By Katherine Lazarus & Angelo Lynn
BRANDON — After 17 years of long days in the kitchen and seven-day work weeks, Chef Robert Barral and Line Barral have opted to list their marquee restaurant, bakery and associated building for sale. Chef Robert, who just turned 68 last week, and Line, 65, said the business is doing extremely well and they’re in no hurry to sell but want to get the process started.
“We’re not in a rush. We understand it will be a long process and we want to find the right people to take it over,” Chef Robert said. “We want people to come here and live the Vermont dream like we did, to hike and ski and to be part of a wonderful community.”
Despite the two months the restaurant was closed during the pandemic between mid-March and mid-May of 2020, Chef Robert said business had remained good through last summer and their hope would be to keep the restaurant strong for the community.
“The business is doing better than ever,” he said, explaining it’s in great shape for a new owner to come in, take over operations and put their own spin on the organization. “It’s not broken so why change it,” he said, but also suggested there is always room for improvement, hoping the next people “will take it to the next level and make it an even better place than ever.”
Citing some of the strengths of the restaurant, Barral noted that Brandon’s excellent water and the restaurant’s downstairs entertainment space create the possibility of adding an in-house brewery. They also noted Brandon’s steadfast community support.
“We’ll always be thankful to Brandon for the support. There’s a great community here. We knew everybody,” he said, recalling that “most Friday nights there would be regular supporters who would come into the restaurant, sit at the bar in front of the open kitchen area, and talk to us while we were cooking… And we had many loyal customers who came in each week right through the worst of Brandon’s two years of road construction and the pandemic just to make sure we were OK and were going to make it, even though they spent 20 minutes waiting in line through the downtown.”
Chef Robert started the business in 2005, never having run a business before and uncertain how to go about doing it.
“I had always worked for big organizations, then all of a sudden to end up in a small place like this where we were in charge of everything was something else. I was always in charge of the kitchens [at previous restaurants], but I was not in charge of the buying or the front of the house, so it was a different world because on top of that you still have to cook.”
In addition to the restaurant, the couple started Café Provence Bakery about 10 months after opening the restaurant. Line Barral ran the bakery, which not only is a separate breakfast venue, but bakes all the breads and desserts for the restaurant, plus buys the wine for the store and the restaurant. The bakery has been a profitable part of the venture, the couple said, and has allowed Line to focus on that aspect of the business as well as doing the books for the bakery and the restaurant, the cooking school and the other various aspects of the business.
“Cooking is great,” Chef Robert explained of his current priorities and the larger scope of the business, “but it’s not my primary job here, which is to make sure everything is going well. The cooking is there and needs to be done with all the rest on top of it… I knew it when we first came it would be busy, but we’ve been working seven days a week for much of the past 17 years. I want now to relax.”
While they divorced several years ago, the couple has maintained a close relationship as working partners in the business and currently have plans to go camping across parts of the country when that opportunity arises.
In the beginning
Before opening the restaurant in the summer of 2005, Barral had an exciting career. His career started at a culinary school in Montpellier, France, and a hotel school in Lesdiguieres, Grenoble, France. After graduating he trained at the Hotel Alban Ambassador in Basel, Switzerland, then returned to France to work at the four-star Chateau de Divonne-les-Bains and the Terminus Saint Lazare in Paris.
Leaving Europe in 1976, he worked for the Four Seasons Hotel in Montreal, then was moved to open a new Four Seasons restaurant in Edmonton, Alberta. Following that he worked as executive sous chef at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago in 1980; and was transferred to Boston in 1985 to open a Four Seasons there, where he served as executive chef.
Chef Robert moved to Vermont to be a part of the faculty at New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier in 1987, and was promoted to executive chef in 1989. From April 1993 to April 1995, he was corporate executive chef for NECI.
He took the job in Vermont, he said, because “the opportunity was there, and I felt teaching was good for me.”
For 16 years, he was, “teaching the teachers, evaluating their performance and the quality of the food that the students were making, and making sure the students were getting a good education in the process.”
He left NECI in 1995 to become the corporate executive chef on the Celebrity Cruise Line. He oversaw that operation and worked on the Horizon, Zenith, Meridien and M/V Century.
But Vermont beckoned, and in 1997 Chef Robert returned to NECI as chef of special events, including executive chef of food operations in Chittenden County involving the Inn at Essex and NECI Commons, where he remained for eight years until he opened Café Provence in 2005.
When the Barrals decided to leave NECI and open a restaurant in Brandon, it was a surprise to almost everyone. On the sly, the couple had been looking for a place to start a restaurant, ruling out places in Burlington, Middlebury and other locations before learning of a new building in Brandon that had recently been built by McKernon Construction. At the time, they recalled, they had never heard of Brandon.
But they visited the town, talked to a few locals and met Buzz Racine, then the town’s economic development director.
“We asked people in town what they thought [about us opening a restaurant] and we talked to Buzz Racine who was extremely helpful,” Line recalled.
“We keep great memories of all the effort and encouragement he gave us to come here,” Chef Robert added, “even when we once got a little discouraged, he kept coming up with suggestions and ways to make things work.”
Not too many months later, they made their announcement and the move, which in retrospect helped jump start a resurgence in Brandon’s downtown.
For its part, Café Provence had an outstanding start.
“When we opened the first day, we did 150 people for lunch and 150 people for dinner,” Chef Robert recalled. “A lot of people became regular customers who still come today regularly and remind us that they were there on opening day.”
Seventeen years later, the restaurant’s radius of loyal customers reaches from Burlington to Bennington, Killington to the Adirondacks with many regular patrons who hail from all over the country, including a loyal following from the Lake Dunmore area each summer.
At peak season, Line said, they have typically hired around 52 employees at the restaurant, downstairs teaching cooking classes and pub, and at Gourmet, and steadily employ the equivalent of 25-30 full-time people including three or four cooks for lunch and four for dinner, and six for the bakery.
Of their strengths, Chef Robert noted that diversifying into more than just being a restaurant has been key.
“We look for something to do on our slow days and times, like cooking classes when we might have one or two buses of people that come in to take a cooking class and dine with us,” he said of a vibrant business plan that rarely sees a dull moment. Their cooking school often offers weekly classes in the downstairs space, which also serves as a meeting room for local and statewide events.
He also noted that he and Line have always communicated well on business affairs, adding that “Line is always looking for something interesting” in her position as buyer for the bakery and store, as well as wines for the restaurant.
Today, as the Barrals look to sell their well-heeled operation, their 7,000-square-foot restaurant has a new roof, a brand new awning that has doubled their outdoor seating area, new carpet and other renovations made possible by Covid restaurant grants that Line secured. They’re hopeful they’ll find a buyer who enjoys the business and the town as much as they have.
“We’ll always be thankful to Brandon for the support,” said Chef Robert, who plans to go camping across the country in his retirement and maybe even write a book about his culinary experiences.
“I never spend a moment on a regret,” Chef Robert said, when asked if he had any. “Brandon was the right place [to have a restaurant] and it’s a great community.”
Owning a restaurant and being a chef, he said in a moment of reflection, “is not for everyone, but it is really rewarding. I’d do it all over again and I wouldn’t change a thing.”