Popular downtown Montpelier restaurant Down Home Kitchen closed its doors for good on New Year’s Day after serving a final meal to the town’s homeless population. Owner Mary Alice Proffitt, who opened the restaurant in September 2015, is moving on to new creative opportunities, she said, including possibly starting a wholesale biscuit company.
“At this point, I feel like I’ve learned all I need to know about running a restaurant,” said Proffitt, 39, of operating the southern comfort food kitchen. “For me, the next 10 years are going to be about design and creativity, whether that’s consulting or doing my own projects.”
It was her creative passion for designing spaces, Proffitt said, that led her to lease the vacant space that became Down Home Kitchen soon after relocating to Vermont from North Carolina.
“Five years ago, I was walking by and the landlord was putting the ‘For Rent’ sign in the window,” Proffitt said, adding she was intrigued by the store’s “corner location.”
“I had just moved here and didn’t know anybody, but I walked in and said, ‘What would it take for you to pull that ‘For Rent’ sign out of the window?’”
Raised in Atlanta and the Cotswolds in England, Proffitt attended college at the University of Vermont and fell in love with the region, she said. After going through a divorce, she decided to return to Vermont to raise her children Tennessee, 13, Sylvia, 10, and Ursula, 8.
Even after signing the lease for the store, which previously housed Rivendell Books, Proffitt said she had no idea what kind of business she wanted to open.
“I got the space first, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” she said. “I’m an adventurous person.”
She sought advice from locals about what type of business the town most needed.
“I went around town and asked everybody, ‘What is Montpelier missing?’” Proffitt said. “And it was very clear, hands down, that people wanted a different option for breakfast.”
Many residents specifically requested southern food, Proffitt said.
“There had been a southern food restaurant in the area before and it had closed, so I was like, ‘I’m southern, I love breakfast, that sounds like fun, let’s do it.’” Proffitt recalled. “I thought, I could do biscuits and do my mom’s cheese grits, and Sally’s fried chicken—all the stuff I grew up with.”
As a single mom raising three young children, including a toddler, Proffitt decided she would need to “limit the hours” the restaurant was open, from 8 am to 2 pm.
“I did not expect to be that busy at all,” she said. “And then as soon as we opened, I was just slammed.”
For the first three years after opening the restaurant, Proffitt said she worked 18–20-hour days, seven days a week “just to keep up.”
“Some nights I worked so late that I just slept here,” she recalled.
As a first-time entrepreneur with limited restaurant experience, Proffitt said she “made every mistake” while learning the ins and outs of the service industry.
“Restaurateurs say it takes three years to get a new restaurant really locked in,” she said. “It takes getting your crew and your systems in place and realizing what you can and can’t sell.”
With Down Home’s operational systems now running smoothly, Proffitt said the time has come to sell the restaurant and move on to the next “creative adventure” that awaits her.
“I’m not an operator, I’m not a manager personality,” Proffitt said. “My skills and interests are not in keeping a train running every day. I’m a creative person, I love starting things and getting them off the ground, and I did that with this place.”
Due to her redesigning efforts, Proffitt said the building now “flows” and is “retrofitted for a lot of commercial uses and purposes in the community.”
“This place could be a real gift for the right person,” Proffitt said. “Someone who wants to pick up the work someone else has already done, and numbers that are already there.”
But despite receiving “hundreds of inquiries” from prospective buyers, Proffitt said she has yet to accept an offer for the restaurant.
“I’m setting up appointments in February to meet with interested [buyers],” she said.
Despite rumors circulating in online community forums that locals may seek to take over the restaurant and operate it as a co-op, Proffitt said such proposals are “very unlikely” to go forward.
“I will be picking whoever moves in and takes on my lease,” Proffitt said, adding that she holds the lease to the space for another three years, with an option to renew for an additional five years. “I’m looking for a buyer who has restaurant experience, because I care about the community.”
Proffitt said she feared an inexperienced owner could “fall right on their face” if they took on the restaurant without solid financial backing and working knowledge of the service industry.
“It’s not good for the community to have places turning over and over and over,” she said. “You want to have stability, and you have to have a bank behind you.”
Proffitt, who owns and lives on a 19th-century farm in Calais, said that while her adventures at Down Home Kitchen may be over, she has no plans to leave the community she now calls home.
“My kids and I talk every day about how happy we are [in Vermont], how settled we are,” Proffitt said. “We have great friends, and the kids have family here.”
While she has yet to decide on her next business venture, Proffitt said she is researching the possibility of starting a wholesale biscuit company.
“We’ve sold hundreds of thousands of buttermilk biscuits out of this restaurant in five years, and many were gluten-free,” Proffitt said. “People are crazy about them.”
In a gesture of community solidarity, Proffitt offered to host a free New Year’s Day meal for Montpelier’s homeless. Volunteers made up of Down Home Kitchen customers and guests helped serve meals prepared by Proffitt and head chef Chucho Paulino.
Proffitt explained that she did not order food for the event and that menu offerings were designed from “whatever products we had left over.”
“We didn’t know what [food items] we’d have, so we had to be creative,” Proffitt said, echoing her favored approach to business and life.
Locals and employees who came to enjoy the food and ambiance one last time expressed appreciation for Proffitt and sadness to see Down Home Kitchen go.
“What I realized over the past two weeks saying goodbye to everyone is that Down Home is a place where we always knew we could find each other,” said Brielle, a bartender and floor manager at the restaurant. “All my friends and everyone I worked with, and everyone in town—we never really had to say goodbye, we’d always meet back here. But now we finally do have to say goodbye for the first and last time, and it’s bittersweet.”
Sara, a server, said her job at Down Home Kitchen helped her to acclimate to Montpelier since moving here a few months ago.
“I really have developed a sense of the community and the spirit of Montpelier through Down Home Kitchen,” Sara said. “Seeing how everyone is so sad to see this place go, it’s really showed me how special Montpelier is, and how much everyone cares about the community and maintaining the sense of culture and closeness. And I don’t think that’s going anywhere, even if Down Home is [closing].”
Gary, a frequent Down Home Kitchen guest, offered high praise for Proffitt. “She’s a wonderful lady,” he said. “We’ll really miss her a lot.”
Mary Alice Proffitt can be contacted at email@example.com