For the last 17 years, community supper at the Middlebury Congregational Church has reliably provided members of the local community with a home-cooked meal on Friday nights. When the pandemic started in March 2020, the church was forced to pause and re-envision community suppers.
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The town of Middlebury is no exception to the nationwide service sector labor shortage, and the widespread lack of workers has meant changes to the operations of popular restaurants in town. Local staples including Noonie’s Deli and Middlebury Bagel & Deli have been forced to alter operations or cut hours. Other changes at Middlebury’s restaurants include fewer menu offerings, increased wait times and a shift toward takeout only at certain establishments. The desperation for staff is visible in town: Hannaford has posted hiring signs up and down the milk aisle, and Mr. Up’s posted signage looking for cooks, waitstaff and dishwashers with “help wanted” followed by nine exclamation points. In order to accommodate demand — especially with the reopening of dine-in services — Otter Creek Bakery is open for one to two hours fewer per day and only five days a week. In an interview with The Campus, Renee Leone, an employee at Otter Creek, expressed that even with the tighter hours, members of the staff have been working double or extended shifts to compensate for the lack of staff. “We’re really trying to hire a lot of people,” Leone said. “We’re not looking to expand [hours] anytime soon until the labor shortage settles down.” The Arcadian — which shares a dining room with Haymaker Bun Co. — closed its doors indefinitely on Saturday, Sept. 18. The owners shared on the restaurant’s Instagram that “the staffing crisis that has gripped our industry on every level was ultimately an insurmountable challenge to our operational goals.” Franchises in Middlebury have also been affected. The town’s Dunkin’ location has had to close early or limit their on-the-go service some days. In addition to forcing operational changes, the challenges posed by the labor shortage have taken a mental and emotional toll on employees. Maranda Aunchman, a shift leader at the local Dunkin', described the strain of the staff shortage. “It’s really stressful not having people in or people quitting,” Aunchman said. “It’s affecting everybody.” Middlebury Bagel & Deli has been busier than ever before, but struggling to fill positions has presented the business with an unprecedented challenge. In the past, the owners seldom needed to advertise when looking to hire new employees, and now, they are turning to Facebook, advertising in the storefront and relying on word of mouth in the small town community. “Mentally, it’s hard, and obviously not having the right amount of people for certain days . . . it’s affected us. It’s affected all of them,” Justin Rubright, an owner of Middlebury Bagel & Deli, said. “It’s good to have the two days off that we have because we have the strongest crew that we could have here every other day the five days that we’re open.” According to the Addison Independent, the owners of Noonie’s Deli have received a number of applications in the past year, but out of those applicants, only a few have shown up to undergo the interview process. Now, with many employees from the summer returning to high school or college, hiring efforts have strengthened. Some local businesses hope that Middlebury College students will be able to pad the local workforce. Last Monday, the college — in collaboration with the Better Middlebury Partnership — put on a job fair advertising positions in town. But the college faces its own critical labor shortages, with dining halls and facilities experiencing perhaps the most perceptible effects of understaffing. In an interview for Business Insider, economist Dante DeAntionio said that the labor shortage across the U.S. is likely to persist. “The labor shortages will start to abate in September and this fall, but it’s not going to be an immediate fix,” DeAntonio said. “This could well play out over two, three years.” Economists largely attribute the labor shortage to a mismatch between the roles offered by employers and potential employees looking to fill those roles. In some businesses across the U.S., employers are not willing or able to offer the wage that workers are demanding, or the employers might be eliminating applicants through automatic screening software, such as resume screeners that reject potential employees based on the inclusion of certain words on their resumes. In addition, cases are still on the rise throughout the country, including Vermont, which could deter people from returning to jobs that put them at risk for Covid-19. Cases have been on the rise in Vermont since Labor Day Weekend, with 82 new cases reported on the state’s Covid-19 dashboard on Sept. 28. Childcare also continues to be an issue for many, as parents are either unwilling to send their children to childcare centers or centers remain closed. While it is unclear exactly what is causing the labor shortage in Middlebury, national trends indicate that it could be a problem that persists for years to come.
At less than 7% of its acquisition price, The Middlebury-based Vermont Cider Company (VCC) — best known by Middlebury students and residents for its popular product Woodchuck Hard Cider — has been sold to Northeast Drinks Group in a recent deal completed on April 9. Northeast Drinks Group was created solely to purchase VCC and reestablish local ownership, according to firm partner David Mander. Before the $20 million purchase, the company was owned by C&C Group, an internationally-based Irish drinks conglomerate. When C&C bought VCC in 2012, the sale price was $305 million — three times the valuation of VCC at the time. Part of that 2012 purchase hinged on the popularity of Woodchuck Cider, which was the largest cider brand in the country at the time. At $20 million, Northeast Drinks Group LLC is doling out 93% less than what C&C paid for VCC. The deal marks the first acquisition for Northeast Drinks Group, a private holding company run by executives in the beverage industry in New England that includes some current employees from VCC. The group plans to keep all contracts and current employees during the transition without any immediate changes to the cider brand. “We plan to support the VCC portfolio with a robust marketing spend and innovative programming. We’ll also leverage the ultra-modern facility to incubate and bring new brands to market over the coming years,” Mander said in an email to The Campus. Through the deal, Northeast Drinks Company will also gain control over Green Mountain Beverage, a division of VCC that specializes in the manufacturing and packaging of beverage products. “All of us at Vermont Cider Company couldn’t be happier with Northeast Drinks Group coming on board,” VCC General Manager Ben Calvi said in a press release. “I’ve enjoyed working alongside their team through the acquisition process and am excited to be joining them as we execute their vision for the future.” In addition to Woodchuck Hard Cider, VCC’s collection of brands include Wyder’s, Gumption, Magner, Blackthorn and Viva Spritz ciders. Launched in 1991, Woodchuck was VCC’s first product and will celebrate its 13th anniversary this year. Bridget Blacklock, vice president of marketing and sales at VCC, and Calvi were credited in the press release for leading the business while under the ownership of C&C Group. C&C oversaw construction of the 100,000-square-foot state-of-the-art cidery located on Exchange Street, which opened in 2014. The following year, VCC laid off eight of their employees, attributing the job cuts to pressure from other mega breweries expanding into cider making. The executives that now make up Northeast Drinks Group saw the strain on VCC as an opportunity to purchase the company and acquire the manufacturer of Woodchuck Hard Cider. According to Blacklock, the Woodchuck and Wyder’s brands have been particularly successful as of late. Northeast Drinks Group has committed to further investing in Vermont Cider Company’s current portfolio. “Woodchuck is set to re-introduce several limited-edition ciders in the coming months, paying homage to the brand’s popular variants over the years,” Mandler said. As VCC enters a new chapter, executives at Northeast Beverage Group are optimistic about the purchase. “As we look to the future, we will continue our passion and focus on cider while also adjusting to consumer beverage trends with brands that we feel best complement our current portfolio,” Blacklock said.
