BRATTLEBORO—“It’s not a fire sale,” Todd Darrah said when asked why he put his popular eatery, the Chelsea Royal Diner, on the market. He and Janet Picard, his life partner and co-owner of the restaurant, are “looking for the next chapter in our life.”
“I have bad elbows, knees, and shoulders,” Darrah pointed out, “and I want to be healthy when we retire. My goal is to change my seven-days work ethic to a more reasonable one.”
But, Darrah’s in no hurry.
“It may not sell for five years,” he said.
Darrah opened the diner in May 1990. He started it as a place to get “clean, upscale diner food,” and lots of it, and that proved a winning formula.
He rattled off all the things that separate the Chelsea from a typical greasy spoon: “fresh seafood, homemade stuff — soup, rolls, biscuits, garlic bread, basil pesto, ice cream, pies — hand-cut fries, gravy from beef stock I made with bones.
“That’s because I enjoy food. I cook what I like to eat,” Darrah said.
Even with all that, as 26 years rolled on, the restaurant evolved.
Creative dishes one doesn’t often find in a diner appeared on the specials menu, reflecting Darrah’s classical French-continental training.
He added a weekend Tex-Mex menu, Picard began churning up thousands of gallons of homemade ice cream, and Darrah bought a smoker and began making his own barbecued meats: brisket, ribs, and chicken.
Even the way the Chelsea handles its trash was ahead of the curve.
At least 10 years before Brattleboro began its curbside compost-pickup program, Darrah began composting the restaurant’s food scraps and paper waste.
“The staff was totally on board,” Darrah said, noting, “more trash goes to the compost than to the landfill.”
Picard pointed out that theirs is the only diner listed as a member of the Vermont Fresh Network. Amid the mostly fancy, white-tablecloth restaurants on the website promoting local farm-to-chef food distribution networks, there’s the Chelsea.
When Darrah decided to switch to grass-fed beef, he realized the only way to keep it affordable at diner prices was to buy a whole steer and have it butchered. His steers come from Winterview Farm in Springfield, and supply the restaurant’s short ribs, rib-eye steaks, ground meat, and liver.
“Even the burgers at the ice cream window are grass-fed,” he said. “95 percent of the beef we use here is grass-fed, which required educating the customer. The staff said [to skeptics], ‘We like this. You’ll like it, too.’”
The diner’s large garden, which Darrah refers to as his “sanctuary,” was inspired by Picard. When their relationship “got serious” about 18 years ago, Picard noticed how much her new love loved his garden at home.
“Why not grow lettuce and tomatoes for the diner?” Picard suggested.
“But, Todd never does anything small,” Picard said. “Next thing you know, Todd’s rototilling the yard” behind the diner.
Darrah’s half-acre garden supplies a variety of fruits and vegetables for the restaurant, including greens for cooking and salads, basil, brussels sprouts, strawberries, at least two kinds of mint, and tomatoes.
The apple trees that dot the yard behind the parking lot are utilized, too — for apple sauce, pies, and drinks. “We made cider with Pierre’s antique apple press,” Darrah said, referring to Pierre Capy, co-owner of Mocha Joe’s.
“Todd needs to go outside. He’s in the kitchen all day,” Picard said. Darrah can often be seen walking between the garden and the kitchen with a bucket of fresh produce in hand.
Even some of the diner’s eggs come from the garden. After noticing how expensive organic eggs were, Darrah brought in laying hens. The diner uses about 100 of the chickens’ eggs each day.
Like many chefs who have climbed their way up the kitchen ladder, Darrah started working in restaurants as a teenager, washing dishes. He realized he loved working with food, and after high school he earned a restaurant management degree from Paul Smith’s College.
He left his home town of Ridgefield, Conn., because Vermont beckoned.
“I was a skier. I came here in the late 1970s when my parents built one of the first houses on Haystack Mountain,” Darrah said. After applying “everywhere” in the Wilmington/Dover area, he got a job at the Hermitage Inn, where he worked for seven years.
After a few years of co-owning Deerfields, a high-end restaurant in Wilmington, that partnership dissolved. Darrah needed something new, and found it in a defunct dining car lying fallow on the corner of Route 9 and Sunset Lake Road.
