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Barbecue-makers find a home in the former Onion Flats in Bethel

  • Pauline Poulin, 62, of Randolph, braids her hair on her way into the kitchen to clean food prep equipment at the new location of Vermont Maple BBQ in Bethel, Vt., Monday, June 3, 2019. Poulin and her partner, David Langhans, have spent the last several weeks cleaning, disinfecting and painting the former Onion Flats roadside restaurant in preparation to open in June. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Pauline Poulin, of Randolph, pauses in her work at Vermont Maple BBQ in Bethel, Vt., to talk with David Townsend, 78, of Bethel, who grows feed corn in the neighboring fields with his son for their dairy farm on Monday, June 3, 2019. Poulin, who runs her own small farm, joked with Townsend about his manure spreading schedule as she prepares to open her restaurant, which is in the background. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Partners David Langhans, left, and Pauline Poulin, middle, of Randolph, talk with Danielle Mowery, of Bethel, who owns the land and building where they plan to open the most recent iteration of their business Vermont Maple BBQ in Bethel, Vt., Monday, June 3, 2019. Onion Flats, a seasonal roadside restaurant that formerly occupied the building, closed in 2015. "I've always eyeballed this place," said Langhans of the building on Route 12 between Bethel and Randolph. "It's out of the way, but it's right in between everything." (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
Published: 6/4/2019 10:00:48 PM
Modified: 6/4/2019 10:00:42 PM

Grease is part of the deal in running a barbecue joint. The owners of Vermont Maple BBQ are familiar with elbow grease these days, too.

Reviving the shuttered Onion Flats in Bethel as the next home of a restaurant recognized this year by Yankee Magazine as the state’s best barbecue has been a crash course in scrubbing, sanitizing and delayed gratification.

“You’d think people are having the DTs from not having my food,” laughed Pauline Poulin, who has run Vermont Maple BBQ with her partner, David Langhans, since the early aughts. “Well, I’m not telling people a date. But we’ve been down here every day for weeks, getting things ready. It’s been a huge undertaking to unearth this thing.”

Onion Flats, once a roadside staple of summertime indulgences, of things soft-served or deep-fried, has been vacant since 2015 — and it showed, Poulin said. There were walls to be painted, flooring to repair, doors that would need replacing, hot water to make hotter still. There were codes to meet, and permits to secure, and new equipment to install. And, of course, every surface needed to be scraped and scrubbed until it gleamed like new.

“We cleaned and cleaned and disinfected everything, ceiling to floor. And they’re high ceilings,” Poulin added with a laugh. “We earned every inch of this.”

That earning tastes even sweeter — or in this case, more savory — knowing that Vermont Maple BBQ’s reopening comes three years after its previous location, in Randolph village, was lost in a fire.

“It was devastating,” Poulin said. But she and Langhans had already operated out of small quarters for years, carting brisket and ribs and poutine all around the state in their trailer-style food truck. They could do it again. And, with the help of crowd-funded donations from barbecue lovers, they did.

“It worked for us,” Poulin said, both at their home base on their Randolph farm, and especially at big venues like the Tunbridge World Fair. “We had lines for hours, and not because we’re slow. It’s high-speed feeding. Bang, bang, bang, bang, out the door.”

But, while there’s much to be said for a tightly run ship, it does mean you only have so much room to “experiment and expand” on tradition, said Langhans, adding that a larger kitchen was a main draw for him in signing the lease for the new space. That, and the familiar presence of the space itself.

“We live around 8 miles down the road, so I would drive by the building constantly,” he said. “And I’d just been eyeing it for the past few years.” Part of his vision for the expanded menu is to incorporate the foods people loved, and perhaps still miss, about the Onion Flats menu — think fried clams and maple creemees.

“Combining the two, that seemed like a no-brainer,” said Langhans, who has been in the restaurant business since he was a teenager, washing dishes in a Woodstock scullery. “But we’re also going to just try some fun and tasty things. We can play with food now. There’s no guidelines to follow. We can just do what we want to do, and what feels right for us and for our customers.”

Soft-shell tacos feel right, for example. So do banana splits.

Still, barbecue will remain the restaurant’s core identity, Poulin said. Indeed, it’s the subject that makes her light up the brightest when she’s talking, where her voice gets soft and dreamy — whether she’s describing the slow and smoky process of infusing pork butt with maple’s distinctive and region-specific flavor, or just enthusing about the lightly griddled French roll the final product gets served on.

“Oh, honey,” she said. “Warm and soft in the inside, and then on the outside it’s just a little crunchy, and it’s just the perfect density to fold the pulled pork in. It took me years to find that roll. … And that’s the big key here.

“There’s just a lot of love in the food.”

Vermont Maple BBQ will announce its reopening, on Route 12 in Bethel, on its website, vtbbq.com, and on its Facebook page.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at emmajeanholley@gmail.com.




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