Farmers Diner closes, lack of demand cited

MIDDLEBURY — The Farmers Diner ended an almost two-year run in Middlebury on Feb. 14 after the owners determined there was not enough customer traffic to keep the eatery afloat any longer.
“It was totally an economic decision,” said Farmers Diner founder Tod Murphy. “There was just not enough business to keep us open.”
The Farmers Diner opened its doors at its Marble Works location during the spring of 2009 amid much fanfare. Murphy and restaurant co-owner Denise Perras had already been operating (and still do) a successful flagship Farmers Diner in Quechee. They were optimistic about replicating in Middlebury their formula of serving up hearty diner dishes made primarily with local products. They made a practice of spending more than 75 cents of every food dollar with farmers and small-scale food producers living and working within 70 miles of the diner.
Contracting with local producers rather than buying in bulk from national vendors meant the Farmers Diner had to charge a slight premium for some of its offerings. The added charge and the lack of a more visible storefront probably contributed to diminished customer traffic after what had been a strong opening, the owners speculated.
Murphy and Perras were pleased with turnout from Middlebury College. They said students, college employees and parents were mainstay customers.
“And we had really great support from the sustainable agriculture community,” Perras said, “but not enough to keep the lights on and the business open.”
Indeed, the diner apparently didn’t click with the community at large.
“We didn’t create enough of a destination spot,” Murphy said.
That wasn’t for a lack of trying, according to Murphy. Using personal savings, Murphy launched a major marketing campaign late last year to try and drum up more business at the Middlebury diner. When that strategy failed, the owners said they had no choice but to close.
Murphy said he enjoyed doing business in the Middlebury community and building relationships with such businesses as Dancing Cow Farm, Champlain Orchards, Maple Meadow Farm, Monument Farms, Champlain Valley Apiaries and the Middlebury Farmers’ Market.
“It was great to be able to meet the farmers and businesspeople in the area,” Murphy said. “I had a great time. It is a great place to raise kids.”
While the Farmers Diner is retrenching in Vermont, it could soon gain a foothold on the other side of the continent. Murphy is currently looking to establish two Farmers Diners later this year in the San Francisco area, restaurants that would espouse the same localvore philosophy.
“There is a real awareness of farm-to-table in the Bay area,” Murphy said.
Meanwhile, the Marble Works Partnership is searching for a new tenant to fill the more than 2,000 square feet that the Farmers Diner has vacated.
Oakley Smith, a general partner of the Marble Works, said the space has already drawn some interest from businesspeople looking for office or restaurant space. Smith believes a restaurant could work well in the location, as evidenced by the longevity of some previous Chinese restaurants that once occupied the spot.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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