Space for experimenting
Cory Bratton grew up literally a stone’s throw away from his new restaurant, A Vermont Table, overlooking the Harmony Lot in downtown Brattleboro.

Space for experimenting

A Vermont Table expands its catering business to include a downtown restaurant, bringing one business partner back to a home he once presumed he would have to leave to make a living

BRATTLEBORO — Cory Bratton, co-owner of A Vermont Table, arranges chairs in the company's new, sunny, and freshly renovated restaurant. In the kitchen, staff prep 100 pounds of potatoes recently delivered from Dutton Farms.

Bratton, looking out of the restaurant's tall windows, points toward Green Street Extension.

“You can almost see my house from here,” said Bratton, who still lives in his childhood home. “I used to be the kid on the roof mucking around, and now I'm the guy yelling at the kid to get off of the roof.”

For two years, Bratton and his co-owner - Sam Schwartzkopf, his childhood friend - have operated the catering side of their business out of the kitchen at 22–26 High St., the location of the former Backside Cafe.

This winter, they rounded out their enterprise by adding a restaurant and bar to the old Backside restaurant area, which overlooks the Harmony parking lot. Gone are the Backside's old booths, replaced by tables and chairs.

A Vermont Table's menu - a condensed version of its catering menu - offers a mix of omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan dishes.

Bratton said it was important to him to include plant-based dishes that would not simply be an afterthought.

One vegan option is the vegetable croquette, which Bratton describes as a vegan spin on a meatball sub. The sandwich features vegetable fritters in a coconut-tomato gravy and spiced cashews.

Other menu items include items such as a chickpea salad, egg sandwich, and hamburger.

“The big thing is to make everything fresh and from scratch,” he said. That includes all the salad dressings and sauces, as well as the bread, which the staff bakes daily.

Right now, the eatery is focusing on its “core” menu, he said, but the big appeal is having the opportunity to experiment and offer multiple specials.

Bratton said their menu uses domestic and international flavors. He and Schwartzkopf want the food to be approachable and affordable.

“You don't need to come here and spend $100,” he said.

Bratton said A Vermont Table is very seasonal in its cooking and the team likes to let “the ingredients drive the cooking.”

This can be a challenge with catering, because often menus are planned a year in advance, but with the restaurant, the chefs can build dishes based on what they see at the market.

“If we want to, we can change the whole menu overnight, and that's pretty exciting,” he said.

The challenge of designing the restaurant's menu required a combination of the owners' catering experience and a lot of creativity.

“One of the things we wanted to do with the restaurant was have a space to experiment more and try different things out,” he said.

“If you make a special and nobody wants it - oh, well, it's one day, not the end of the world.” Bratton said. “If you try to make an experiment at somebody's wedding, that's not so good.”

The co-owners have plans to open at night, starting in March. Eventually, they will have a bar service and small-plate food options. Right now, they have beer and wine with plans to add a full spirits lineup by the end of April.

“We're excited to be able to cook for all of the people around us,” he said.

Food lovers' second act: made possible with the help of their friends

Bratton left Brattleboro to attend college at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. He also spent many years working in New York City restaurants. He said that Schwartzkopf spent part of his childhood in Brattleboro, but left at one point to be with family in Indiana.

When he left New York in 2014, Bratton considered leaving the food industry.

But he didn't. Both men returned to Brattleboro and spent time working for A Vermont Table's founder, Terri Ziter, who had been operating the business as a catering company for decades.

She sold the business to Bratton and Schwartzkopf in 2018.

Bratton said that Ziter made running the company look effortless. He said her support and guidance helped ensure the company's second act under new ownership would be a success.

“It was a lot of fun; I really enjoyed it,” he said. “It was a nice change from the intense grind of Manhattan fine dining.”

“We were up in Putney, and we were working with all this great fresh food,” he said. “But that's the thing. In New York, we'd be working with great ingredients and very expensive and fancy and fussy, and here, that's where all that stuff comes from.”

“I was able to work with the stuff that I love and be surrounded by all these people I know and love deeply,” he said about part of his decision to swap Manhattan for Brattleboro.

He worked for Ziter catering weddings and parties. Ziter told him that 2017 would be her last catering season and asked if he wanted to take over A Vermont Table.

