Trail Break eatery owner says hiring shortages, too much success leading to closure and move

After a day preparing her students at Dothan Brook School for online and distance learning due to corona virus closures, fourth and fifth grade teacher Liz Borger, of Grantham, looks over the menu at Trail Break in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Belle Moulton, 18, of Windsor, right, took phone orders during a sale of the restaurant’s bulk foods, at 30% to 50% off, as they prepared to close for two weeks due to Governor Phil Scott’s order to close bars and restaurants on Monday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

After a day preparing her students at Dothan Brook School for online and distance learning due to corona virus closures, fourth and fifth grade teacher Liz Borger, of Grantham, looks over the menu at Trail Break in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Belle Moulton, 18, of Windsor, right, took phone orders during a sale of the restaurant’s bulk foods, at 30% to 50% off, as they prepared to close for two weeks due to Governor Phil Scott’s order to close bars and restaurants on Monday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-13-2023 7:59 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — It may sound odd that a restaurateur would respond to the success of a flagship restaurant by closing it.

But Topher Lyons — who recently announced plans to close Trail Break, a popular Tex-Mex restaurant in downtown White River Junction — said he needs to reconsider his long-term game plan.

“It may look wholly impractical from an outside perspective,” Lyons said in a phone interview. “We’re doing great business and are more successful than we ever imagined.”

But success, while a great problem to have, also presents challenges, according to Lyons.

In an effort to prevent staff burnout, Lyons plans to shift to a seasonal business model. At the end of November, when his lease at 129 S. Main St. expires, Lyons will permanently close his White River Junction location.

Next spring, he will reopen Trail Break on Woodstock Road in Quechee, at the former Dana’s by the Gorge diner. The new Trail Break will operate annually from April to October.

Trail Break has expanded in recent years to event catering and outdoor vending, while dealing with the ongoing hiring shortages in the restaurant industry.

“We’ve become victims of our own success,” Lyons said. “When we opened the restaurant, we never thought of doing catering at all.”

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In addition to the restaurant, Lyons has been operating two food trucks for event catering and purchased a third truck last week. He said he has already double-booked for events on four days of next year’s calendar.

The restaurant’s operating hours have been greatly reduced to devote staff time toward catering. The restaurant is only open for dinners three nights a week and is closed on Saturdays and Sundays.

“I know it’s inherently backward to be closed on the weekends,” but that is when catering events are usually scheduled, Lyons explained.

The restaurant also requires more staff to operate than a catered event, Lyons said. It takes about 15 employees to run Trail Break from morning to night, whereas a catered event only needs a staff of three to five people — in part because caterers have a fixed menu and can prepare according to specific serving times and a known number of guests.

The shift to a seasonal operation is largely aimed allowing Lyons to retain “core” employees — the handful of workers who Lyons relies upon to help run the business. These employees, which include Trail Break’s longest-tenured workers, balance administrative roles as well as restaurant and catering duties.

“I wouldn’t be able to open the restaurant without them,” Lyons said. “Without being able to rely on them, (the business operation) wouldn’t work.”

Lyons said his core staff members are excited about the shift to a seasonal operation. The combination of restaurant shifts and catering will amount to a packed work schedule, but the staff will have five months to spend as they please, whether to work, take classes, travel or to replenish their energy.

“We will grind it out in the summers and focus on other things in the winter,” Lyons said.

Lyons said he also hopes to benefit from down time during the restaurant’s offseason. He and his wife would like to start a family.

Lyons hopes at the new Quechee location to resume lunch services, or even brunch — a popular offering at White River Junction that ceased due to staffing shortages.

“It’s frustrating to have the success we’ve had but to not be able to (seat customers) or to close off a section of tables due to being understaffed,” Lyons said.

Lyons also hopes to retain staff by providing housing. The Quechee property has space for a small apartment, which one of Lyons’ employees plans to rent. Lyons also recently purchased a duplex in White River Junction, which he also plans to rent to seasonal employees.

As for relocating to Quechee, Lyons said the decision was financially practical.

In White River Junction, Lyons was paying $6,300 a month to rent his restaurant space. Lyons purchased his Quechee property for $400,000, which breaks down into similar monthly payments on the mortgage while also providing equity.

Matt Bucy, who owns 129 South Main Street, said in an email that he was unavailable for an interview.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.