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Phelps passes Noonie’s torch to…Phelps

MIDDLEBURY — For 18 years, Noonie Deli owner Karen Phelps has been serving up giant sandwiches — with heaping helpings of kind words on the side at no extra charge.
Monday saw Phelps pass her apron and cutting board over to a new owner, Bryan Phelps of Weybridge, who although unrelated shares not only her last name, but also a desire to keep the popular Middlebury deli operating in the same manner that has kept the customers coming through the years.
Now, Karen Phelps is ready for change.
“I guess I just want to do something new, to experience something different in life,” Phelps said as she waited to greet her customers for one last time, adding, “I have no idea right now what I’m going to do; this has happened so quickly.” 
It was in 1991 that Karen Phelps was asked to manage Noonie’s, which had recently opened in Middlebury’s Marble Works complex. Phelps had been working at The Kitchen Shop on Middlebury’s Main Street.
“I love cooking for people, and the product that Noonie’s had, with the quality and philosophy behind it, drew me in,” Phelps recalled.
Little did Phelps know when she started that she would be buying the business just a few short months later. Noonie Deli was founded by Mandy Hotchkiss and Phoebe Bright, and the Middlebury store was the Burlington-based company’s first franchise. Now it is the lone remaining shop bearing that name.
Phelps turned the business into a family operation — her now-grown children Genny, Lindsay and Ryan all at various times assembled the business’s trademark large sandwiches and made soups, breads and baked goods. She said she’s employed hundreds while owning Noonie’s, and some of those employees have been with her for more than a decade.
Bryan Phelps said he will be retaining the current staff.
“A couple (of longtime workers) have become like extended family to me,” Phelps said, citing in particular Alita Furman and Kim Sullivan.
Then there are the customers, some of whom have been lunching at Noonie Deli since Phelps’ first day on the job. She’s had some clients who are so regular, the staff knows instinctively what they will be having that day.
“A lot of people are creatures of habit,” she said with a smile. “Then they’ll say, ‘How do you know I’m not going to order something different today?’”
The predictability of orders has stemmed from what has become a clear-cut favorite among the masses — the “Purple’s Pleasure,” a warm sandwich that includes turkey, bacon, onions, avocado, hot peppers, cheddar and basil mayo.
“I have made thousands,” Phelps said.
Through it all, she was a multi-tasker. Phelps would chat with her clients, without missing a beat, as she heaped toppings on fresh breads or wraps. She’d learn about customers’ vacations, families’ tragedies and triumphs, or about a neighborhood water main break; sometimes she even would offer words of encouragement.
“I have been very blessed to forge these relationships,” Phelps said. “One of the things I will miss most is not having the daily interaction I have had. It will leave a void in my life.”
But Phelps believes it’s time for her to move on to a new personal menu. She doesn’t know exactly what’s next, except that she will enjoy some downtime with family and a new grandchild. She will remain in the area for the near future, but has not ruled out relocating to another part of the country.
She stressed she is not retiring. When she returns to work, she said “it won’t be behind a desk. Hopefully, it will be community-oriented.”
Meanwhile, Bryan Phelps pledged to keep Noonie Deli operating in the same manner that has kept it successful. Having grown up in Middlebury, Phelps was a regular customer there.
“People should continue to expect what they’ve gotten so far,” Phelps said. “My goal is to maintain what Karen had built here.”
John Flowers is at [email protected]

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