Carol’s coffee shop owner hopeful business can survive bridge construction

MIDDLEBURY — On the heels of a email sent to supporters and patrons explaining the precariousness of his current cash flow at Carol’s Hungry Mind Café in downtown Middlebury, owner John Melanson sounded hopeful in an interview Wednesday afternoon that he would be able to keep “the wolves at bay.”
“I’m hearted by the immediate response of 25 to 30 people who have contributed and expressed their support,” Melanson said. “And my landlord has been very understanding and generous with his terms. I have no complaints about that, he’s been very generous and patient. So, I’m feeling if we can just make it through the winter and spring, we’ll be OK. The diner in New Haven was just starting to get going last summer, and while it’s a bit of a financial drain now, it’ll eventually be what sustains us through the construction phase of the bridges.”
Melanson’s financial difficulty began, he said, with the shutdown of downtown rail bridges on Main Street and on Merchants Row, which the coffee shop fronts during a couple weeks this past summer. It has been compounded by the loss of nine parking spaces in front of his business because of the temporary bridges now in place and another five by the post office. The temporary bridges have also made foot traffic along Merchants Row more difficult and has discouraged pedestrians along that section of downtown.
Melanson said sales were off about $50,000 in 2017 compared to the prior year, noting that other years had seen a steady growth over the past 12 years he’s been in business.
Carol’s Hungry Mind Café, Melanson noted, may be more affected by the project because it depends on a good crowd of customers every day.
“I’m not a destination store,” he said, comparing the coffee shop to the neighboring gallery or other retail shops, “so I depend on it being easy for customers to drop by, visit and enjoy their time here.”
He noted that when the construction was at its height for the eight or nine days last summer, “business dropped off dramatically. The summer tourist season is what carries us through the year, and being down just for that brief period, and then making it more inconvenient with parking and for pedestrians, has really cost us.”
In looking ahead to the state’s four-year, $52 million project to replace the two downtown rail bridges, including closing the roads to that section of the downtown for a crucial 10 weeks of the summer in 2020, Melanson said the outlook was bleak for his downtown coffee shop, but his goal is to keep it open.
“Looking ahead, the smaller construction projects that will cause dust and noise, traffic congestion and all, they are going to hurt, but I think we’ll make it through, but when we get to the big one — closing the roads for 10 weeks in the summer — oh boy, that’s going to be bad.”
With the building of the temporary bridges, Melanson said he saw his daily business cut in half at the peak of construction, adding that if that were to happen for 10 weeks of the summer, he’d be off $30,000 or so in just that timespan, and that would again make it difficult to keep up with expenses. He said he had high hopes that Carol’s Diner on Route 7 in New Haven would be going strong by that time to help him weather the losses he is expecting at the Middlebury business during that construction season.
He said he would heartily endorse an alternative railroad bridges plan, as suggested by Middlebury resident Bruce Hiland (see his community forum on Page 5A), that cut the construction timeline in half and restore full parking to Merchants Row as soon as possible. “If that’s a possibility, I’m certainly for it.”
“Of course, my goal is to make it and stay in business. This summer should be a bit better, and I don’t want to ever close the coffee shop. It’d be bad for Carol’s to have to shut it down for any length of time, and bad for the town, too, because people who go elsewhere and lose faith in the downtown.”
A Shoreham patron, Doug Patterson, started a GoFundMe campaign for the Middlebury café at gofundme.com/carolshungrymind, which has attracted about 25 small donations, averaging from $50 to $150.
“That has helped cover some immediate bills,” Melanson said, “and I’m extremely grateful, but I still need a good crowd in here every da. And if I can keep a steady trickle of funds coming in for a few weeks, that should make the difference.”

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