Slow Business Forces Farmers Diner to Close

By Middlebury Campus

The Farmers Diner in Marble Works closed its doors for the last time on Feb. 14, a few months shy of its second anniversary, for the reason that worries most small businesses.

“We just didn’t make enough money,” said Tod Murphy, co-owner of the diner. “It was totally a bottom-line decision.”

Murphy and other co-owner Denise Perras opened the Middlebury diner in June 2009 following the success of their diner by the same name in Queechee, Vt., which opened in 2006. Unlike the Queechee location, the Middlebury Farmers Diner never quite got off the ground. Murphy and Perras selected Middlebury as a community that already “got it” — a community that already understood the importance of local agriculture and sustainable eating habits, two of the reasons the Farmers Diner spends up to 83 cents of every dollar on local ingredients. But local ingredients cost a little more.

“It’s a tough economy, and I think people struggle to get their head around paying a dollar more for breakfast or lunch, even knowing that it translates to $1.50 or $2 into the pockets of Addison County farmers and other farmers in Vermont,” said Murphy.

As a new business some difficulties and adjustments were expected, but by the end of the diner’s first year in Middlebury, Murphy knew he and Perras would have to push to draw in more customers. They gave themselves six months from July 2010 “to make a go of it,” said Murphy.

“Looking at what happened in those six months, it was like, ‘Okay, this is not really tenable,’” said Murphy.

Murphy had some savings, and he and Perras wanted to give the diner one last shot for the month of January. The diner did comparatively well for that month, but Murphy realized that the month’s success was mainly due to two events the College hosted at the diner.

“I saw that it was just College events moving the needle and we hadn’t really picked up any traction in the broader community,” said Murphy. “[Students] are going to go away in April for the summer, and we just can’t do it. We needed to have more traction with the local community, and I think it was hard for them to understand our message, or if they did they just didn’t respond to it. I think probably a little of both.”

As the only 24-hour option on weekends and an environmentally conscious business, the diner never struggled to draw in students or people affiliated with the College.

“To the College community we were doing a good job and people really loved us,” Murphy said. “The other group we seemed to have a lot of traction with was folks really interested in sustainable ag[riculture] … where we struggled was growing our customer base beyond those groups.”

The Marble Works location, tucked away from Middlebury’s main thoroughfares, made attracting new customers difficult, especially with other, cheaper dining options closer to the center of town.

“I think sometimes when we’re downtown in Middlebury, the College adds to this perception of affluence, but I don’t think that’s really the case as you go out of the downtown,” said Murphy. “It’s still a very agrarian, land-based economy for Addison [County] and it’s such a tough economy. People are value conscious, and when you have Rosie’s and Steve’s [Park Diner] around, it’s hard for people to get their head around $6 for breakfast instead of $5.”

Once Murphy and Perras made the final decision to close the diner, the process was quick without any elaborate goodbyes. They notified their staff and put the space up for lease, closing officially at the end of the day on Valentine’s Day.
“This was really a struggle,” said Murphy. “I don’t think anyone was surprised.”

Originally, the Middlebury Farmers Diner was to be the second of four potential diners throughout the state, but since 2009 Perras and Murphy have shifted their focus to more metropolitan areas like New York and the Bay Area in California.

“I’m kind of thinking Vermont’s got it figured out,” said Murphy. “The opportunity to really make changes is to go to places that don’t have it figured out.”

Murphy and Perras will keep the Queechee diner open as long as it has a steady flow of customers, and both of them are enthusiastic about new ventures in the Bay Area especially, but Murphy said he will miss the Middlebury diner.

“Denise [Perras] and I, we loved our interaction with the college kids, and it was really energizing,” said Murphy. “I know for me that’s the part I’m going to miss. I will miss the farmers that we saw, even the ones who weren’t suppliers who ate at the restaurant — that was great. It’s just a bummer for us and the people who understood what we were doing and the farmers who understood the opportunity that the Farmers Diner represents for the kinds of farms we want in terms of long-term sustainability and health for the planet. … At some point a healthy business doesn’t only do good things for the community. It has to pay its bills as well.”