Carol’s owner opens a diner on Route 7

Drive between Middlebury and Vergennes, and you’ll probably notice the little red diner on the east side of Route 7 a couple miles north of New Haven Junction. Surrounded by a large gravel lot, passers-by might not be sure what to expect of the restaurant. But John Melanson, owner of Carol’s Hungry Mind, Middlebury’s neighborhood coffee shop, is inviting newcomers to grab a cup of joe at his new Route 7 location, or to come and sit down for a full meal.
Melanson recently finished work on this second location for Carol’s, adding new tables and chairs and putting the finishing touch on the newly redone commercial kitchen. A new layer of beige paint gives the interior a fresh look — complimented by the stunning eastward views of the Green Mountains out the restaurant’s back windows. The restaurant is fully serviced, with two waitresses (Ella Hoague and Kayla Lincoln; Hoague has served at this location in the past).
He opened the restaurant, in part, to offset any dips in business at his flagship coffee shop on Merchants Row in Middlebury that may be caused by the town’s big rail bridge construction project. But Melanson says he also just wanted to try something new. The renovations were completed in mid-July, and the restaurant — complete with a Carol’s Hungry Mind sign on the roof — is now open for business.
Q: When did you officially open?
A: We first opened last year for the summer. We just did basically what we do in Middlebury — espresso, coffee and scones. I was hoping to get the commuters going by, and I did, to a point, but everyone who came in was saying, “Where’s the diner?” and we had a lot of people who just stopped and left because they couldn’t sit down. Not only did people who had been here before want a diner again, but other people that were stopping were looking for a place to sit. So I had to find some money, and that took a while, so we finally got this place going. We’re on the increase.
Q: Tell me a bit about the menu here.
A: It’s basic diner food — bacon and eggs, hamburgers and fries. That was the model of the place. There’s tuna melts and onion rings and fried clams. We have our own farmer’s breakfast and logger’s breakfast. Another cool thing: I actually have an app where you can order and pay ahead. People can order and come sit down or take the food out. Another thing I’d like to try is a to-go in the evening for commuters. It would be turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes and vegetables, or meatloaf and mashed potatoes — a meal they can pick up, take home and eat, or eat in if they want. It would just be one thing per night — on Tuesday’s it would be meatloaf, on Wednesdays it’s turkey, that kind of thing.
Q: Who makes the food?
A: We have two chefs (Ben Gibbud and Yohanan Svitavsky), and I also cook on occasion. They’re both relatively young, but they’ve been in the restaurant business for a number of years. They know the ins and outs of the kitchen. As soon as I hired them, I could see their enthusiasm — they’re always giving me something to try. They were very excited about coming here for a couple of reasons. One of them is that they’re in charge of everything, and that it’s the ground floor of a new business, and they’re able to change the menu the way they want, which I encourage both here and at Middlebury.
Q: What’s going on with the little coffee shop on the other side of the building?
A: We’re going to try and get that going pretty soon. There will be scones and baked goods and coffee — the same as in Middlebury. The menu will be pretty much the same.
Q: What made you interested in this location?
A: It was a couple of things. One was the bridge (work in Middlebury) — that was the big thing. I was looking at the bridge as something that was really going to hurt Carol’s. With the construction that’s been going on, it’s not been easy. Also, too, I wanted something else. It’s been 13 years with Carol’s, and we’ve tried everything — we’ve had music, and we had long hours and then we cut them shorter, we tried doing events at night, and nothing really ever paid off. There was no real way to expand. So this became a more interesting way to do that. It has a lot of potential. There’s a whole back that I’m thinking could be a flea market area, it could be an antique show or a car show — and that’s just one thing. There’s all these other things that we’re trying.
Q: How has the Middlebury business been doing this summer with all the construction?
A: It varied. At the beginning, in June, sales were really down. But this past (bout of construction) hasn’t been as bad. It depends on how you look at it, because the summer is really when I make most of the money, because of tourism, and that was down. So we just about broke even, but we should be making a lot more at this time of year.
Q: What kind of support have you seen from the community?
A: I still have regular people who want to come, and we still did get tourists, just not as many. I have had several contributions — just individuals giving me money and saying “please stay open.” Some anonymous, some I know. For a lot of regulars, that’s their regular routine. That’s where they work, and they really enjoy going there. A lot have made the trip around, hiking that whole loop. Even myself, I think about how I have to park so far away and walk all the way around.
I think about 25 percent of the people we’ve gotten here (in the new New Haven diner) are customers from Middlebury coming up to check it out, but the majority of our customers here are locals. I’ve got a few regulars already. I’ve enjoyed meeting the people in the area. You can learn so much by simply talking to people.
*Carol’s on Route 7 in New Haven is open from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. daily. It can be reached at (802) 877-2565. 

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