About the same time, the former Backside Cafe space became available and Schwartzkopf came on board.

Bratton always loved the space and called it “a dream spot.”

The business partners moved the business there in 2018. They renovated a lot of the space themselves with “generous” help from friends with businesses in the trades. Bratton also appreciated the support of the landlord for helping them move into the space.

Despite the potential of the space, they wanted to wait on opening the restaurant, “so for the first year or so, this [restaurant and bar space] really was just a beautifully sunlit storage room,” Bratton said.

Now, with the restaurant open, he's had to get used to the comparatively unpredictable nature of running that side of the business.

In catering, a lot of the details are hammered out before the day of the event. But restaurants face challenges in purchasing ingredients and scheduling help amid requirements that change daily depending on how many people show up for lunch.

An exodus, both necessary and forced?

Bratton has worked in many kitchens in his career, but A Vermont Table is the first business he has owned.

Schwartzkopf, also a first-time restaurateur, has worked in restaurants and owned a few small businesses, such as a mail-order collectables business.

A Vermont Table employs approximately 18 people full- and part-time. Some of their employees had also worked for Ziter.

Bratton said he and Schwartzkopf have been “very frugal” with their resources and haven't used any outside financing. They gained their how-to-run-a-food-business chops through on-the-job training and Ziter's mentorship.

Other friends who own businesses and restaurants have also pitched in with suggestions. Bratton also received some business counseling from the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship in Keene, N.H.

“There's been a lot of people who have been helpful along the way,” he said.

Like many young people growing up in a rural area, Bratton left his hometown in part to find more opportunity, but also because he felt it was expected.

“When you think about the kind of rural exodus of young people - particularly in Vermont - you have this idea that you have to go to the city,” he said. “And there's a lot of pressure to do that.”

“And it's hard to convince yourself and convince the world that there's something here that's viable,” he added. “And it's tough. It's not just a story, it's real.”

Bratton studied photography and graphic design at Clark, where he also earned a master's degree in teaching.

“Teaching was great,” said Bratton, but his heart wasn't 100 percent in the job - and that, he believes, is a crucial element to holding the title.

“It's not something you can be less than 100 percent committed to,” he said.

After college, Bratton made his way to New York City.

“I always had this romantic idea of Manhattan fine dining and world-class restaurants,” he said.

“It was pretty incredible,” he said of his first restaurant job in the big city. “The people that I worked with and the quality of the ingredients, and the amount of work that went into everything and the care and attention to detail.”

“It was probably one of the hardest jobs I've ever had in many ways, and it was probably one of the lowest-[paying] jobs I've ever had,” he said. “It was a great experience, and I was glad to have done it.”

Being surrounded by people, however, did not always give Bratton a sense of connection.

“You could be in Union Square and see a million people and not know anybody. It can be really isolating,” he said.

The experience also can come with a sense of needing to prove one's existence.

“In a certain context, people are disposable,” he said. “I didn't feel like I was disposable in my work - I was treated well and worked with a good team of people - but the general sense of it is there isn't an inherent value to a person in those environments. You have to earn your value as a person.”

“But everything here is relationship-based,” he said. “It's huge.”

He found that, when he came back to Vermont, he would feel “so much more at home.”

And once home, “I feel like I needed a really good reason to leave and I just wasn't finding it,” he said.

“Here, I know everybody and when I go to the grocery store and see my kindergarten teacher or whatever,” Bratton said.

He said the business relies on those relationships, noting that almost everyone at the restaurant has come through a personal connection.

In southern Vermont, “The opportunities here are not abundant,” he said. “I don't blame anyone for leaving.”

At the same time, “I'd love to be a part of creating an environment that has more opportunities for people so they don't feel they have to [leave],” he added.

Bratton said he benefited from leaving the area, and it can be a good thing to do. He just wishes that leaving would have been a choice rather than a default presumption.

And for future young people in the region, “I'd like to see it be an authentic choice for people and not something they feel they have to do,” he said.

In the meantime, he and Schwartzkopf plan to put their mark on the local food scene.

With the restaurant open, Bratton is excited to share his efforts with friends and neighbors in his community, most of whom rarely attend the sort of parties where they would previously have encountered his food.

“So there are so many people who know me as a chef, but I haven't been able to share that with them,” he said - “until now.”

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