Top of the Hill Grill, open for business in this 2010 photo.
Roger Katz archive
Top of the Hill Grill, open for business in this 2010 photo.

Hanging up the tongs

With Top of the Hill Grill, a beloved and award-winning barbecue joint, closed for good and up for sale, owner Jon Julian reflects on running a business and building a local institution

BRATTLEBORO — You won't be getting your pulled pork sandwich or tempeh burger at Top-of-the-Hill Grill this summer. Nor ever again - at least not the way Jon Julian made them.

After 25 summers at 632–634 Putney Rd. and numerous awards and accolades, the 73-year-old restaurateur put the property, with the business, on the market in April.

“I'm moving on at this point,” said Julian. “During our season, the work was seven days a week, double shift every day. It's a physical job. I was blessed with good legs, but I physically don't have it in me anymore. I've just run out of steam.”

Julian said he first came to Vermont to attend the now-defunct Windham College in Putney, on what now is the Landmark College campus.

“It didn't take long to fall in love with Vermont,” he said. “I'd been in Haight-Ashbury [in San Francisco] for a summer and was quickly enamored with the back-to-the-land movement.”

Settling in Williamsville in 1970, he first strung together a variety of jobs from village garbage collector and house painter to “handyman for all the little old ladies of Williamsville. They were wonderful,” he said wistfully. “One was convinced I was her husband coming back from the war - World War I.”

Julian dabbled in music, taking up percussion, learning that he “actually could carry a tune.” He formed the band Night Train that saw some regional success for a couple of years until, he said, “it got old.”

He found dance, too, while working as a welder at L.W. Gay Stoveworks, which operated in Guilford, South Newfane, and Brattleboro, with owner Larry Gay and Dan Darrow, the company's president.

“It was pretty brutal metalwork...lots of heavy lifting. I loved it, but I was getting stiff, and it was suggested to me that the stretch and movement of a dance class might be a good counterpoint to all the heavy lifting and hunched-over positions of the job,” Julian recalled. “Brattleboro School of Dance had just opened, so I thought, 'Why the hell not?'”

Eventually, after a 12-year-stint heading his custom comforter business, Carriage House Comforters, and teaching on and off - part-time and adjunct - for 10 years at the School for International Training, where he'd earned his master's degree in teaching, Julian found himself with a family, thus needing more stability - and fulfillment.

“For years in Williamsville I'd host Sunday afternoon cookouts. I'd always enjoyed doing barbecue for myself, family, and friends in the backyard. Folks would often joke that I ought to open a restaurant.”

“I grew up around grilling - not exactly barbecue - but in a smoky haze on Sunday afternoons [in Indianapolis where he grew up] our families would grill dogs and burgers and chicken - always chicken for my grandpa from Alabama,” said Julian.

And so, Top of the Hill Grill sprouted in 1997.

Building from scratch

On the current Top of the Hill site on Putney Road, Julian recalled, was an “overgrown, dirty parking lot” with a food trailer that had been used for two successive businesses: Mexican takeout, and a hot dog stand - Swanky Franky's - operated by Betty Frye of Guilford.

In 1997, with the property owner's permission to set up shop there, he acquired a permit to do a Friday night roadside barbecue. With a barrel stove and the help of his sons - then ages 10 and 12 - he would offer just two items: corn bread and grilled chicken.

Within a month or so, it caught on.

Julian had to keep the trailer because, without it, pre-existing use wouldn't apply, and an operation couldn't be permitted so close to the building next door - then the home of Howard Printing.

“I got permission from the town - grudgingly - for my incremental plan,” and he built a structure around the trailer, evoking a sugar-shack kind of look.

He bought a cookshack smoker and added pulled pork and brisket to the menu.

“We limped through that first season, then made arrangements to come back the next summer,” Julian recalled.

Top of the Hill was, indeed, back the next year. With no permit for seating, “we put a couple picnic tables out anyway and, to dodge the legality, we had a sign that said “Lunch Special $400. Price includes picnic table,” he said.

Some help and mentoring

Depending on which figures you believe, 30% to 60% of new restaurants fail within their first year. It's a tough business even if you know what you're doing. And Julian admitted that he “knew nothing about the restaurant business then.”

