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Carol's café closes after 13 years; new coffeehouse to open in its place

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Posted on August 9, 2018 |
By John Flowers



JohnMelanson1175.jpg
CAROL’S HUNGRY MIND Cafe owner John Melanson closed the Middlebury Merchants Row business on Tuesday after a 13-year run. Independent file photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — Downtown Middlebury’s much-loved, but financially challenged, Carol’s Hungry Mind Café sold its last muffin and cup of coffee on Tuesday, with owner John Melanson saying a slow summer and mounting debts finally forced him to throw in the towel.

Meanwhile, the Addison Independent has learned that Adam Shafer — co-owner of Shafer’s Market & Deli at 54 College St. — will open “the Daily Grind” in the Carol’s venue at 24 Merchants Row. Shafer confirmed the new coffee shop venture will open later this month and will include light meals.

That unfortunately brings little solace to Melanson, who said his goodbyes to longtime customers as he rang up the final sales of the day.

“There have been tears, presents, hugs and good wishes,” Melanson said during a break from manning the counter at Carol’s, which became a popular gathering spot for folks from all walks of life and economic strata.

“It’s heartbreaking for me.”

Indeed, Melanson had flirted with closure several times during his 13-year run with the venture, which became a labor of love. An independent coffee shop is typically a modest revenue generator, specializing in beverage and pastry sales to customers who love to linger over a book, laptop, smartphone or pleasant conversation.

Carol’s always seemed to scrape by, in large part due to a loyal clientele, including some regulars who extended Melanson the occasional financial gift to keep the doors open.

But Melanson said the beginning of the end really began with construction on the downtown Middlebury rail bridges project, which wiped out some parking spots on the now one-way Merchants Row. He believes downtown Middlebury has — and will — become even more challenging for locals and visitors to navigate due to periods of construction disruption slated through 2021.

Melanson three years ago established a second Carol’s at 7404 Route 7 in New Haven. Tough financial times forced him to close that business in June. He had hoped the New Haven Carol’s would help mitigate some of the losses he anticipated suffering at the Middlebury Carol’s during the downtown bridges project.

Still, he hoped healthy July receipts could keep the Middlebury Carol’s afloat for a while longer.

That didn’t happen.

While Middlebury College language school attendees and locals provided some decent customer flow, Melanson said Carol’s experienced a sharp drop-off in sales to tourists — particularly those from other countries. He had enjoyed, from year to year, greeting foreign tourists and trying to guess (from their accents) from whence they hailed.

“I used to have a hard time finding seats for them,” Melanson said, reflecting on past, high-traffic summers. “But the tourists are not here (this summer).”

He credited Battell Block owner Doug Nedde with being patient and trying to find a way to accommodate Carol’s in spite of its inability to make rent. But Melanson and Nedde agreed last month that Carol’s could no longer survive.

“We have to close; there’s no money left,” Melanson said.

“We worked with John during the past 12 to 18 months hoping he’d be able to turn the business around, and he gave it his best shot,” Nedde said of Melanson.

“It’s unfortunate,” Nedde added. “Carol’s was a valued community asset in Middlebury.”

Tuesday morning saw some Carol’s regulars seated in their favorite chairs hovering over one last tea or coffee as they drank in the familiar, soothing ambiance.

Among them was Earl Corey, a Salisbury resident who visited Carol’s around four times per week.

“I feel bad we’re losing our ‘Cheers’ in Middlebury, where you can come in and chat with people who you know and don’t know,” Corey said. “Cheers” was the barroom backdrop of the 1980s NBC TV sitcom, a location that billed itself as the place “where everybody knows your name.”

Corey enjoyed conversing with members of the college community, locals, authors and tourists who rubbed shoulders in the mocha melting pot that Carol’s became.

“It’s just a very comfortable, welcoming place to be,” he said of the coffee shop. “And we don’t have anything like this.”

But the coffee shop void won’t last long, according to Shafer — a former Carol’s employee — who looks forward to launching the Daily Grind.

He won’t make many renovations to the Carol’s space.

“I want to keep the same casual ambiance it already has,” Shafer said.

The Daily Grind will offer coffee, espresso, pastries, sandwiches, soups and fresh pasta for evening meals, according to Shafer. He wants to operate seven days per week, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Those hours could change depending on customer demands, he added.

Shafer said he’d like the Daily Grind to offer entertainment and a meeting spot for groups, as Carol’s tried to do.

He and his wife Jennifer Stocker will continue to operate Shafer’s Market & Deli. And Stocker recently opened Foundation Salon & Spa at 32 Merchants Row, right next to Carol’s.

Time will tell if the Daily Grind develops the same following as Carol’s.

Doug Patterson of Shoreham led an on-line “gofundme” campaign to try to keep Carol’s afloat. He voiced frustration that state and local authorities have been unable to find resources to help subsidize downtown merchants during the massive rail bridges project. As reported by the Independent, longtime Main Street businesses Ben Franklin and Clay’s have both made 2018 their swansong. The Diner on Merchants Row also called it quits this year.

Patterson equated Carol’s to the Shoreham Inn, in terms of being a community hub.

“It put a social stamp on the town,” he said. “Carol’s provided that meeting spot. John (Melanson) devoted his life to making that happen.”

He noted some businesspeople used Carol’s as their unofficial office. The coffee shop also provided a nice link between the Middlebury and college communities, he said.

Better Middlebury Partnership Marketing Coordinator Karen Duguay said Carol’s will be missed, but she’s confident the downtown will rebound.

“Carol’s has been a wonderful part of the Middlebury community for many years,” she said. “Many memories have been made there and I know people will miss this gathering space. Our downtown is at a point of transition, and I remain confident our community can meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.”

No one will see a bigger hardship from the closing of Carol’s than Melanson. He said he put all his resources into the venture, as well as loans and gifts from others that he can’t repay — at least for now.

“If I ever come into some money, I will certainly pay them back,” he said.

Melanson and friend Carol Ross spent a year planning the coffee shop, which opened in June of 2005. Tragically, Ross was diagnosed with cancer a week before Carol’s opened, and she died 11 days later.

Melanson unfortunately now finds himself financially strapped and looking for work at age 64.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” he said of the next chapter of his professional life. “I never in my life had any passion until (Carol’s) came along.”

Click here to watch our video, which captured the mood at the cafe on its last day.

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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