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Wednesday, Oct 27, 2021

Storm Café Closes Doors For Good

A sunny day signaled the end of the Storm Café. The restaurant, located in the Old Stone Mill building on the banks of Otter Creek, had been a staple in the Middlebury food scene for years. Last year, their American cuisine made from local ingredients won the café a spot in Visiting New England’s  “12 Favorite Places for Breakfast” list.

On Nov. 11, Beth and John Hughes, who ran the restaurant for the past 13 years, said goodbye to regular customers, many of whom had been coming there since it opened in the lowest floor of the Old Stone Mill 25 years ago.

“It’s bittersweet,” John told Seven Days.

“This was our dream—to own our own business together,” Beth said in an interview with the Addison Independent. In a statement on the Storm Café’s website, they both thanked the Middlebury community for their patronage and promised they would miss all those who dined with them over the years. The Storm Café will be missed by many in the Middlebury community. John estimated that roughly 80 percent of the café’s customers came from the college. “The Storm’s cozy atmosphere, the sounds of the waterfall and [the] delicious food never failed to provide happy meals for me and my family,” Sophie Hiland ’22 said. 

The café joins a long list of recently-closed local businesses, but the decision to close was not made solely by the business owners. Middlebury College, which owns the Old Stone Mill building the Storm Café called home, informed the Hughes this past summer that their lease would not be renewed. 

However, there is a rainbow after the storm for the Hughes family. Both Beth and John are now working as a paraprofessional and a cafeteria chef, respectively, at Salisbury Community School. And, to sweeten the deal, their twin daughters Molly and Lilly are both students at the school. “For the first time in 20 years, I’ll have my weekends off,” John added.

As the Hughes move on to other things, Middlebury College announced an end to its search for a new partner to move into 3 Mill Street. The lucky tenants? Community Barn Ventures, a group based in town that, in the words of co-founder Stacey Rainey, helps businesses “solve whatever problems they have, getting them from where they are to where they want to be.” 

The group started work just over a year ago and already has about 15 clients. It has been looking to expand beyond just its current advisory role, and found the perfect opportunity on the banks of Otter Creek.

Middlebury College bought the Old Stone Mill building in 2008 for $2.1 million. Since then, the college has used the space above the Storm Café as an incubator for student creativity and innovation. The building has been home to students and locals alike, fostering specifically non-academic, self-designed projects ranging from art exhibitions to band practices. However, Bill Burger, vice president for communications and chief marketing officers, explains, “the building needs such investment that it didn’t make sense to go ahead with the same use of the building.”

Community Barn Ventures will close the deal on purchasing the building for $500,000 in early January. The group has already contracted local firm McLeod Kredell Architects to help bring its vision for the historic building to life, opening up to the public in summer 2019. The Middlebury-based modern architecture firm emphasizes a “search for appropriate local expressions of universal qualities and ideals,” according to its website. John McLeod is a visiting professor of architecture at the college, while Steve Kredell teaches at Norwich University’s School of Architecture and Art. 

Stacey Rainey and Mary Cullinane, co-founders and partners at Community Barn Ventures, are Middlebury residents who stepped away from corporate jobs and now focus on making their work “have a positive impact on our community,” Cullinane explained. Their plans for the four-and-a-half story, 9,000-square-foot space reflect this desire for community engagement and support for local business.

The top floor and a half will become five Airbnb units, each with its own bathroom and secure access but with a shared living room and kitchenette, intended for parents, visiting professors, or tourists. Just below the mini-hotel will be the Community Barn Network, a shared workspace divided into seating for people working on personal laptops or without a need for private space, dedicated offices and a shared conference room, and telephone booths for those who need to make private calls. The second floor will house a public market with eight to 10 permanent vendor stalls, half of them food-based and half for hard goods, as well as a stall for coffee and a general watering hole.

The objective is to create a “daily destination,” a place where students and town residents can go for a variety of functions. This deliberate attempt to engage with the community was instrumental in the college’s decision to sell to Community Barn Ventures. 

“There were a number of different groups interested in the building,” Burger said. “But we wanted to find the right partner who would do something that we felt was best for Middlebury and that would create opportunity for Middlebury College students.”

The iconic space at 3 Mill Street is being brought into a new age by Community Barn Ventures, but the new plans include a nod to the building’s past: the first floor will remain a restaurant, though Community Barn Ventures is still looking for the perfect partner to take over the space. No matter who ends up taking over the first floor at 3 Mill Street, they will have big shoes to fill with the Storm Café’s departure.