Statistics for the long-term success of a restaurant “were not in my favor,” he said, but, with characteristic grit, he added that “failure was not an option.”

As he steadily grew a clientele, he had some allies, if not co-conspirators.

Byron Stookey “helped me navigate an ornery zoning administrator,” he said. “Bill Jewell came up with a site design, and so we were official.”

“I had great support from Scott Sparks,” then the sales representative for Burlington Food Service and now the proprietor of Vermont Hempicurean and Vermont Grow Barn in Brattleboro.

Sparks taught him some fundamental economics of the restaurant business, gave him tips for managing food cost, and waived the wholesale vendor's normal policy on minimum orders, helping him keep quantities managable and reduce food waste for a fledgling business.

“We had a limited menu then,” noted Julian, who observed that at the end of the Top of the Hill Grill's run, “the menu boasted 95 items.”

Soon Howard Printing moved and Julian negotiated a year-long rental of the main property, followed by an outright purchase from Howard Printing, which had moved farther up Putney Road.

Eventually, he had permits for the deck, landscaping, and picnic tables - navigating the ins and outs of the zoning thicket - as he was complying with Board of Health requirements.

Still, though, the trailer dominated the space.

After three years, he went in with Arthur Pettee and “cut the trailer loose with a Sawzall.”

“I left the wheels,” he said.

That way, Julian explained, he could tell town zoning personnel that “The trailer's still there - it's just modified.”

The hindrance gone, Julian could set up a proper kitchen. The former Howard Printing building was soon loaded with smokers, a Hobart oven, and proper fixtures to produce corn bread, pulled pork, chicken, and the rest of his barbecue fare.

“From day one, I prepared food I would only want to eat myself and I used quality ingredients, coupled with time-honored methods to produce the best food I could,” Julian told The Commons.

A no-frills operation, customers picked up their food on paper plates from the counter.

Before long, he recalls, the menu expanded fairly dramatically.

“We added ribs - premium meaty ribs cooked by tried-and-true smoking with the right wood and dry rubs; then with items like pulled pork, we soon expanded that one staple into pulled pork sandwiches, burritos, tacos, enchiladas, salads. One main ingredient becomes five items without a lot of pressure or labor.”

Loved far and wide

Over the years, Top of the Hill garnered notable recognition: a trophy from Vermont State BBQ Championship, several best-of awards from organizations in both Brattleboro and Keene, a Fodor's Choice designation in the travel publisher's books and websites, and awards for sauce and pulled pork, among others.

“It all took an amazing amount of work,” said Julian.

Starting a few years into the operation, Top of the Hill opened for the season every March and remained open through October, seven days a week. To a great extent, Julian attributes success to the help he attracted.

“We started getting really good help - mainly, high school kids who wanted to learn something solid, to be part of a team,” he said. And those kids would return year after year.

“'One team, one dream.' That was the motto. It became a really good place to work, for whatever reason: I think I was a good, fair boss; I paid a decent wage; kids got to eat. And I used to tell them, 'This will be the only job you have where someone will pay you to do homework. When business is slow, do it.'”

Julian's approach was “there was no job I'd ask them to do that I wouldn't do myself” - trash, toilets, mopping floors, pulling pork.

“I tried to set a pace and a tone and it worked: it was a dream,” he said. “No one ever made a lot of money, but we were good, and bills and wages were paid on time.”

Julian had no formal culinary training, and “I'm glad of that,” he said.

“I had had a couple experiences with [Culinary Institute of America] grads, and it didn't work well. I was gifted, I believe, with a good palate, and I knew well from experience what good down-home cooking was.”

Over time, he said, he developed the ability to put his “finger on the pulse of what tasted good and what Brattleboro might enjoy.”

During winters off, Julian liked to travel and return to Vermont with something he'd learned about food. From Jamaica, it was jerk chicken; then he spent six weeks in Louisiana.

There, “I hooked up with Cajun Chef Pat who made some calls and traveled with me all through Cajun Country to some real down-home restaurants,” he said. “The real deal. Great cooking - lots of pork. I asked one of the cooks about pig parts, and she answered 'Son, down here we use everything on a pig but the squeal.'”

