Community at the heart of Little City food scene
VERGENNES — On any given day, Vergennes’ downtown is a postcard-perfect Vermont city. Community members and visitors peruse the shops for locally-made gifts, gather in City Park, and eat in one of the many restaurants.
The weekends often feature special events organized by community members themselves or by the local non-profit organization The Vergennes Partnership. Vergennes’ Main Street is a charming center, but it is also a striking illustration of the vitality of the city.
“[The Vergennes Partnership is] so good at putting things on that make for a rich community life and make people want to be here,” said Andrea Cousineau, a Vergennes native and the executive chef at the Vergennes Restaurant Group, who a month earlier had attended the Holiday Stroll with her three-year-old. “The town has definitely come a long way, and that’s due to a lot of consistent work by a lot of amazing community members.”
Though it’s the smallest city in Vermont (maybe in the whole country), Vergennes has the rich culture of a much bigger place, particularly in its food scene.
Cousineau is one of a handful of restaurateurs who have established themselves in the city, creating what’s become a robust culinary group. With favorites like Black Sheep Bistro, Park Squeeze, Bar Antidote, Hired Hand Brewing, Vergennes Laundry, and 3 Squares Café, the city draws diners from throughout the region. And with the addition of lu•lu in 2018, and Good Day Cafe this past fall the group is growing.
“There are so many young adults who are moving out of Burlington to this area,” said Laura Mack, owner of lu•lu, the ice cream shop and cafe on Main Street. “It’s like the Brooklyn of Addison County.”
For Andrea Cousineau and Dickie Austin, business partners at the Vergennes Restaurant Group (which includes Black Sheep Bistro, Park Squeeze, and Bearded Frog in Shelburne), much of the city’s current buzz can be traced back to the late restaurateur Michel Mahe.
Mahe, who was from Brittany, France, and New York City, moved to Vermont in 1999 and opened the Starry Night Cafe in Ferrisburgh. “I started there when I was 17 years old, working as a dishwasher,” said Cousineau. “I worked with him there for about two years before he split with his business partner, and then he opened the Black Sheep Bistro in Vergennes.”
With the opening of Black Sheep, something began to shift in the city. “Black Sheep was exactly what it’s named; after their partnership dissolved, [Michel] felt slightly outcast in this space but had fallen in love with Vermont, so he decided he was just going to open his place and do his thing.”
Cousineau, who is now the executive chef, credits Mahe for igniting her passion for cooking: “I fell in love with the kitchen, and kind of hitched my star to his star. So when he opened Black Sheep, I was the sous chef there until I went to culinary school at [the New England Culinary Institute].”
By the time she started at Black Sheep, Dickie Austin was already working as front of house manager. In an effort to get people to return calls, Austin began calling himself General Manager ― and when Mahe overheard him, he gave him the title and the accompanying responsibilities.
Together with Mahe, Cousineau and Austin became central to the evolving culinary scene in Addison County. “Given Michel’s want to take on all projects, the opportunity presented itself to create the restaurant in Middlebury, The Lobby,” Austin said. “We hit a construction roadblock that meant that the renovation project in Middlebury was going to have to sit still for a minute ― and it was around that time that [Mahe] was contacted by the owners of the [Park Squeeze] building. So he came to us saying, ‘Yeah, we’re going to open a restaurant in the middle of opening a restaurant.’ Which was insane.”
But they proceeded. In a period of 10 years, Austin and Cousineau were involved in 13 restaurant openings alongside Mahe.
The same year Mahe moved to Vermont, the Vergennes Partnership was founded. At the time, the Little City was in an economic slump, and many of its public buildings were in need of rehabilitation. The Vergennes Partnership set to work revitalizing and preserving the city’s downtown, focusing on the growth of community, commerce and culture.
For Laura Mack, the organization was a big reason why she set up shop in Vergennes. After learning in 2017 that she’d have to leave her space in Bristol, she looked for somewhere to lay down new roots. And as luck would have it, she did a pop-up in Vergennes around the same time. “I met some really cool Vergennes people. It was so energetic talking to them ― it’s such a vibrant community, and they were super involved.”
Mack cast her net to Burlington, Winooski and Middlebury, but she kept coming back to Vergennes. “The one thing about Vergennes was that the Vergennes Partnership literally emailed me every day with people I could contact about renting a space,” she said. “Unlike any other town or city, they sat me down and asked me, ‘What do you want to see in your space? How much space do you need?’ I joke that I was courted by Vergennes.”
In the end, she found a storefront on Main Street and the choice was clear. “Nothing feels better than being wanted in a community, and that’s really what [the Vergennes Partnership] did.”
Since opening in May 2018, lu•lu has not only become the go-to place for homemade ice cream in town, but it’s also grown into a space for community-building. With high ceilings and an open floor plan, the shop is ideal for gatherings and events, like the recent wreath- and centerpiece-making workshops. As Mack put it, “Why not use our space and excitement for more than just ice cream?”
That sentiment is shared by other business owners in the city, like Ian Huizenga, a Vermont native and owner of both Bar Antidote and Hired Hand Brewing Co., steps off Main Street at 35 Green St. At Bar Antidote, weekly live music performances create the ideal environment for friends to casually get together over a meal, a craft cocktail, or local beer.
Huizenga’s businesses have also grown to accommodate the community’s appreciation for locally-sourced food. “When we started, we didn’t really have a lot of local stuff on the menu, and it was really price-point driven,” he said. “But then we started doing a local burger of the week, and that was our number two or three seller straight out of the gate. Then we started sourcing more and more of our ingredients locally, and the community supported it more and more; now year-round we average right around 50 percent locally-sourced food, and that doesn’t even include the beer, which is all out of Addison County.”
It’s the same at lu•lu. All of the dairy comes from Monument Farms just 10 miles away in Weybridge, as Mack pioneers what she calls her “farm to spoon” vision for ice cream.
That a city as small as Vergennes is able to sustain so many restaurants comes down to community support.
“It’s a really symbiotic relationship ― our community really gives us a lot of creative space,” Cousineau said. “They trust us and are willing to try things that we put out there. We have our standard dishes, but any time we put out something new or different or interesting, people come and try it. That interest in food and that willingness to give us the benefit of the doubt keeps everyone creative, and keeps the businesses open.”
That creativity shines through with events like the annual Eat on the Green, a project spearheaded by Cousineau, Austin, Huizenga, and Matthew Birong of 3 Squares Cafe. The event was born from a kind of chili fest, but, with the help of the Vergennes Partnership, morphed into a fundraiser for local non-profits.
And, because not every restaurant served chili, “we wanted to create an event that highlights and really showcases the incredible diversity of talent that is concentrated in this little area,” Cousineau said.
The result is a fall food and music festival that brings the community together in City Park. Though the proceeds from food sales go to the non-profits, the gathering is free to attend.
“I was really adamant about having it be free to come into the space,” said Cousineau. “I wanted everyone in this community to be able to take part. I think that that overarching concept is what makes Vergennes so great; that sentiment is carried through in everything people do and are involved in.”