College-Owned 51 Main Closes Its Doors


Emma Stapleton/The Middlebury Campus

51 Main, the college-owned restaurant located on Main Street in the heart of downtown Middlebury, has closed permanently.


After nine years of business, 51 Main has closed its doors for the last time as Middlebury welcomes The Rough Cut to the iconic space this fall. Ben Wells, a local restaurateur and former Middlebury College Men’s Rugby coach, will be leading this venture along with a small partnership group.

“We really wanted ownership of whatever took over the 51 Main space to be local,” Dave Donahue, special assistant to the President and director of community relations, said in an e-mail. The Rough Cut will be privately owned and the College will retain no control over it.

Leading up to the closure, 51 Main had been losing money for years. “We’ve tried different approaches to try to improve the bottom line but we haven’t been successful,” Donahue said. “At the same time student interest in 51 Main has ebbed and flowed over the years.” In the last year, employees had also began to notice the restaurant’s decline.

“At first it seemed like there were a lot of students but then it started to not be a ton of people,” former bartender and waiter Alex Hogenhuis ’19 said.

Another student who worked at 51 Main, who wishes to remain anonymous due to employment retribution, also saw the decline in customers.

“There weren’t very many people coming in, except for Tuesdays or when there was a popular band coming in,” they stated in an interview. “There were days when only maybe 20 people walked through the door.”

The student also cited poor business practices as a main reason for the restaurant’s decline.

“It’s a very formal environment, and we served very fancy food, and college students just want burgers and beer. We should’ve just served that, but the head staff was very against that idea,” the student confessed.

On top of these criticisms, they mentioned that bands often cost more than the restaurant would generate in revenue in a given night. According to this student, the managerial staff’s resistance to changing the identity of the restaurant ultimately led to the restaurant’s demise.

“It was like they saw problems but never tried to fix anything,” the student insisted.

Wells hopes to attract a wider variety of people by changing the composition and identity of the restaurant.

“We hope to appeal to a wide cross-section of the community with great service, great food, great drinks and a great experience for everyone,” Wells stated in an e-mail.

Contrary to 51 Main, The Rough Cut will focus on serving barbecue and southern comfort food. It will still feature a bar, but its focus will shift specifically to specializing in bourbon and whiskey cocktails.

“The idea behind the look is that it will be like going to an outdoor barbecue – very relaxed, warm and comfortable,” Wells explained.

In addition to a change in the food, the restaurant will also have a new spatial layout to accommodate a larger kitchen and a mechanical bull.

“It will be a totally different restaurant and business than 51 Main was,” Wells insisted.

Despite the change in ownership, the College hopes to continue its affiliation with the space.

“We have discussed programming to attract students with the new ownership group and they are very interested in this kind of collaboration,” Donahue said.

Both the school, and the partnership, view the space underneath the restaurant as holding great potential for student programming and events.