COVID-19 a Factor in Blue Stone’s Departure
The Montpelier branch of the three Blue Stone restaurants has completely moved out of the building at 83 Main Street, on the corner of State and Main, where the Coffee Corner used to be. They were going to open back up after COVID-19 caused all restaurants to close, but things changed as the months wore on.
“We shuttered this shop with the onset of corona,” Fish told The Bridge July 23 as he sat behind the long, live-edge, wide pine bartop he made himself by hand. “There has been a lot of chatter, ‘What is the Blue Stone story?’” he said, taking the point of view of an outsider asking the question.
Fish presented a distant, steely-eyed look as he spoke about his recent decision, with partner Vinny Petrarca, to pull out of Montpelier. The COVID-19 pandemic forced his hand, but it was just one factor. Petrarca was home sick that day, Fish said.
“The onset of corona was serendipitous,” Fish told The Bridge as men tore down and removed the hand-made bar and counter surrounding the front alcove. “Corona was the line in the sand because we closed unexpectedly in all three spots.” Then, he and Petrarca had to decide how to reopen. The obvious strategy was to open the busiest restaurant first, then the second busiest, and, last, Montpelier. They own three Blue Stone restaurants, one on Waterbury, one in Waitsfield, and until very recently, they planned to reopen the shop in Montpelier. In fact, as of July 22, the answering machine at the Waitsfield Blue Stone restaurant said that Montpelier would be opening June 25.
He circled back to talk about the origin of the Blue Stone. He and Petrarca had both worked at Positive Pie. They together went off to found the first Blue Stone in Waterbury on Stowe Street in 2012. Then, in 2015 they put a Blue Stone in Waitsfield. They were ultimately able to purchase both buildings after renovating the spaces for their restaurants, Fish said. But the Montpelier space was different, and renovation costs contributed to their decision to pull out, he said.
The Coffee Corner had inhabited the corner of State and Main for decades. It was a popular hang-out as well as a go-to spot for good diner food. But, according to Fish, as it changed hands over the years, new owners did not put much into the infrastructure, so by the time it became the Blue Stone, it had to be modernized. Fish said they sunk $200,000 into renovations in the beginning, and after that was done, there was no turning back.
“It is a fantastic spot,” Fish said, but added the spot suffers from deferred maintenance. Fish said he and Petrarca had to do demolition and construction, which included plumbing, electrical, and work on ingress and egress. “The cost was a burden we carried forward.”
When they got up and running, things were okay. “We didn’t make a lot of money here, but we didn’t lose,” Fish said. But operating at a net zero, by the end of the complete COVID-19 lockdown, stopped being attractive. They had closed all three restaurants in March. Then, in April, they opened up Waterbury to a very good reception. Then they opened Waitsfield. Being in the pizza business, “customers automatically looked at us for takeout.”
Then came time to consider opening Montpelier, which they planned to do by late June. However, Fish said they started to have “long-term philosophical questions about the business. Where do we need to put our resources? We need to expand hours and days at Waitsfield.” The shop in Montpelier made half of what Waterbury and Waitsfield did on a given day, a fact that Fish attributes to the tourist business. Waitsfield, a downhill ski resort community, and Waterbury, also flush with Stowe ski resort customers, can be counted on for “high income people” showing up at predictable times of the year on a regular basis. Just when Montpelier goes dormant through winter, Waitsfield and Waterbury get an influx of ski area tourists. Montpelier gets fairly strong tourism in the summer, and then during foliage season, but not so much during winter months, Fish said, except Christmas week.
Fish said it is a lot easier for him and Petrarca to take on the two existing shops and close Montpelier for family/work balance as well. Having two shops with predictable business patterns is less stressful and more manageable.
“I like Montpelier. I lived here for 10 years. There is a lot of cool stuff. It is very hard to put your finger on why it is hard to thrive as an upstart business,” he said, explaining he and his family had moved out of Montpelier and into Duxbury. “We [Fish and Petrarca] ultimately decided it is a lifestyle choice. We have young kids and wives.”
As of Thursday, July 23, nearly all the restaurant equipment and furnishings were removed from the State and Main location. It bustled with activity as trucks were loaded with every last piece of furnishings and equipment — even the giant walk-in cooler.
Blue Stone sold all of the inside fixtures and furniture to Woodbelly Pizza — a local Montpelier pizza place owned by Vetch Carreto, Dave Dickson, and Jocelyn McElroy. Woodbelly operates out of a building on Barre Street and also serves pizza at the Saturday Farmers Market, according to Woodbelly employee Greg Hesselton. They are present at the Stowe Farmers Market on Sundays as well. They also do catering and curbside pickup, according to their website woodbellypizza.com. And as of last week, they are serving pizza out of their Barre Street location on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 4 to 9 p.m. Hesselton calls this “pizza out front.”
Fish said he likes the idea of another pizza business that he respects getting the fixtures and furnishings he worked so hard for. “I like to see it live on in another shop. It’s nice to see some of our stuff go to another local upstart. … They have a good chance of doing well.”