First-time restaurateur looks to a fresh future

First-time restaurateur looks to a fresh future

A longtime employee’s purchase of Duo Restaurant and The Lounge comes with the help of mentors, staff, and a community

BRATTLEBORO — Keith Arnold, sitting at the metal-topped bar, orders a Barr Hill gin and tonic with two limes.

He removes his debit card from his wallet and prepares to hand it to Jason Lively, the new owner and bar manager of Duo, a flagship restaurant in the Brooks House, and its companion tavern, The Lounge.

“I want to be your first official paying customer,” said Arnold, who with his wife, Stephanie Bonin, has just sold the business to Lively.

The former longtime employee of the couple's restaurants in both Brattleboro and in Denver, Colo. arranges two limes on the rim of a glass tumbler.

Ceremoniously, the new owner and former owner exchange the gin and tonic and the debit card.

As staff prepared for the evening's dinner service, Lively took over Duo Restaurant and The Lounge, Feb. 3.

“This is my first business-business,” Lively said. “And you know it's serious if you repeat the same word twice.”

Lively worked as the bar manager at Duo and The Lounge for three years. Before that he had worked for one of Arnold's restaurants in Colorado.

A Massachusetts resident, Lively was working at the MGM Springfield when Duo's co-owner Arnold asked if he wanted purchase Duo.

“We talked about what the terms would be and it was just too good of an opportunity to say no to,” he said.

“I thought, 'It's time,'”.

For Lively, who just purchased a house in Springfield, Mass., the big obstacle will be the one-hour commute.

“But everything else beyond that,” he said. “Saying no would have just filled me with regret.”

A love of food and hospitality

“I've been working in food service since I was a kid,” said Lively - 22 years in the industry, to be precise.

Lively's love of food service started as a teen, when he helped his older brother, who was working in the kitchen of a nursing home.

“He would con me into coming and helping him,” Lively remembers, laughing - “and somehow convinced me that it was fun.”

Lively, who is also a licensed massage therapist, has worked in food service ever since. He holds a degree in hospitality management.

“I naturally gravitate to the kitchen, even in my own home,” he said, where he's cooking for two young children at home.

That menu is more practical than creative these days, Lively says with a laugh.

“The kids would live off of pasta, butter, and chicken tenders if they could,” he said. “So it doesn't leave a lot to the imagination.”

A quiet transition

Lively becomes animated when he talks about the restaurant's future.

As one of Duo's past bar managers, he has enjoyed creating new drink recipes.

“Rather than think of a specific cocktail that I like to make, typically what I like to do is brainstorm and keep a list of different weird flavors that I'd like to put together,” he said.

Early on in the creating process, Lively leaves the alcohol out of the recipe, concentrating on the other flavor notes.

He's looking forward to working with Duo's chef, Meghan Fairman, who will stay on.

Lively said that one of the driving forces behind Duo's success, its staff, will remain the same. Likewise, the restaurant will continue serving dinner seven nights a week and brunch on Sunday.

If Lively has his way, customers and staff will experience few changes in the Main Street restaurant's menu or in how the business operates.

For the past few months, Lively and Arnold have furiously worked behind the scenes to organize and transfer all aspects of the business such as computer systems, vendor accounts, the restaurant's state liquor license.

“The intention is to be seamless,” he said.

Now that the closing has happened, Lively feels more relaxed. The weeks leading up to the closing - with all the paperwork and minutiae that needed attention - felt stressful.

“I keep having work dreams,” he laughs.

Lively and Fairman will “hit the ground running” with a special menu this month for Valentine's Day, a holiday that is traditionally busy one for restaurants, he said.

Then, he and the staff will have to quickly prepare for the other big February event - the Harris Hill Ski Jump weekend.

In March, Fairman and Lively will look at updating the menu.

“Generating recipes is always really fun and exciting and its kind of a creative outlet,” he said. “So getting to do that again directly behind the bar, but also being in a position where I'm also doing that with the chef - that's really exciting to me.”

From mentor to protege

According to Arnold, he and Bonin decided to put the restaurant on the market approximately a year ago in order to have more time with their two daughters. Bonin currently serves as the executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance.

The restaurant opened in 2014 after the long renovation of the Brooks House after a devastating fire in 2011. Arnold said that he and Bonin are “grateful for five good years.”

“We think Duo is a wonderful restaurant,” Arnold said, adding that the business, located at a prime downtown area at the corner of Main and High streets, generates approximately $1 million in annual sales and employs 23 people.

Arnold said he called Lively and asked him to consider buying the business.

“He knows and loves Duo,” Arnold said about why he made the offer. “He's a fantastic person to work with.”

Lively said that Arnold has served as a mentor, both as an employee and continuing throughout the business transfer process, he said.

Arnold shrugged. “I wanted the best and easiest transfer of ownership,” he said.

Arnold, who has no post-Duo Vermont plans on the horizon, said the Colorado location still needs his attention and care. Sitting at the bar sipping his G and T, he admitted that the sale “hasn't sunk in yet.”

Lively said support from all arenas of his life - from friends, to his partner, to Arnold, and to the town - made the difference in his decision to buy.

“I was pretty much leaning in that direction, but to have someone close to you say, 'I think you should do it,' is really helpful,” he said. “Not that I needed permission from other people but ... sometimes you need that encouragement and hear, 'You're going to be great at that,'” he said.

Another pivotal aspect of the purchase: Arnold's willingness to finance the deal for his longtime employee.

“I bought it for the remaining debt that was owed, and Keith is financing that,” he said. “So he was able to pay off the remaining debt and then he's financing my ownership.”

“Which is great, because the restaurant as a business is already able to support that payment,” he said.

The arrangement also makes it possible for a new business owner to take over.

Lively feels grateful for a Small Business Assistance Program loan, a revolving fund administered by the town. He told the Selectboard on Jan. 7 that the $27,000 loan would be used as working capital during the transition until a cash flow to his new company, Duo VT LLC, can be stabilized.

According to Lively, both the SBAP loan and the transfer of Duo's liquor license dictated whether he would even be able to move forward with the purchase.

“A lot of the process of the sale has been a learning experience, and Keith has been really great at selling the restaurant - and meanwhile also mentoring me through how to buy a restaurant,” Lively said. “You have to really trust a person to go into it that way.”

Retaining staff through ... revolution?

In his daydreams where money is no object, Lively imagines creating new incentives to attract and retain staff. Staffing in the hospitality industry in general, and in southern Vermont specifically, is challenging, he said.

“If time, space, and money were no object,” Lively imagines coming up with incentives for his staff.

Typically, the hospitality industry offers few, if any, benefits, he said. Right now, he can only hope for a future where he could offer employees additional benefits or bonuses.

“Can I be a revolutionary in my own restaurant?” he ponders, smiling. “Can I change the world one brunch at a time?”

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