Vergennes' Strong House Inn gets new owners
VERGENNES — The new owners of the Strong House Inn in Vergennes conducted a multi-year, multi-continent search for the right lodging property before buying the 14-room, 4.9-acre bed-and-breakfast on West Main Street on May 24.
And Amy and Michel Djordjevic went ahead and spent $800,000 for the multi-building inn, anchored by the 1834 Strong House, despite first seeing it in the dead of winter — they came to Vergennes from Rhode Island to have a look at the property in January.
What was it about the Strong House Inn that struck their fancy?
To start with, the couple wanted a larger bed and breakfast with good cash flow and expansion potential, but not one that came with the risk of a restaurant.
Michel, a 54-year-old U.S. Army veteran who has spent most of the past 18 years as a facilities manager for Starbucks with large swaths of territory in the Northeast, explained.
“It’s a viable business. And most of the larger bed and breakfasts had a huge restaurant component. And we’re not restaurateurs. Banks don’t like loaning money to restaurants,” said Michel, a New Jersey native. “My original degree was in business, and I’m always looking at numbers. And the numbers here worked very well.”
Amy has an extensive hospitality background, with a degree in the field from a state college in her native California and a lengthy résumé in the sector. She has overseen bed-and-breakfast startups, run a 17-room B&B in southern Vermont, managed catering in a large Boston hotel, and much more.
Amy also saw the possibilities in the West Main Street property, which includes the two event and meeting rooms in the 2006 addition to the 1834 Strong House, which offers eight of the inn’s guest rooms, a library and two dining rooms. A separate 1998 building, called Rabbit Ridge, added six more guest rooms.
“It had the potential that we were looking for to put our own stamp on it. With my background in catering and event planning I wanted something that I could grow the event side of it a little more, as well as have space. And it was nice that it necessarily didn’t have a huge restaurant, but it does have the potential to partner with the local wineries and distilleries in order to do pairing dinners,” said Amy, 47. “It just felt right. It was a good match for what we were looking for.”
The couple has been married for five years, but met long before that while indulging in a mutual hobby — medieval re-enacting — in California. At that time Michel was dating one of Amy’s friends.
Later, after Amy had moved to the Northeastern U.S., they met at a similar event, and they hit it off. Amy did due diligence and contacted her friend, Michel’s ex, and received a thumbs-up.
“They were talking, and I got a good reference,” Michel said.
CARVING OUT A FUTURE
In 2014 they were married in the Alsace region of eastern France in Michel’s mother’s hometown, and their search for a B&B included France.
Eventually they consulted with The B&B Team, which offers financial advice as well as search services.
“We looked here and there for places, and then we got involved with The B&B Team to help us find the location, and they do some of the financial background on it, find out if it’s viable,” Michel said.
That help finally led them to Vergennes, which Michel compared to the French part of the search.
“It’s gorgeous. It actually reminds me a lot of Europe,” Michel said.
Before they settled on Vermont, Michel’s job territory changed several times, and the couple acknowledged Amy had to switch jobs due to his career.
“She moved to New York from Connecticut because my area shifted. And then from New York to Pennsylvania. And then from Pennsylvania to Rhode Island,” Michel said.
Now Amy’s career is coming first.
“I would be kidding myself if I said it was our dream. This is actually my dream,” Amy said. “And he’s coming along for the ride, fortunately.”
Michel has no objections: By 2017 he was ready to leave Starbucks and being “on call 24/7” to deal with facilities emergencies in multiple states — he said he is happy about this plan.
“Starbucks was getting a little long in the tooth,” Michel said.
Plus at the same time he will spend three days a week — Tuesday through Thursdays on a side hustle: He is part of a commercial fishing venture in Maine that supplies fish to Vermont restaurants. Michel describes it as “sustainable, rod-and-reel” fishing off two boats, and he can deliver the catch when he returns to Vermont.
Their skills are a good fit for their venture. Amy said Michel’s years of facilities management have already paid off.
“The other morning he came downstairs and I said, OK, you need to look at the oven, it’s not working. So for five hours he pulled the oven apart, fixed it, and put it back in,” she said. “He has the skillset to do it.”
Amy and Michel have already started a plan to redo three rooms a year by updating the biggest room in the Strong House. Some rooms could use freshening: The TV in one looks suspiciously like the set a visitor’s mom had on her kitchen counter in the 1980s.
“We will eventually go from room to room and update the décor, update them a little bit more on the technology as well as in their style,” Amy said, adding they have already established a higher social media profile for the business.
Michel said he also wants to get a better handle on the landscaping and add a vegetable and spice garden that would allow Amy to add homegrown ingredients to Strong House breakfasts and catered events.
Currently a series of quilting retreats are an offseason mainstay, and nearby Collins Aerospace is a steady source of guests and some off-site catered meetings. Amy believes potential exists for more private events, including wedding and baby showers and more.
“(We’ll continue) to push that we have this great event space, and to have people make use of it,” Amy said.
Currently the inn can host weddings with up to 50 or 60 guests, and Amy and Michel envision someday having a larger pavilion and more cottages to the rear of the grounds.
“We’d like to add a couple more cottages eventually and bring in a little more of a luxury product. And eventually build a wedding pavilion and be able to attract a larger event,” Amy said.
But at the same time they emphasized they inherited a good property from former owners Hugh and Mary Bargiel, or they never would have acted so quickly after searching for so long.
“We didn’t have to develop anything to make it work. We just had to keep it running,” Michel said. “And then slowly make some modification and changes. The only thing we jumped into was changing one room.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].