junction and Stowe, Vt., are permanently closed. A recent weekday visit during lunch hours found its White River Junction location locked with the lights off.

Sandy’s Drive In situated on Route 14 in Sharon announced earlier this spring that it would not be re-opening for the upcoming summer season after a fire caused extensive interior damage last August. The business and property are listed with the Snyder Donegan Real Estate Group for $525,000.

Multiple email and phone messages left with the businesses seeking comment were not returned by deadline.

Amy Spear, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for tourism, says that the restaurant business has always been a tough one, but a confluence of pressures has hit the industry particularly hard in recent years.

“In general, restaurants operate on very tight margins; even pre-pandemic, there was about a 3 to 5% profit margin for the entire industry,” Spear said. “So when we are looking at the current landscape and you combine that with restaurant operations being disrupted by a tightened labor market and increased cost of doing business, it makes it very challenging.”

Spear pointed to recent data from the American Restaurant Association that showed prices for restaurant staples have climbed significantly in the past year. Tea has increased 14.4% and coffee 9.9%, while fresh vegetables have jumped 53% during that time frame.

“That is really difficult to absorb from an operational perspective,” Spear said.

The association’s data illustrate the struggle to pass on those higher costs to consumers; menu prices are up only 8% over the last 12 months.

And when it comes to labor, Spear said that even before the pandemic Vermont did not have enough workers to fill its job openings, and the situation has only gotten worse. For restaurants in particular, that can be difficult to overcome.

“If your menu requires you to have four people on the line cooking, you really need those four people cooking,” Spear said. “There is no adjusting that other than changing your menu.”

As Strong works to clean out her restaurant space and sell what she can, she can’t pin the demise of 108 Chelsea Station on any one factor like labor shortages or rising prices. Instead, she said it was all of those conditions getting in the way of what she enjoyed doing most.

“I’ve always tried to make everybody feel special, and I can’t do that (working all day) in a 10-by-10 kitchen,” Strong lamented. “I just have to rip off this Band-Aid. Who knows what’s out there? I’ll find out.”

Justin Campfield can be reached at jhcampfield@gmail.com.

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