Middlebury-based Addison County Restorative Justice Services (ACRJS) found new ways to facilitate reconciliation and reintegration into society this past year, pivoting to remote services and alternative programming amid the challenges of Covid-19 and renewed calls for racial justice. “We haven’t missed a beat,” said executive director Jean Stone, who has worked at ACRJS for the past year and a half. The Black Lives Matter protests of the summer, which called for changes in the criminal justice system to address systemic racism, sparked important conversations for the organization. “It is a focus that we really want to stay committed to,” Stone said. ACRJS has been looking at demographic data throughout Addison County to better identify areas of growth and new ways of reforming their services. The organization created a living document identifying problems in the criminal justice system. Part of their focus is also to study demographic data to identify areas of improvement. Additionally, as a member of a larger association the Vermont Association of Court Diversion Programs, ACRJS signed a statement against racial injustice with 25 other community justice centers. Offering new services A large part of ACRJS’s work involves court diversion services, which provides offenders the opportunity to meet with a panel of volunteers as an alternative to regular court proceedings. Since the pandemic, ACRJS has seen an increase in referrals from the state attorney’s office to this reparative panel, indicating the success of alternate forms of justice. This is often paired with their Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) program and other reentry programs offered by ACRJS that focus on support meetings and resource guidance. “The goal of the COSA teams and also diversion and others is ‘no more victims,’ so that’s our primary goal with our participants in all of our programs,” Stone said. In December 2020, ACRJS also became part of a new initiative in Addison County, Project Vision North, which takes a collaborative approach to addressing crime. Law enforcement works with existing social service agencies and community providers to respond to situations and provide a more comprehensive approach to problem solving. The program is modeled after Project Vision Rutland, which has already proven successful for the Rutland community. “We do know that once folks become involved in the criminal justice system, they are more likely to continue in that criminal justice system,” Stone said. “So, anything we can do to divert that is money in the bank for the community overall.” Editor’s Note: Students interested in participating in the reparative panel can visit https://www.acrjs.org/.
College Residential Director Esther Thomas was elected to a one-year term on the Middlebury town selectboard in the March 2 election, defeating opponent Andy Hooper. Thomas joins incumbents Lindsey Fuentes-George and Farhad Khan, who secured three-year terms in uncontested races. For Thomas, her focus is on bringing a new voice to town affairs. As a single parent, working mom, woman of color and member of the college community, Thomas’ post on the selectboard would give her an opportunity to bring wider representation to the town government. “I hope to be an extended voice,” she said. “I hope by me running, people who weren’t talking about it before are now talking about [running for selectboard], are now considering it, bringing a new wave of interest to what’s going on in our town.” Thomas has maintained close ties to Middlebury — both the college and the town. As a Residential Director, Thomas oversees more than 800 students in junior and senior housing as well as incoming Febs housed in Forest Hall. She works closely with students to aid their transition to college, orient them to campus protocols and enforce conduct expectations. Hooper, too, is closely connected to the college: he is married to Economic Professor Caitlin Myers and his parents met at the college. Originally from Rhode Island, Thomas moved to Vermont with her two kids in July 2019. She holds a position as a worship associate at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society and a board membership at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. The community of the town is an important part of life for Thomas, and she credits the college for sustaining her through the pandemic. She plans to continue to build that connection by bringing her contagious energy and enthusiasm to the Middlebury selectboard. “I jump in, and I want to get involved and create that light,” Thomas said. “I don’t believe community just happens. I believe it’s built.” Hooper, Thomas’s opponent, is a manager at AgriMark and has been involved in local politics since his twenties. In an email to The Campus, he stated his top priorities as revitalizing Middlebury’s downtown, keeping housing affordable, and updated public transit. Thomas anticipates that the term will be challenging. She has been attending recent selectboard meetings as a participant to learn how the board is run and operated, but Thomas admits she has a lot more to learn. “Before I can raise the flag and say ‘let’s change, and let’s do this,’ I’ve got to understand what I’m walking into, understanding the systems that are in place, how the town works, how decisions are made,” Thomas said. An earlier version of this article stated that the Middlebury College community sustained Thomas throughout the pandemic. It was the community in the town of Middlebury that sustained her throughout the pandemic.