Where There’s Smokejacks, There’s Fire...
The real story behind the closing of a popular Burlington restaurant
When Smokejacks opened in 1997, Burlington eaters rejoiced. Owners Leslie Myers and Don Kolp, both formerly of NECI, committed to purchasing produce from Vermont farmers, and served up an artful selection of artisan cheeses that delighted patrons’ palates. The eatery, which eventually became Myers’ sole property under the corporate name Foodsense, Inc., was “localvore” before there was a word for it.
But last Monday, the restaurant closed unexpectedly — and for good — shocking patrons, purveyors and staffers. Passers-by learned of the restaurant’s demise from two big “For Lease” signs in the windows. Inside, the tables and chairs were arranged as though the restaurant might just open for dinner.
In an October 2 Burlington Free Press article, Myers attributed the biz’s demise to the faltering economy and a peak-season, 2007 fire that shuttered the eatery for two months. “Customers are tightening down,” Myers told Free Press food writer Melissa Pasanen. “We tried to make it work, but you can’t charge $30 for an entrée in a restaurant without a tablecloth . . . “
Her sister, Susan Huling, had been running the restaurant since Myers moved to Las Vegas last spring. For the record, Huling told Pasanen: “I’m proud that we were able to pay off all the local farmers and give our staff final paychecks.”
But the real story of the eatery’s undoing is much more complicated than the Free Press report suggests, according to Smokejacks vendors and employees — and Myers herself. Floral Artistry owner Alison Ellis delivered flower arrangements to the resto for three-and-a-half years. As of press time, she hasn’t received a final payment. “I was in contact with the manager who tried to get me a check, but it is still unresolved,” she explains. She declined to say how much the restaurant owes her.
Like many in the local food world, Ellis was especially alarmed to learn that a popular restaurant like Smokejacks could have fallen prey to a faltering economy. But the restaurant’s landlord, Larry Bohen of Richmond, isn’t buying that explanation. “What I’m hearing from the media is that the business failed because of the downturn in the economy, a change in consumer spending habits, and somebody even suggested high rents on the marketplace. What has been reported so far is not completely accurate.”
The truth is, Burlington’s bar and restaurant business is booming. “We’re blessed by healthy local traffic, which continues,” says Church Street Marketplace Executive Director Ron Redmond. “Given current circumstances, we’ve had a very strong season.”
Case in point: Just one brick-lined block up the street from Smokejacks, Leunig’s Bistro has “had the best summer . . . since we opened,” General Manager Bob Conlon enthuses. “I’m serving 500 people a day.” He attributes his restaurant’s success to aggressive advertising and a willingness to offer up coupons and deals.
On a Monday night, Kathi Cleary at L’Amante — one of Burlington’s fine-dining locales — was so busy that she didn’t have time to chat. Asked how the restaurant is doing, she responded, “We have a full house, if that’s any indication.”
Even in Richmond, where the downtown bridge has been closed for more than a month, upscale eateries are thriving. According to Kitchen Table Bistro bartender Andy Bard, “We have been way up. Things have been really, really good for us.” Like Smokejacks, the restaurant is known for its long list of local suppliers. Entrées top out at $34.
Coincidentally, when Smokejacks opened in 1997, Bard was the general manager. He concedes that the KTB has some advantages over Smokejacks: With four dining rooms and a function room, it’s able to handle a large number of corporate accounts; and owners Steve and Lara Atkins are building equity with their mortgage payments, unlike Myers, who rented.
When pressed, Myers admits the Free Press article was incomplete. “What I said to Melissa was that we had liabilities we couldn’t overcome. That’s kind of the encapsulated version.” What else was going on? “I’ve gone through a lot personally over the last few years that has affected me professionally. I checked out mentally from that restaurant for personal reasons.”
According to public records, Smokejacks’ money problems go back at least as far as 2001, when the State of Vermont executed its first tax lien against the business. Three more followed, in 2002, 2003 and 2008. The IRS came knocking in 2006, 2007 and 2008. How much did the restaurant owe? The “unpaid balance of assessment” on the most recent federal tax lien, dated July 31, 2008, was $17,657.57. The state’s was even larger: $32,465.16, filed on April 23, 2008.
Meanwhile, in 2002, Myers took up a hobby that was both time-consuming and expensive: competing in triathlons. As Smokejacks dug itself deeper and deeper into a hole, she spent more and more time training and traveling. And winning: In October 2005, she was named the “fittest CEO in the world” among women competing in the CEO Ironman Challenge World Championship in Hawaii.
While some of her employees blamed the sport for Myers’ increasing inattention, Myers saw it as a healthy way of coping with her problems. “It’s a terrific outlet for stress,” she says of athletics in general. She claims that she didn’t avoid the restaurant because she was swimming and biking, but that she was already trying to shut out her worries by not going to work, and the exercise was a welcome distraction.
Myers suggests freedom exacerbated the problem. “When you’re a business owner,” she muses, “unfortunately you’ve got the option of going to work or not. I had a lot of stuff going on in my personal life . . . The last couple years it’s been really tough.”