The Royal Diner began its life as a 1938 Worcester Lunch Car diner, located next to what is now the Brattleboro Savings & Loan’s Main Street location. In 1972 it moved to Landmark Hill on Putney Road, then landed in its present location in 1987, Darrah said.
“In May 1990, I bought the business and I called it the Chelsea Royal Diner,” in honor of Carol Levin’s Chelsea House, the popular folk music coffee house that once occupied the red barn behind the restaurant.
“I love Carol,” Darrah said, adding with a laugh, “anyone who can deal with me as a tenant...”
Levin owned the property when Darrah started the restaurant; bit by bit over time, he bought the entire parcel of land from her.
Picard, a painter — her pieces grace the walls of the diner, and she painted the murals in the restrooms — looks forward to art as her sole career upon selling the Chelsea.
She might not have a choice.
“Todd told me, ’We’ll have no income, so you better sell your art!’” Picard said.
“I’m a feminist, and all my life I’ve assisted the men in my life with their careers,” she said.
Picard currently makes the diner’s ice cream, keeps the books, places some of the orders, and performs other crucial administrative tasks to keep the place running. “Now, all I’ll have to do is create art and sell it instead of doing all the diner chores,” she said.
“I anticipate it taking a few years to sell the diner, and am I ready to let it go?” Darrah asks. “Yes. But to whom?”
Not to a developer.
“There are no development rights on the five acres behind the diner,” Darrah said, noting local property associations and the presence of wetlands on the land have “taken care of this.”
Picard and Darrah’s ideal new owners are a young couple who have the energy to keep up the diner’s farm-to-table menu, which, unlike many other restaurants with that ethos, actually include farming, too.
“The restaurant business is hard, but you can make a comfortable living,” Darrah said, as long as one understands “it’s a lifestyle. You either love it or you hate it.”
“It has to be a passion,” he said. “There are easier ways to make a living.”
A difficult decision
Darrah’s interview with The Commons began with him declaring, “this is a really emotional time for me."
“It’s not easy for me,” deciding to sell the diner, he said. “It’s 26 years of my life here.”
Some of the hardest moments come when he thinks about his 33 employees.
“Sue [Fischer] has been here for 25 years. Rachel [Johnson] is here 16 years, and Rose [Gundry] about as long. Kristy [Demaree], 9 years. It’s their career,” Darrah said. “Those ladies work their tails off.”
“It’s like being in the ER!” Picard added.
After word got out a few weeks ago on social media about Darrah’s plans, locals in the diner and around town lamented the possibility of big changes.
“People are shocked,” front-of-the-house manager Sue Fischer said, adding, “people don’t like change. It’s a sensitive subject.”
“We’re excited for Todd and Janet,” Fischer said, but she and her co-workers “don’t want to be torn apart. The thought of it being completely different ... is a little scary."
“You’re about to make me cry!” Gundry chimed in.
“A lot of our customers say we waitresses should buy it as a cooperative,” said Terri Leary, who has waited tables at the Chelsea for many years.
Fischer, a Newfane native, has been with the diner for almost as long as Darrah has owned it. “I was 29 when I started here,” she said, noting, “I’m 55 now. It’s a big portion of my life.”
‘Not a corporate girl’
“I came here because it’s a family restaurant, not ‘corporate,’” Fischer said. “I am not a corporate girl!”
At the Chelsea, “each waitress is allowed their own creativity and personality. There are different styles [within] the same concept of ‘waitress,’” Fischer said.
“That’s what makes a family diner different from a corporate [restaurant]. We hold many jobs. We comfort the bereaved, congratulate marriages and babies,” Fischer said, adding, “we care about locals. We’re not just serving them food. For some single people, especially, we’re the bright spot in their day.”
She mentioned the children she put in high-chairs who come back with their babies, the college kids home on break who make sure they return to the diner, the weddings and funerals of customers who became friends. The co-workers who are now like family. Even the out-of-towners who turn into regulars, coming in every time they visit town.
“Our regulars are so regular, we should have a ‘Dan’ button and an ‘Ernie’ button” on the ordering system, Gundry said.
“Every town needs a social space for locals,” Fischer said. “It’s here, at the diner.”