Some of the best advice he recalls from Chef Pat was: “You got to cook food the way your customers want to eat it. You could make gumbo with pig lard - traditional method - and okra, but if people don't like it, you're stuck with a pot of it.”

So Julian put his own spin on gumbo and jambalya. From Mexico, he brought back burritos, tacos, enchiladas, gave them his signature, “and they took off.”

Through the Grill, Julian learned that the Brattleboro area community has a “mild palate” - and thus, he'd temper the heat factor.

Over time, Top of the Hill's clientele grew dramatically in response to reviews from within - and well beyond - the region.

“The Phantom Gourmet, a Boston-based TV program, visited, and we never knew they were there,” Julian recalled. “They liked what they had, and word spread.”

Top of the Hill Grill was written up in a variety of publications and on a variety of websites - New England Monthly, Tripadvisor, Yelp, and others.

“We were even reviewed by a motorcycle club, Pig Trip,” he said.

“We were a joint,” Julian added. “We served lawyers, cops, construction workers, people experiencing homelessness. I hired Tim, the homeless man who frequented Putney Road, to cut my grass for 20 years straight.

“I always made a point to be egalitarian,” he continued. “I relished serving folks from all walks of life - from the guy who changes my oil at Stop & Go, to [filmmaker] Ken Burns, [guitarist and music producer] Will Ackerman, and [actor and comedian] Whoopi Goldberg. I treated them all the same.”

Expanding, then contracting

One offshoot of the Grill's onsite business was its catering operation. Around 2000, Julian bought a portable smoker in response to requests for catering.

“I could pull it behind my truck for show. It gave me the sizzle with the steak. Most of the food was cooked in the kitchen then finished off on this big locomotive-looking smoker. Belching smoke, smelling great - it gave authenticity to the food.”

As a catering operation, as with the Grill itself, Julian ran a no-frills outfit: “no tent rentals, no bar; no servers - a self-serve buffet. They got me and the food,” he said.

Another adjunct was Julian's winter Soup Shack. “Brattleboro loved it for four years, and then Covid shut it down.”

Post-pandemic, in a problem broadly shared nationally, good help was hard to find.

“Back in the day I had a staff of 20, a committed, dedicated, wonderful crew,” he said. Even though the pandemic took its toll, “but we were down, not out,” he says.

Since news of closing has recently leaked, Julian has received many emails from fans who remember the grill as “a serene oasis or a place where one could chow down on a good meal from a rack of ribs to a tempeh burger.”

Many remember his offerings for vegetarians, too - not usual barbecue fare.

“I figured out early on that being in Brattleboro, I had to do that,” Julian explains. “I served up umpteen cases of tempeh over the years. And we had roasted veggies, collard greens, mesclun salad....”

'A heartbreaker'

The two buildings and the deck house, the 1 acre of property, and the business - from the fixtures to the smokers - are all for sale, for $550,000. The listing agent is Thom Dahlin of Berkley & Veller Greenwood Country Realtors of Brattleboro.

Folding the business, Julian added, was not his first choice.

“It's a heartbreaker that the grill is closing. I had visions of wandering around as a real old guy with a pair of tongs flipping a chicken” and “serving as answer man for potential new owners,” he said.

The latter scenario is still not off the table entirely. According to the listing, “Owner is willing to share recipes/procedures with qualified buyers if desired.”

What Julian will miss most is “standing at the grill looking out and seeing tables full of happy people eating.”

“It's the Jewish grandmother in me,” said Julian, who has served his own grandmother's matzo ball soup recipe in the Grill's Soup Shack during Hanukkah. “There's nothing like the energy of a restaurant when all is going as it's supposed to,” he said.”

Julian's plans for a post-barbecue future are in flux.

“I don't want to be a thumb twiddler,” he said. He's perennially renovating his home, he wants more time to spend with family and friends, he wants to travel more and pick up a recipe or two along the way, and he just wants to take time, he says, “to be grateful for what I have.”

Might there be more cooking to be done down the road?

“Sure, I would hope so,” he said.

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