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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023

Liv, Love, Local: 51 Main

Owners Bethanie Farrell, Jennifer and Loren Urban infront of 51 Main. Photo by Billy Farrell.
Owners Bethanie Farrell, Jennifer and Loren Urban infront of 51 Main. Photo by Billy Farrell.

As a collaborative restaurant and retail business, 51 Main has brought a new energy to a long-vacant space in Middlebury’s downtown since opening last March. The space brings two businesses together under one roof: Everything Nice, a plant and home decor store which serves as a funding source for the Giving Fridge — a nonprofit founded by Bethanie Farrell — and Crooked Ladle Catering, a catering business owned by Jennifer and Loren Urban. The move to a shared space reflects the continuing evolution and growth of both businesses.

Crooked Ladle Catering started in 2019 as a food truck concept in collaboration with the Bobcat Cafe and Brewery in Bristol, Vt. and has since expanded to a full-fledged catering business. The business manages a commercial kitchen at 51 Main, where it not only carries out its catering operations, but also serves dinner Wednesday through Friday. 

Crooked Ladle serves three types of plates: smalls, mediums and fancies, offering a wide range of dishes from classic shareables like nachos or fries to falafel gyros, bao buns and roasted octopus. 

The Giving Fridge began as a two-week initiative in November and December of 2020 that provided meals during the holiday season, funded by community donations and houseplant sales. Since its founding, the fridge has gained nonprofit status and now offers a larger-scale permanent meal program. Everything Nice serves as a funding source for this expanded service by selling plants Wednesday through Saturday in the Battell Block space. 

“It’s grown very organically, adapting to both the need/demand and incoming support,” Farrell wrote in an email to The Campus. 

The Giving Fridge has provided over 30,000 meals to date, which cost $10 for those who are able to pay and free for low-income individuals. These meals are sourced from local restaurants with the goal of benefiting community members in a variety of circumstances. Whether program participants are experiencing financial insecurity, living with illness or disability, navigating the loss of a family contributor or dealing with any other reasons for food insecurity, the Giving Fridge aims to provide healthy, locally sourced options to those in need.

“Now in our third year, I think we’ve proven that we’ve added something special and valued to our downtown that caters to people from all walks of life in different ways,” Farrell wrote. “Our goal is to help strengthen our local food system and economy.”

As her initial two-year lease of a space on 66 Merchant’s Row for the Giving Fridge came to an end, Farrell anticipated needing to wind down the program. Enter Jennifer and Loren Urban, who reached out to Farrell to inquire about using the commercial kitchen in the Giving Fridge space — a former diner — as Crooked Ladle Catering outgrew its former kitchen. Although the kitchen was no longer zoned commercially, the Urbans also mentioned the possibility of moving into 51 Main as a shared endeavor. 

“That got my wheels turning, and it snapped me out of wind down mode,” said Farrell. “That night, I found a note I’d made in my notebook from 2021 that just said ‘Giving Kitchen.’” With the chance to realize a dream of Giving Fridge occupying a space with a wider reach not limited by the lack of a commercially zoned kitchen, Farrell and the Urbans landed on a concept to divide and conquer the development of their newly shared space. 

“We would each maintain our own businesses… but share the lease and collaborate in various complementary ways,” Farrell said in reference to their renovation plan. The Urbans built out the commercial kitchen, while Farrell updated the restaurant interior.

Looking forward to 2024, both Crooked Ladle Catering and Everything Nice are expanding their operations. Crooked Ladle Catering will add more restaurant hours to the weekly schedule, while Everything Nice recently launched an online store to widen their potential customer base to support expanding the Giving Fridge’s programming. 

While logistics and fundraising are consistently difficult for Farrell, the biggest challenge is meeting the demand that exists for the Giving Fridge with its small staff. The Giving Fridge team consists of five regular volunteers assisting with meal deliveries, and one other full-time employee, Amber Young, who joined recently and manages the retail plant sales for Everything Nice.

“The need for healthy prepared meals exceeds our current resources and so it feels like we're never able to do enough to help others,” Farrell wrote. “Hearing and seeing the impact that this gesture has on our neighbors when they’re feeling most vulnerable is constant motivation to keep working through the challenges.” 

Participants have sent heartfelt letters of gratitude for the services the Giving Fridge provides, responding not only to the thoughtful delivery but the nutritious options not reliably available through other meal assistance programs, according to Farrell. 

“It keeps me up at night knowing that there are so many more people that we could be reaching if we had the resources,” Farrell wrote. She described her efforts to continue the Giving Fridge’s work, which include scouring grant databases, searching for partner organizations and inquiring through contacts to fundraise for future initiatives. 

Sourcing for the 2024 operating budget will also expand its focus to corporate sponsors and individual donors, with the hope of creating a staffing budget to support a full-time team. Farrell still serves as a volunteer in order to prioritize the program’s growth and search for reliable staff members.

In the coming year, both Crooked Ladle Catering and the Giving Fridge aim to spread the word about 51 Main as they continue to grow even further. Crooked Ladle Catering will expand restaurant operations to four days a week, including Saturdays, and will continue to host live music on Wednesday nights. Live music features local performers and genres including jazz, bluegrass, DJ sets and more. 

The Giving Fridge will continue weekly meal deliveries on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and the organization plans to launch their first Giving Fridge automatic meal dispenser in November at the Middlebury Commons in collaboration with the Vermont Food Bank. If the first launch goes well, they plan to roll out additional fridges in 2024. 

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“This multi-use space is a unique concept that people are still trying [to] wrap their heads around, but I think it's just a matter of consistent messaging about what we each offer and all of the ways the Giving Fridge meal program is supported through our offerings,” Farrell wrote. “When Everything Nice is open, some people walk up to the door and stop short, saying ‘oh, you’re a restaurant, I thought this was a plant shop!’ and I say, ‘it’s both, come on in - shop, drink and dine!’”

Olivia Mueller

Olivia Mueller '24 (she/her) is a News Editor.

Previously an Arts and Culture editor, Olivia is an International Politics and Economics major with a Spanish minor. Outside of the Campus, she is a spin instructor for YouPower, an avid runner and hiker, and a member of the Middlebury Mischords a cappella group.