BRATTLEBORO—Cooking pans and trays clatter in the kitchen. An oven timer bleats loud and insistent. In the dining area of American Legion Post 5, Chef Tristan Toleno, 40, listens, ready to jump into the pre-lunch fray.
Toleno, who owned and operated the former Riverview Cafe, recently announced his bid for the Windham 3-3 seat to be vacated next January by long-time state Rep. Sarah Edwards, P/D-Brattleboro.
In making this decision, he entered a fray of another sort. So far, he faces opposition from one candidate, Kate O’Connor.
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, a colleague pulls the food from the oven and turns off the alarm. Toleno and his business partners rent the Legion’s kitchen for their catering business, and also contract with the organization to provide lunches and banquets.
When Edwards decided not to run for the House again, Toleno, who had wanted to run for many years but not against Edwards, decided to leap. Edwards has endorsed Toleno.
The Brattleboro native trained as a chef in Burlington before leaving for New York City. Toleno has worked for 18 years as a chef. His wife Susan Webster-Toleno is also from Brattleboro. The couple has two boys, Owen and Malcolm.
Learning, and the pie
Toleno operated the Riverview, overlooking the Connecticut River, for 11 years before the restaurant closed in 2010.
Toleno said it was hard to see his business, which employed more than 400 people over the course of a decade, fail. The weight of his employees’ welfare sat heavily on him when the cafe closed. Still, the experience taught him how to steer out of his mistakes.
“I’m not afraid of making a good-faith mistake and fixing it,” he said.
By Toleno’s estimates, Brattleboro tallies about $25 million in food sales. After the fast-food chains take their cut, about $8 to $10 million remains for the local 40 to 50 establishments. Not enough for the other restaurants to thrive, he said.
Often, Brattleboro asks itself how it can better divide the economic pie.
Toleno asked a different question: “How do we grow the pie?”
Cooperation, he said, grows the pie, while competition is where people fight over the pieces.
“For too long we’ve been fighting over the pieces,” he said.
The MBA Chef
Over the past four to five years, Toleno said he has focused more on policy making. He has been active in the local food system, including chairing the board of the Vermont Fresh Network board for two years.
His stomach for wading through policy led him to earn an Master of Business Administration in managing for sustainability from the Marlboro College Graduate School. He graduated in 2011.
Toleno said the logical synthesis of his experience as a business owner and local activist, his MBA, and his volunteer work boiled down to serving in state government.
Politically, Toleno said he is at the progressive left, but his MBA training and restaurant experience also taught him the power of business to effect change.
Together government and business can achieve more than when they work in opposition, he said.
He said he believes Vermont’s future rests in the health of the rural working landscape. While focusing on a healthy environment, he said, the state also needs to increase its younger population and enact economic policies that match the state’s vision as a progressive state. Vermont can lead in value-driven policy and businesses.
“Economic development is the most pressing issue we have,” he said.
On economic development, Windham County’s aging population concerns Toleno. The demographic shift could contribute to a shortage of workers, he said. Attracting new businesses and creating jobs are meaningless without a workforce.
“Brattleboro must bootstrap change to attract younger people,” he said.
He said the town would benefit from policies aimed at growing the population base and attracting business. This process requires thought, he said, because Brattleboro doesn’t want to carve up the working landscape, as Burlington did.
Toleno said he may run as a Progressive-Democrat unity candidate like Edwards, but is waiting to see who else enters the race.
“One of my bedrock perspectives is, in complex systems, change happens by experimentation, by testing out ideas, not one simple path,” he said.
He said state policy could create more fertile conditions for creative solutions.
“I resist being overly narrow when trying to thinking of solutions,” he said.
Narrow solutions or policies are brittle in Toleno’s mind, he said. Built-in complexity, however, creates resiliency. He illustrated his point by talking about bacteria.
“You don’t know which bacteria strain has the perfect mutation,” he said. But, if there are a lot of bacteria, when the environment shifts one of the many will match the new conditions and survive.
On the Vermont Yankee question, Toleno said he agrees with the Vermont Senate’s 26 to 4 vote in 2010 in favor of denying the nuclear plant a Public Service Board hearing. That vote accomplished two things in his view: it reflected the will of the people and carved out the state’s path toward a green-energy economy.
Whether the plant will shut down remains in the court’s hands, he said.
“This is an issue that splits people,” said Toleno, who said he has friends working at the plant who feel betrayed by the community discussion. “Instead, we should [focus on] building a resilient post-VY world.”
If elected, Toleno will inherit the District 3 seat previously held by both his father-in-law Donald Webster and Rep. Sarah Edwards, who has known Toleno since he was a toddler. Edwards married and divorced Toleno’s father more than two decades ago.
An early endorsement
Edwards is endorsing Toleno, describing him as “innovative.”
“He is someone who understands the needs of Brattleboro,” she said, adding that he also understands the complexity of business.
In Edwards’ view, when the fallout of the 2007-2008 credit crunch swallowed the Riverview, she watched Toleno turn around the experience and create a food business suited to the post-crunch economy.
“It takes a lot of skill to recover from an economic situation that was not only devastating to Brattleboro, but across the nation,” she said.
She said she sees Toleno as possessing a wealth of experience and maturity that will help him craft legislative policy able to benefit a wide variety of people. He has great attention for overall policy while paying equal attention to the details, she said.
“He’s able to make tough decisions and get things done,” Edwards said.
Edwards said she believes Toleno understands food systems, job creation, markets, and the asset that is Vermont. She said he will provide valuable input into Vermont’s approaching agriculture and business renaissance.
“Tristan understands our authenticity and also understands the need to promote business,” she said. “For the future he will impart all his experience into making Vermont a stronger place to live and work.”