Meet the Chefs: Erin and Sanderson Wheeler from the Bobcat Cafe in Bristol

BRISTOL — f there’s one thing to be said about the owners of Bristol’s Bobcat Cafe, Erin and Sanderson Wheeler, it’s that they have embraced the visions of their elders.
The Bobcat was first owned by Robert Fuller, also a former owner of Burlington’s Leunig’s and Pauline’s in South Burlington. From Fuller, the Wheelers gleaned the idea of “third place.”
“That’s why he created this,” Erin said, sitting on one of the Bobcat’s barstools last Wednesday morning, her daughter eating a pancake and playing a video game at a table behind her. “The idea is that it’s not your home, it’s not your work, but it’s somewhere where you can go every day and be a part of the community. In every town in England, there’s a pub, and that’s what this is modeled after. It’s a place where people in the community can gather and have a drink and dinner, or not, and see their friends.”
And Bobcat’s unique management system — in which the Wheelers are active owners, chefs and managers — comes from Michel Mahé, a prominent Vermont restaurateur until his death in 2015. Mahé owned the Black Sheep Bistro and Park Squeeze in Vergennes, The Lobby in Middlebury and The Bearded Frog in Shelburne.
The Wheelers had always intended to run the Bobcat, and they bought it from Mahé shortly before his passing.
“We came with Michel about 10 years ago, and we put in our sweat equity, I guess you could call it, for ownership,” Sanderson said. “We purchased it from Michel about two years ago, and right after we purchased it, he passed away. It was really nuts. All the other restaurants, they were kind of reeling from that.”
Soon after Mahé purchased the restaurant from Fuller in 2008, he gave the Wheelers free rein to make changes. In turn, they adopted his main principle: the food comes first. To do this, they turned the space into a so-called “Michel restaurant.” By letting a few folks go, streamlining processes and getting rid of middle management positions, the couple was able to manage the restaurant from the kitchen, up.
“Ten years ago we were putting in a lot more hours, and a lot more sweat,” Sanderson said. “Now we’re able to step back a little more. We’ve got great people in the kitchen, and people in the front that we can trust with everything. We can go away for a week on vacation, and the wonderful staff keeps this place going. We don’t have to worry about it at all.”
The system allows the Wheelers to concentrate on food. Sanderson describes the cuisine as “creative comfort food,” combining old favorites and new dishes that are swapped in after some experimentation in the kitchen.
Some classics, like the venison chorizo meatloaf, have never left the menu. Others, like the Korean rice bowl (braised Vermont brisket, homemade kimchi, shiitakes, green beans and a slow poached egg) are recent additions, born out of the Wheelers’ latest culinary bent.
“A lot of stuff on the menu comes from us experimenting at home, reading cookbooks, eating something while we’re traveling, or going to another restaurant and taking it home and experimenting with stuff,” Sanderson said. “We get to experiment with whatever we want in the kitchen, so that’s helpful.”
It’s not just food they experiment with — the restaurant serves beer brewed in-house almost exclusively.
“We’re very fortunate, we have a super-talented brewer,” Sanderson said. “John Matson brews for us. He has decades of experience brewing beer and working in the industry. He has a real job right now — he works at Woodchuck. He gets a great salary and benefits, and then gets to come down here.”
“We pretty much give him free rein of the place,” Erin added. “He gets to do what he wants, as long as he’s keeping the customers happy.”
The beer menu always features an IPA and double IPA, but with about 10 different home-brewed beers on tap, Matson works to make sure there’s a beer for everyone. This spring, Bobcat will introduce a limited-release beer brewed with maple sap from Twin Maple Sugarworks in Lincoln in place of water.
“It’s not sweet, it just gives it this really nice, round, full-bodied consistency,” Erin said. “It’s a mouth feel,” Sanderson added. The beer, called Twin Maple Red will also appear at the Vermont Brewfest on the Burlington Waterfront, July 21-22. 
The Wheelers’ desire to produce new and interesting food and drink keeps their most regular customers coming back. Perhaps a measure of the restaurant’s “third place” success, Bobcat’s most regular customers visit the bar multiple times per week.
“It is really like that,” Erin said. “The people in this community are at the Bobcat. You see people mingling and having dinner, and the kids are going from table to table because they all know each other. It’s cool. Every town should have a Bobcat.”

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