By Curt Peterson
It’s been a “dry year” for Vermonters who enjoy dining out — Covid restrictions have closed some eateries, and limited the services allowed by others. Thanks to good state virus management and cooperative citizens, restaurants are opening up, and diners are emerging, seeking an evening out.
Survival stories from restaurants who are reviving after struggling through four seasons are not hard to come by. Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland Four Corners is just one of many in the area, but it’s where I chose to go on Mother’s Day for my first time dining out since the beginning of the pandemic restrictions. The experience, including a very memorable dinner, has inspired me to seek out more restaurants for a series on their post-pandemic reemergence.
The “Skunk” is back, with an elegant flair, and with strict safety measures firmly in place.
Sporting “Skunk Hollow” sweatshirts purchased for the occasion, we entered wearing our masks. Emma, our waitperson, wore hers during our visit, as did two other servers, and Gretchen Ocasio, co-owner and bartender. We removed ours while at our table, which was more than 6 feet from the few others.
In addition to the regular menu Chef Carlos Ocasio offered a pan-seared scallops special with broccolini, ginger red cabbage and a lemon sauce, a roasted red pepper salad, and mushroom caps stuffed with feta and spinach. We ordered three specials, and one broiled salmon.
Everything was perfect.
We went back to hear Gretchen Ocasio’s pandemic story, a study in heroic perseverance.
When the virus arrived in the U.S., the Ocasios had already planned a two-week shut-down for a 25th wedding anniversary trip to Italy.
“It was obvious that going to Italy during a pandemic was not a smart move, so we cancelled our trip and got most of our money back,” Gretchen said.
An altered destination to Savannah had to be canceled as well as the situation worsened. Four days later, March 17, Governor Phil Scott announced what would become the long-term shutdown. The 1700s tavern was already in lockdown mode.
The Ocasio family purchased the Skunk in 1986 with a relative’s help and a 15-year loan from the Small Business Administration. Over the years, repairs and renovations have necessitated refinancing, so mortgage payments, taxes and living expenses for an undetermined length of time were ahead.
“The $600/week government funding helped us pay the mortgage loan and prepare for outdoor dining,” Gretchen said. “And without the state grants, I can tell you, we would not have made it.”
She also credits the Hartland community.
“This town is wonderful,” she said. “Everyone was totally supportive every way they could be.”
Governor Scott allowed partial reopening for outdoor serving and takeout orders in June, and the Ocasios were ready by July 1, providing rustic seating looking over the garden, a stage for musicians, and a small bar.
Reopening has been enhanced by early tourism, referrals from area B&Bs, and some walk-ins, although Ocasio recommends diners make reservations given the limited seating.
Carlos loves music. The Skunk has provided its popular open mic for local performers Wednesday nights via Zoom.
Going forward, the tavern can legally accommodate 30-35 people, including staff and any musicians, for both indoor or outdoor dining. But, Gretchen lamented, like other restaurants, they are having a problem finding qualified waitstaff.
“We received only three applications in response to our ads,” she said. “Two of them provided no contact information, and the third didn’t show up for a scheduled interview.”
Wednesdays and Fridays there will be in-person music outdoors, weather permitting, and there will be no indoor dining on those occasions.
“We just don’t have the people to do both at once,” Gretchen said.
Music will include jazz, bluegrass, blues, rock and Celtic genres.
“I think we’re going to be alright,” she said, smiling. “We made it this far.”