Black Sheep founder to launch tavern in downtown Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — Local restaurateur and chef Michel Mahe on Oct. 31 confirmed his plans to open an as-yet-unnamed, new tavern in the former Jackson’s on the River space at 7 Bakery Lane in Middlebury.

Pending the signing of a lease and the construction of a 309-square-foot addition to accommodate a handicap-accessible restroom, the new restaurant would become the fourth in Mahe’s growing culinary empire. He already owns the very successful Black Sheep Bistro in Vergennes, the Bobcat Café in Bristol and the Bearded Frog in Shelburne.

“It is going to be a tavern, with a ‘Bobcat Café’ feel,” he said of the new enterprise, which he hopes to open next spring.

In the meantime, Mahe will negotiate the final terms of a lease with Kim Smith, owner of 7 Bakery Lane. Once that is accomplished, Mahe will proceed with an estimated $200,000 in upgrades to the building, which borders — and offers some stunning views of — the Otter Creek.

The most substantial renovations will be at the southeast end of the building, at which the bar and restrooms are located. Plans call for those restrooms to be relocated into a small addition that will offer better access to customers with disabilities. A wheelchair ramp is also being considered as part of the project, according to Mahe.

Moving the restrooms will in turn allow Mahe to expand the bar area, which is integral to his vision of making the tavern a social hub, such as has occurred at the Bearded Frog. Seating capacity is likely to remain around 70-80, according to Mahe.

“With the bathrooms moved over, it will give us the ability to put more booths on the opposite side of the bar; we are going to rebuild the whole bar,” Mahe said. “Like the Frog, where the bar has become the hangout for Shelburne, we are planning to do the same thing for Middlebury, where it is  very comfortable — belly up to the bar if your want a burger, or just be able to meet with people there.

“We are basically going to cozy it up a lot.”

He envisions a grayish-blue color scheme for the business.

“Whatever we do, we want it to fit into that whole area,” he said.

Diners at Mahe’s other restaurants will find a tried and true menu at the new tavern. One side of the menu will feature fixed price entrees, while the other side will feature pub fare, including gourmet burgers.

“It is going to be the things that we know work,” he said.

Middlebury Zoning Administrator Ted Dunakin said the Mahe proposal is being treated as a minor application that can be processed administratively if no major concerns are filed with the planning office.

If permitting and construction go smoothly, Mahe plans to open the new tavern by next spring. He served notice he will be hiring “a lot of people.”

And if the plan comes to fruition, it will end Mahe’s 10-year search for a restaurant location in Middlebury. He had looked into acquiring the 7 Bakery Lane building around a decade ago and also considered leasing a spot in the Battell Block.

“This (Bakery Lane) property came up, and I looked at it again,” Mahe said.

The property was vacated by Jackson’s this past spring. It is also the former home of Woody’s and Tully & Marie’s restaurants. Mahe said the location has become even more attractive to him in light of the new roundabout in downtown Middlebury, which effectively funnels traffic to parking in the Bakery Lane area.

John Flowers is at [email protected].

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