Planning an August holiday with Jane, the pampered Pug, I entered “dog-friendly accommodations, Northeast Kingdom, Vermont” in Google search.
Instantly the Phineas Swann Bed & Breakfast Inn in Montgomery Center appeared on my screen. And this was a happy bit of serendipity if ever there was one.
Indeed the Phineas Swann is truly dog-friendly, but it is also well-run, welcoming, and pretty. Presided over by Tennessean Darren Drevik and his delightful wife, the former Lynne Esack, a Katonah, New York, native, the Inn is first-rate. I was curious, however, how this couple found themselves involved in the hospitality business in a remote corner of a remote section of New England. Herewith, Darren’s story.
Bob Newhart is a liar.
Not the actor, mind you, but the character and situations he portrayed for eight seasons in the 1980s in his CBS-TV series Newhart.
Inn-keeping is nothing like it is portrayed on that TV series or in movies like Holiday Inn. It’s not standing at a desk and watching the world go by. It’s not pleasantly puttering at writing or fishing while guests come and go.
It’s actually much more difficult—and much more interesting.
Three years ago my wife Lynne and I decided that while we loved the energy of our Upper West Side neighborhood in New York, it was gradually but quite effectively bankrupting us. Unlike the frog unaware it is slowly being cooked by a warming pot, we saw our bank balances trickling downward slightly each month and decided it was time for a life-changing event. After twenty years in the workaday world, it was time for both of us to do something radical.
A vacation to a Vermont bed-and-breakfast provided the impetus and we joined the long list of those who have fantasized about owning a quaint B&B. But unlike most, we followed through. We actually bought the Phineas Swann Bed & Breakfast Inn in northernmost Vermont, just five miles from the Canadian border. So if you’re one of those who never turned your daydream into a reality, or who still think about it, here’s our tale.
To begin with, finding a B&B is easy. Buying one is hard.
If you’re fortunate enough to be able to pay cash for one, buying a B&B or country inn is a cinch. There are hundreds available at any given time. You’ll find two types of sellers: either those who’ve run one for a decade or two and are ready to retire, or those poor souls who bought into the fantasy without realizing the hard work and effort required to keep a B&B operating.
Should you need to finance your purchase, things can be more difficult. Banks are loathe to invest in the tourism and hospitality sectors, so you’ll need to find local bankers with the gumption to support a local business. Lynne and I went through seven banks and were weeks away from closings with two of them before we finally found the right financial institution willing to provide us with the modest 50 percent of the purchase price required. From contract to closing, buying our B&B took ten months.
Secondly, never forget that hospitality isn’t an industry; it’s a calling.
One of the twenty-eight B&Bs we considered before buying was owned by a charming woman in her fifties who had only owned her New Hampshire B&B for two years. Her circumstances had changed, and she’d quickly shifted from buyer to seller of her seven-room Victorian. Why, we wondered.
“I don’t like people.”
I cannot imagine an industry more unsuited to anyone who “doesn’t like people.” You have to like people to be willing to welcome more than two thousand of them a year to sleep under your roof, cook them breakfast, help them with their varying and eclectic needs, and listen to the stories of their lives. To be an innkeeper is to be a chef, a psychologist, a tour guide, a confessor, a plumber, a priest, a gardener, and a cheerleader. One cannot have a big head to be an innkeeper, and yet there is no head big enough for all the hats you must wear.
Inn-keeping is work. For every glorious moment you spend in an apron making muffins, there are twenty where you’re shoveling gravel for the driveway, unclogging a toilet, painting the side of your house, or answering endless phone calls.
If you want to run a B&B, you might want to first come to grips with hospitality from this author’s perspective: every human being is a book. Their covers vary and each story is unique, but you have to be willing to turn the pages and discover each story. Some will be uninteresting, certainly, but most people have a tale to tell if you turn enough pages.
Third, always remember that good ingredients trump good intentions.
When it comes to the food you prepare at your bed-and-breakfast, oftentimes less is more. Like many, we entered the Phineas Swann complete with more than three dozen cookbooks and endless notebooks of recipes. But within two months, we realized that the simple meals were the most popular and, indeed, the ones most beloved.
People come to Vermont for basic, high-carb comfort food at breakfast. We add our touches to make our meals our own, but consider the simplicity of the breakfast menu offerings that rotate each day: blackberry-stuffed French toast; apple waffles; crepes with Canadian bacon and Vermont cheddar cheese; blueberry pancakes. Our bacon is locally smoked with corn cobs, and the sausage comes from twelve miles away. It’s the local ingredients that provide the flavor, not any classical technique of preparation, or even the small spices and touches we add. Even our most pretentious offering, eggs Benedict prepared from scratch, is appreciated not because of the delicate touches of Tabasco, but because the eggs are from a farm just down the road. Good ingredients obtained locally and served fresh make a chef’s job easy. The difficulty is sometimes putting ego out of the way and letting the ingredients do the talking.
Fourth, be prepared to rediscover the art of conversation.
We’ve all read treatises bemoaning this lost art but one of the joys of this job is that the art is not lost. If you follow your fantasy of opening a country inn, you’ll undoubtedly find that the art is simply moribund from lack of use. We’ve enjoyed many a “salon” in our B&B’s fireplace room with guests from all backgrounds, age groups, experiences, and homelands, and the conversations are usually lively and thoughtful. Indeed this is one of the many areas where staying at a B&B or inn supersedes the experiences of hotel stays. You are welcome to enjoy your stay by yourself, dine alone, and revel in your privacy but, alternatively, you can interact with other guests. You can step out of your comfort zone and perhaps gain a broadening experience.
If owning a bed-and-breakfast should become a reality, take care to buy one in a town you could see yourself really loving. Lynne and I were lucky enough to find our town. Vermont is the way the United States used to be, and Montgomery Center is the way Vermont used to be. We live in a part of Vermont populated with geographic character and human characters. The town hosted a commune for much of the early ’70s, and that free spirit—and a few of the hippie residents—never left.
We host a burgeoning artists’ colony, and certainly a larger per capita share of writers, painters, craftsmen, and poets than in today’s Greenwich Village. Where else could you have a discussion of John Keats interrupted by a moose walking down the center of Main Street? And, indeed, where else could you debate David Bowie’s musical influences while skiing down the face of a mountain?
So, if you are daydreaming about being an innkeeper, about starting a new chapter, go for it. But trust me about what it involves.