MIDDLEBURY — While the name above the door may change, downtown Middlebury will keep its diner. After 25 years of successful operation, owners Steve and Beth Dow have handed over the keys to Steve’s Park Diner to Caetlin Harwood and Carl Roesch.
“The National Restaurant Association figures the average age of a restaurant is between three to four years,” Steve Dow said after closing on the sale on April 14. “I figured I beat the odds.”
In the 1930s, the restaurant, then named the Val-Do-Mar Diner, moved from Main Street to its current spot on Merchants Row next to the Town Hall (now the Town Hall Theater). It was renamed Park Diner in the 1940s.
A native of Middlebury, Steve Dow had a background in food service before he came to the restaurant that bears his name. He worked at Middlebury College for 16 years, heading the Social Dining Units. In 1988 he left the college, wanting to try running a restaurant on his own. After looking at a number of local venues, he and his wife, Beth, discovered what was the Lemon Fair Restaurant, then owned by Caroda Saliny. It served breakfast, lunch and dinner and had a liquor license. The Dows bought the Lemon Fair in March 1989 and changed it to Steve’s Park Diner.
Under the Dows’ stewardship, the restaurant in downtown Middlebury has become a fixture for multiple facets of the Middlebury community, serving typical diner fare that has included maple syrup made from trees tapped in the Dows’ own sugarbush.
“It’s a gathering place for anybody and everybody,” Steve Dow said. “From college presidents to construction workers, it appeals to everyone.”
The first year he ran the restaurant, Dow advertised an early breakfast before Middlebury College’s commencement at 5 a.m. Dow and the staff served more than 200 breakfasts that morning. The following year, they served 500 and the president picked up the tab.
Steve’s has also gained popularity with the Middlebury Union High School football team, which eats a breakfast there on Friday mornings before games, with Dow buying the team the breakfast before their last home game of the season. The tradition borders on superstition; when the team ate at a different local restaurant (Dow won’t name which), they lost. At the end of every season, the team presents him with a hat. He still has all of them after 10 seasons.
Dow says he can’t think of any other restaurant with a similar relationship with the town.
“I like to think this was something special,” he said, and credits the staff, many of whom have been with the restaurant almost since 1989.
“It’s a family business,” he said. “And the people that work there have been with me a long time. They treat me like family and they treat the customers the same way.”
Since suffering an injury in a fall three years ago that affected his ability to stand for long periods of time at the order window, Steve Dow said his energy level has been waning. The time to sell, he said, just felt right.
The restaurant now goes to Caetlin Harwood and Carl Roesch, a West Addison couple with experience in restaurants in Vermont and around the world. Roesch, originally from South Africa, has worked in restaurants all over the world and for the past six years was the manager for 51 Main. Harwood, who is originally from Addison, has worked in a number of local restaurants including American Flatbread and Tourterelle in New Haven, and managed 3 Squares Café in Vergennes for two years.
Harwood, 28, and Roesch, 39, met while working at the Basin Harbor Club. The two previously worked at the Red Mill Inn there and in the winters would travel to Utah to work at Snowbird Ski Resort.
The new owners plan few changes to the diner. Harwood said the only changes planned are a new coat of paint and a new name. The diner currently is accepting suggestions for a new name, and on April 30 the couple will announce the establishment’s new moniker. The winning author will receive a $200 gift certificate. Harwood said the diner will continue to offer much of the same menu and hours but will begin to feature more locally produced ingredients.
Harwood said they’re excited to get started.
“It’s always been a dream of ours to own our own restaurant,” Harwood said. “It’s a great location in a great community and we’re excited to finally own a family-based restaurant.”
As for the traditions, like Middlebury College senior and MUHS Tigers breakfasts, Harwood says they’ll wait and see.
“We’re learning about these things as we go from the staff, who have been here for many years,” Harwood said. “If it works for the restaurant and the community is supporting these events, then I see no reason to stop, ” she said.
Dow said he’s confident the restaurant is in good hands.
“They’re eager and with the staff around them, they should do well,” he said. “They’ll be a good fit for the town.”