By Curt Peterson
ECFiber and Brownsville Butcher and Pantry jointly hosted an open house on Friday, Jan. 18 that might be called “a match made in heaven.”
The occasion was ECFiber’s introduction of a new “internet café” within the former Brownsville General Store. West Windsor, of which Brownsville is a part, is one of 24 towns that are being geared up with ECFiber’s fiber optic broadband internet access. Patrons are invited to come for meals or just a beverage, and sit in the café using their hand-held device or laptop to access the Worldwide Web.
Broadband service in rural Vermont has been the promise of three successive gubernatorial administrations, and is considered key to attracting and retaining younger entrepreneurs and tech-dependent employees. ECFiber has assisted in making the broadband dream come true, at least for some Vermonters, Chairman Irving Thomae told The Mountain Times.
And the Brownsville Butcher and Pantry, a brand-new venue, seems appropriate for ECFiber’s third internet café roll-out.
Peter Varkonyi and Lauren Stevens met when Varkonyi was a chef in a Royalton restaurant, and Stevens delivered fresh produce from a local farm she managed.
“We became friends and discovered we had similar aspirations and passions,” Stevens said. “We were talking about starting a business together almost immediately.”
The couple started dating and their dream of a business partnership remained the focus of their relationship.
Stevens grew up in Granville, New York, not far from the Vermont border, and studied agriculture at SUNY Syracuse. Varkonyi is from the Washington, D.C. area and attended New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier. They live on Bible Hill Road in Brownsville.
Their new venture opened on Nov. 20. There is no sign – the store is well known to locals. The interior, however, is impressively updated and finished, and the menu includes traditional favorites as well as more adventurous choices.
Beer and wine are served and sold as package goods. There is a full butchery and delicatessen department.
An alliance of local residents, called Friends of the Brownsville General Store, owns the property – Varkonyi and Stevens have a five-year lease with the contractual opportunity of ultimately buying the store.
People sit at the counter or at tables, surfing or working on laptops or phones connecting Brownsville with the world via superfast ECFiber infrastructure.
The other two ECFiber internet cafes are at the South Royalton Market, and the Rochester Cafe and Country Store in Rochester.
Thomae says he feels ECFiber’s accomplishments have already made a vast difference in the lives of rural Vermonters. Eight years into operation, the organization’s network covers almost 700 miles in 21 towns and serves over 3,200 subscribers.
Fiber optic cable is much faster than DSL, which many Vermont internet access systems employ, according to Thomae.
“Young people would go out into the world and start on tech careers,” the former academic Thomae said, “then they came home to Vermont to face an impossible situation – no broadband access. It’s going to make a vast difference.”
The subscribers also own the company, Thomae said. Original financing came from individuals. Since their founding, ECFiber has been able to sell $22 million in revenue bonds, and they plan to issue $19 million more. The first bond paid off the original investors.
Thomae said 100 percent of the bond proceeds are invested in capital infrastructure.
The bonds are backed by revenue from subscribers, and are not “general obligation bonds,” Thomae said. The towns that allow ECFiber to install broadband access are not financially obligated in any way.
“Not one penny of tax money goes to ECFiber installation or operations,” he said.
Photo by Curt Peterson
Laura Stevens and Peter Varyonyi opened the Brownsville Butcher and Pantry in the former Brownsville Store Nov. 20.