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Carol's Hungry Mind coffee shop teeters near closing

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January 21, 2008

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — John Melanson thought for sure business was on the upswing at Carol’s Hungry Mind Café on Tuesday. The staff member scheduled to work with him was out sick, and people had been streaming nonstop into the Merchants Row shop all day.

“It was so strange,” said Melanson, who owns the two-year-old coffee shop. “At the end of the day before I looked at the till, I thought, ‘Oh, here’s a great day. I don’t have labor, it’s been busy all day.’ I like to make $800 a day, but (on Tuesday) it came up to $600.”

This was bad news for Melanson, who after cutting back on staff and hours, is struggling to keep the coffee shop afloat. Unless he can find someone, or some way, to support Carol’s by the end of February, he will likely have to sell it, he said.

“Right now, I would need $70,000 more than I make per year (to keep the operation running),” he said. “That would include how much I put into it each year and a bit of a salary, and I would like that to be a little more than minimum wage.”

Over the last few months, Carol’s fans have come out of the woodwork to offer support and suggestions, but none yet have found a solution.

One woman offered Melanson a $5,000 loan, interest free, for a year. But that would only keep the coffee shop going for a month, and it would add $5,000 to his debt, Melanson said. So he declined.

Other community members have suggested operating the coffee house as a co-op, using membership fees to cover some of the costs. Melanson has even talked to the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op about becoming an annex to that operation, but the Co-op already has its hands full, he said.

Middlebury College officials met with Melanson several times to discuss the possibility of collaborating in the former Eat Good Food space on Main Street, but Melanson wasn’t convinced that would solve his problems. He would still have to deal with his lease on the Merchant’s Row space, and he worried about the lack of parking near the college’s shop. He was also wary of collaborating with another group of people.

Melanson told the college what he really needed was to pay off his debt, which is only half of what he’s invested in Carol’s over the last two and a half years.

“If I could get out from under that debt, which would take me 30 years to pay off now, then I would go (to the Eat Good Food space),” he said. “That way, if in a month or two or six we don’t get along, I can go and it won’t be a problem.”

Melanson and the college agreed this wouldn’t work.

Many of the factors contributing to Melanson’s struggle are uncontrollable, like the fact that the Merchants Row shop just doesn’t attract enough foot traffic.

“This is more of a destination spot; well, it is for all the people who come here as regulars,” he said. “They’re coming here because they know what’s here and they like it. What we need is more of a spontaneous drop-in crowd.”

The regulars are many, and the place is often packed.

“But I say, you’ve got to look at the register,” Melanson said. “If it sits there idle then I’m not making money.”

He has considered selling more merchandise and more food, but this feels like a gamble he isn’t willing to take, he said. Adding a sandwich shop to the operation, for example, might increase revenue but it would cost at least $5,000 to get started.

“My bank account is giving me a timeline,” he said. “I’ve come to the end of my savings.”

Carol’s opened its doors in July 2005, less than a month after the death of Melanson’s business partner Carol Ross. In the wake of that tragedy, Melanson, together with former manager Gina Tindall, decided to go ahead with the business, which had been Ross’s lifelong dream.

When he thinks about that, Melanson said, he has hope for the business.

“(Carol) was looking at that particular space 20 years ago when she first moved to town,” Melanson said. “So we went for it. It was crazy, it really was … With the things that have happened to me in my life you never know what’s going to happen around the corner. One minute you’re living in Goshen, next you’re running a coffeehouse. Something could come along, or somebody.”

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