AIDAN ACOSTA/ THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS
MIDDLEBURY – Nearly one year to the day after The Rough Cut arrived at 51 Main St. in downtown Middlebury, the BBQ joint announced its closure. The Rough Cut bid Main Street farewell with a goodbye party last Friday, Nov. 2 to celebrate its last plate of St. Louis Pork Ribs and its final heaping of fried pickles, serving drinks at sharply discounted prices throughout the evening. The self-described “neighborhood bar,” which prides itself on a large beer selection, live music and food with soul, revealed the send off on its Facebook page last week.
“We have some hard news. We’ve made the difficult decision to close,” the post read, continuing to express gratitude to patrons, employees, and the Middlebury community for their support.
Ben Wells, owner of the Marquis Theatre and now former owner of The Rough Cut told the Campus last year that he hoped to create a “positive, warm, energetic environment” for people to enjoy. An outpouring of support and words of regret at the restaurant’s closing via social media stand testament to The Rough Cut’s popularity amongst staff members and the community.
“I’ve never been more heartbroken to leave a place. Thank you Rough Cut for one of the best years of my restaurant life,” said Rebecca Hanleigh, one former employee, commenting on the Facebook farewell.
The team at the BBQ restaurant joins a growing list of small businesses and entrepreneurs in downtown Middlebury that have been forced to shutter their doors within the past year in the face of economic hardship.
The restaurant’s closing date coincides with the lease renewal date for the college-owned property at 51 Main. According to former employee Wynne Ebner ’19, the college let the space at a half-lease. Wells made the tough decision to close after realizing that he would not be able to afford the full lease and also “take care of everybody,” including employees and colleagues.
“I don’t really know what’s happening in Middlebury right now,” Ebner said. “There’ve been definitely days or weeks where it’s been busier — like parents weekend for example. But for the most part … it’s just slow,” she said, describing her experience at The Rough Cut the past couple of months.
“If I knew the answer to why [The Rough Cut] didn’t work out then I’d like to think I would’ve changed it,” Wells said. However, of his working relationship with the college, Wells had only good things to say: “The administration has been incredibly supportive and really went above and beyond in terms of putting us in the best possible position to succeed.”
The college and the town, Wells believes, are inextricably linked, each supporting the other. For that reason he is concerned, like many others, about the “vitality and vibrancy of Main Street.” This is why, he explained, he invested in bringing new and fresh energy to town with the mechanical bull, music stage and other efforts at The Rough Cut.
While succeeding may appear increasingly challenging in light of the turnover of shops and restaurants, Wells believes that not all of the economic hardship can be attributed to contemporary issues, explaining that Middlebury has been “dealing with an awkward downtown layout since time immemorial.”
Despite the challenges residents, students, the administration and business owners will face during Middlebury’s current period of economic hardship, Wells remains optimistic and heartened by the community’s strength.
“Middlebury is still going to be here. We’re all going to be here next year and in five years,” he said, adding that the detrimental effect of the rail bridge construction project is temporary. “And that’s one area that is such a positive relationship with the college and the town: neither of us are going anywhere.”
College students and residents in search of the Southern comfort food, live performances from local musicians and a casual place to watch the game that The Rough Cut offered will now have to turn elsewhere. However, these closures do not mean that Downtown has to become obsolete. Wells believes we all can and should make an effort to revive it.
“The Rough Cut was a lot of fun. It was a lot of hard work. The restaurant industry in general is pretty tough, pretty challenging [and] pretty relentless,” Wells reflected. “Our experience was all of that. We did the best we could.”
If Wells and his team at The Rough Cut did the best they could, he encourages students to do the best that they can do as well.
“I think everybody who lives here — and students are one segment of the community — needs to support local business and support the downtown,” he said. “It makes a real difference in how we all can create the world we want to live in.”