As is the case in many restaurant “families,” neither the money problems nor the personal issues were a secret from the staff. According to Bar Manager Rya Kaiding, “We owed the IRS a ton of money, and we couldn’t dig ourselves out. We were paying off as much as we could, and we were getting the vendors paid off and getting in their good graces, but we couldn’t keep up with the taxes.”
Former employee Stacey Daley says the eatery suffered as a result of Myers’ absence. “She wasn’t present in the restaurant very often,” Daley recalls. At one point, “We only had five red-wine glasses to work with, and were scrambling around every time a table ordered a bottle.”
When the fire decimated parts of the building last year, the biz lacked “proper insurance,” Myers confesses.
In addition to the liens and lack of supplies, getting behind on municipal bills complicated procedures that should have been simple, such as renewing the resto’s liquor license. “In the past there were issues for non-payment of city taxes or fees,” Burlington City Councilor Clarence Davis remembers. “This is my third year on the council, and it has happened more than once.”
Landlord Bohen says the restaurant always paid its rent. But the employees weren’t always so lucky. Daley noted that checks for staffers and vendors would sometimes bounce. “It happened to me once,” she recalls. Another employee, who declined to be named, experienced the same thing. “There were a few bounced checks over the years,” she discloses, “but mine didn’t bounce as much as other people’s.”
Myers didn’t delve into specifics, but she acknowledged that there wasn’t always enough money in the bank. “I think there have been times that checks have bounced . . . When things are starting to get tough, that’s going to happen.” Since her sister took over the restaurant, she says she hasn’t been privy to those details.
Even though the cash flow could be turbulent at Smokejacks, many vendors were proud to be on its list of local suppliers, including Mara and Spencer Welton of the Intervale’s Half Pint Farm. Mara praises the string of chefs who ran the kitchen at Smokejacks. “We always felt extremely fortunate that every single one of them was willing to do business with a very small farm,” she remarks. But she also acknowledges that early on in the business relationship, Half Pint’s payments occasionally fell by the wayside.
“Part of it was that being a small vendor, we did a lot of things by hand. Our tracking system wasn’t as good as it should have been,” she admits. In recent years, though, the Weltons haven’t had any problems. “I always got a check, and we’re all caught up currently.”
But others had to take more drastic measures. Black River Produce of North Springfield, which delivers “organic produce . . . seafood, dairy, meats and other specialty products,” according to its catalogue, eventually stopped bringing the goods to Smokejacks unless the resto could pay cash on delivery. CFO Rolly Delfausse confirmed, “It was a struggle for them paying us . . . within their terms. It’s been a struggle for a little while.”
Former employees, and Myers herself, would admit that “struggle” has been an apt word for the recent Smokejacks experience. The irony is that customers were still flocking there. They had no idea anything was amiss as they sipped Kaiding’s fancy martinis and dug into the famous “Seared Yellow Fin Tuna.”
“Busy is a perception,” Myers says dryly. “It’s not what you make, it’s what you keep.”
“I’ll miss the creativity . . . they did quite amazing things with our produce,” Welton says with a sigh. In addition, she notes, “It was such a package deal. You could go there and have local, local, local everything. It was creative. It had a nice atmosphere, and the art just accentuated the experience . . . Pretty darn good service, also.”
Alison Ellis, who sometimes bartered her flower-arranging services for meals, says, “I’m almost more upset about the food than about the money.” The UVM alum, who came to the area in the late ‘90s, says, “I can’t remember Smokejacks not being here.”
Is the restaurant’s passing an indication of impending economic doom? Is it a canary in the culinary coalmine? Not according to Rob Litch, the owner of Misty Knoll Farms, which supplied Smokejacks with free-range chickens. “The majority of the restaurants we work with on a regular basis . . . have remained constant or gone up. I don’t think good food is suffering,” Litch muses. “I’d argue that local food sales are increasing throughout the state. The food economy is safe and vibrant. We’re in New England, and I think we’re less affected by the upswings and the downswings.”
But regardless of how bright the future looks, it won’t bring Smokejacks back. Bohen is in the process of seeking a suitable replacement. “My goal is to get a restaurant in here that is going to be better than what Smokejacks was. I’m talking to some of the best chef-owners in the area,” he notes. When one of his interviewees asked what he’s looking for in a tenant, he responded: “I want a tenant I can be proud of . . . who has a proven track record and integrity, and is a good businessperson.”
On that last requirement, Myers appears to have fallen short. Reflecting on the restaurant’s final hours, she talks tough: “These things are never pretty, and if people don’t really feel all warm and fuzzy at the end, it’s unfortunate.” Softening, she continues, “I think that the mistake I made was, I became not a hands-on operator because of things going on in other aspects of my life, and I always hoped we could recover, but it didn’t go that way . . . I’m sorry people’s feelings were hurt and about the way this turned out. I had really wonderful people who worked with me at Smokejacks, and I’m sorry I wasn’t able to overcome personal things that affected me and all of us professionally.”
The mourning for Smokejacks is widespread. “It’s too bad, we were lots of people’s favorite restaurant, mine included,” Kaiding laments. “I would go on my day off. I’m so sad that I’ll never be able to sit at the bar again. I had a lot of time and love invested in the place.”