Crooked Ladle getting ready to serve

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Monday unanimously approved a first-class restaurant/bar liquor license for Crooked Ladle Catering LLC, which along with Everything Nice — a house plant and home décor boutique that will help underwrite free meals for those in need — will occupy the long-vacant storefront at 51 Main St. on March 29.

It was on Dec. 1, 2022, that the Independent first reported on the business plan for 51 Main St. Crooked Ladle owners Loren and Jennifer Urban will operate a commercial kitchen on-site, where they’ll prepare “elevated comfort food” for table service at 51 Main on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, as well as for off-site catering gigs during the rest of the week.

Plans also call for Crooked Ladle to host sporadic pop-up dinners and brunches as catering season winds down, according to Jennifer Urban.

“We really want it to be a community space where everyone can enjoy good food, good music, being together — and fill an empty hole (on Main Street) that’s been there for a long time and add a little life to that part of downtown,” she said.

Sharing the space will be Everything Nice, which will be the home and a funding source (along with grants, donations and plant/décor sales) for the Giving Fridge, an already established nonprofit food charity launched almost three years ago by Bethanie Farrell. Most recently based at 66 Merchants Row, the Giving Fridge has found a key partner in Vermont’s Everyone Eats program, a COVID-19 relief program through which funds are provided to nonprofits to work with restaurants and farms in assembling nutritious meals for individuals and families in need. The meals are free to low-income individuals and cost $10 for those able to pay.

“We’re expecting a slow open as we get our feet underneath us and see what the community’s wants and needs are,” Jennifer Urban told the Middlebury selectboard on Monday. Farrell is still planning hours for Everything Nice and will announce her schedule soon, Urban added.

The Urbans plan to gradually expand Crooked Ladle’s offerings to the point where it’s meeting community/owner expectations by May. The couple has said Crooked Ladle will keep its food truck.

“I promise the food is good,” Urban told the board with a smile. “The menu will vary based on what’s in season and what inspires us to be good.”

Loren Urban was a sous chef at Bristol’s Bobcat Café for seven years, while Jennifer has had experience waiting tables at the Black Sheep (where she met Loren), the Bobcat, Tourterelle, Park Squeeze, The Lobby and others before joining her husband at Crooked Ladle. Her primary role is in education, as she teaches second grade at Mary Hogan Elementary and is seeking licensure to become a school principal.

The Urbans and Farrell plan on bringing regular entertainment back to 51 Main as well as offer the spot for special events.

“This whole endeavor is very much collaborative between us — Loren and Jenny have been hard at work getting the food and beverage infrastructure and systems in place, which will be the backbone of 51 Main, while I have been working on renovating the common areas and planning my retail, programming and Giving Fridge meal/Automat plan, ensuring that healthy prepared meals will be able to continue getting to those who need them,” Farrell said through an email. “Crooked Ladle has already begun making meals for us the last few weeks and the response from our (Giving Fridge) recipients has been wonderful.”

Farrell’s Everything Nice business plan includes installing two automated food dispensers at 51 Main. She explained in December that one machine will feature 20 cubbies that will dispense heated, freshly prepared meals. The other machine will include 100 refrigerated slots containing fresh, refrigerated meals. Folks will be able to purchase the automat meals using a credit card, while qualifying low-income folks will have a code to access food for free. Farrell promised to involve local restaurants in the automat system.

She acknowledged the upcoming March 31 sunset of the Vermont Everyone Eats, or VEE, program, which has been a big Giving Fridge ally. But Farrell has a strategy to fill the state funding void.

“While VEE has allowed Giving Fridge to meet more need within our communities, for which I’ve been so grateful, it’s never been thought of as a permanent funding source, which is why I’ve created a model that allows for ‘plants and grants’ to help fund our weekly meal program,” she said. “There will certainly be a financial hole to fill as all of the emergency relief programs like VEE come to an end, but we are hard at work with our statewide leadership to strategize for a ‘VEE 2.0.’ In the meantime, I’m actively fundraising via grants, retail and donations to be able to continue our weekly meal distribution at the same capacity long-term, while implementing our retail strategy. 

“As many of our Addison County organizations have been benefiting from these healthy, restaurant/chef prepared meals over the last few years via weekly meal distributions from Giving Fridge, my hope is that we can continue our relationship in more of a collaborative way involving mutual fundraising.”

Meanwhile, some selectboard members are likely to become among the first to book reservations at the new 51 Main St.

“We’re excited to have you downtown,” board Chair Brian Carpenter said.

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