WILMINGTON—A dull sky the color of papier-mâché, and frigid air coat downtown Wilmington. Yet not even predictions of a foot of snow can quell the celebratory atmosphere inside the snug and renovated Dot’s Restaurant.
Dot’s, a Deerfield Valley landmark and popular breakfast joint famous for its chili, quietly reopened last week after an extensive two-year rebuilding necessitated by Tropical Storm Irene.
Irene launched the restaurant owned by Patty and John Reagan to dubious national stardom on Aug. 28, 2011. The storm’s rains turned the Deerfield River into a raging wall of water that flooded downtown Wilmington. Internet videos documented how water swamped the riverside restaurant to its rafters.
The building seemed a total loss, but the Reagans promised to rebuild.
Inside the new restaurant -— a structural mix of historic, new, and flood-proof — conversation swirls as customers and wait staff playfully call to each other.
“[Dot’s] is really kind of a bunker,” said Matthew Yakovleff as he eats breakfast.
Yakovleff, a contractor, spent about a year helping rehabilitate the restaurant. Multiple flood-proofing measures went into the building, including a higher foundation and steel reinforcements. He also provided much of the finishing work inside, such as the wainscoting.
According to Yakovleff, the building’s footprint is unchanged, though the layout is new. The kitchen now sits to the back. The entrance doors are wider, better to accommodate wheelchairs. Gone is the restroom view of the Deerfield River. The restrooms have switched from the river side of the building to the Ray Hill side.
Home fries and hard work
Angela Yakovleff has missed breakfasts at Dot’s.
“They have the best home fries,” she said.
She and her husband ate at Dot’s every weekend while their two children were growing up.
According to Matthew, the construction crew needed to preserve portions of the historic structure. Some of the historic building remaining includes the frame and portions of the foundation.
The building was “horrible” thanks to wear, tear, and Irene, he said. Workers dismantled the building to its frame. To preserve the frame, the crew cut it from the foundation and lifted it with a crane to the back parking lot.
Once on solid ground, the crew braced and stabilized the frame to get it square, plumb, and true, said Matthew. It sat for about three weeks while workers rebuilt the foundation.
According to Matthew, a part of the foundation is original. The construction workers rehabilitated the original stone foundation. They also raised the height of the foundation as part of flood-proofing measures.
With the frame back on its foundation, the real work started, he said with a smile.
Workers erected staging in the river during construction. A portion of the building hangs over the Deerfield River. It now serves as a dining area. Before the flood, the overhang area held the kitchen and restrooms.
Angela Yakovleff said she likes the new building, which she described as brighter and more open.
“A lot of thought went into how to keep Dot’s, yet renew it,” she said.
She notes most of Dot’s’ pre-flood staff have returned to duty. Angela takes it as a sign of how well the Reagans treat people.
“I love it,” said Matthew. “I’m so impressed with John and Patty, who consciously knew they were reinventing it.”
“Get away, I’ve got to talk to my waitress,” a man at the next table teases his friend from another table.
A family with young kids swaps lines from the film, “The Princess Bride.”
“Hi, guys!” calls someone from the counter area.
Another customer asks where the restrooms are. She spins in a disoriented circle before striding off in the right direction. She laughs, saying, “Everything is so new.”
A joint effort
Bringing Dot’s back to life was a community effort, said Patty Reagan, also thanking people for their support.
“It’s a hell of a way to get a restaurant, but now that it’s done, it was for the best,” she said.
Not that she felt this way a few days ago, she adds.
Many people donated time to the project, including Reagan’s father, who refinished the restaurant’s tables.
The Reagans did not receive Irene-related government funds to rebuild, Patty said. The project did receive historic tax credits and bank loans.
Patty said most of the funds to rebuild came from private groups such as the Friends of The Valley Foundation and The Wilmington Fund VT, established by private donors to help the area recover from Irene. The Rebuild Dot’s Campaign also raised funds from 16 states and 200 individual donors.
Although the business had flood insurance, rebuilding cost about $1 million, said Reagan.
The restaurant has three fewer seats than before the flood, said Reagan. Wilmington’s municipal sewer permit charges about $1,000 a seat. The business wanted to ease back into serving meals before adding new seating.
When asked why she’d go through the headache of re-opening, Reagan smiled.
Re-opening the restaurant was “not just about us,” said Reagan. At 52, she said, she was not ready to retire and “pinch pennies.” After years of being her own boss, Reagan added she could not work for someone else.
The restaurant still has a few staff positions to fill.
Dot’s is looking for someone who is the “right fit,” said Reagan.
When asked what she likes the best about the new building, Reagan replied the stairs to the second floor.
The improvement sounds like a minor thing, she said, but after years of climbing the old, rickety, accident-in-the-making stairs, she said she finds the new ones a joy.
A customer rises to hug Reagan. Her husband and two children follow.
“We weren’t planning on coming up this weekend,” but then the family heard Dot’s had reopened, she tells Reagan.
“Thanks for not giving up,” Reagan replies.